Sometimes, good major league players fall through the cracks. Some become Crash Davis types and we never really hear about them. Others just hang on, putting up good numbers in limited time year after year after year. David Ross is one of those players.
David Ross has 2,086 plate appearances in his career. FanGraphs sees him as having accumulated 13.1 WAR. Baseball-Reference has him at 8.7. If we call 600 plate appearances a full season, he’s gotten about three and a half seasons of playing time, and depending on which poison you prefer, FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference, has been either a borderline All-Star (3.7 fWAR/full season) or solidly above-average (2.5 bWAR/full season).
Let me put this in perspective. According to FanGraphs, this year, 11 teams got at least 3.7 WAR from all their catchers combined, and 14 got fewer than 2.5.
Over his career, David Ross and 150 or so replacement-level at-bats from a backup, would give your team an above-average backstop combo.
His value is balanced, too. His 99 OPS+ is almost exactly league average for his career (and, for a catcher, league average means you are above average for the position). He has no platoon split; he has an OPS of .767 versus lefties and .761 vs. righties.
His defense and pitcher-handling have always been well-regarded. Both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference have his defense as positively valued over his career. During his time in Cincinnati, he was the personal catcher for Bronson Arroyo, who has long been fussy about who he throws to.
So what’s the rub? Why has he always been a backup? Well, he hasn’t exactly. Travel back in time with me. Ross had spent two-ish years as a backup for an L.A. team that had more catchers than it knew what to do with. On other teams, he probably would have started, but on the Dodgers, he was just another option. In the interest of reducing their options, the Dodgers sent him to Pittsburgh who then sent him to San Diego in a midseason trade. He was 29 years old and had never really gotten much of a look.
During spring training in 2006, he was acquired by the Reds to complement the catching tandem of Javier Valentin and Jason LaRue. Though all three catchers played often, Ross saw more time behind the dish than the others and his numbers were fantastic. In 296 plate appearances, Ross put together a batting line of .255/.353/.579 that included 21 home runs.
Reds fans were ecstatic then, when Ross was made the number one catcher for the 2007 season. That’s when the luck dragon ate David Ross’s shot. There’s no other way to put it really. His slash line for that year (.203/.271/.399 in 348 PAs) tells you something went wrong, it doesn’t tell you what.
It was bad luck, I tell you.
David Ross was over his head in 2006. He’s never shown that kind of power before or since. But he wasn’t as bad as he showed in 2007 either. In 2007, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was .225. That’s obscenely low. It’s almost impossible to have a BABIP that low. His career number is .289. But BABIP fluctuates a lot and sometimes flukey seasons happen. In 2007, Ross had a flukey season. It cost him the starting job, and then it cost him a spot on the roster, and in 2008, it got him released.
And we can’t even make the traditional arguments about catchers wearing down. In 2007, he finished with only about 50 more PAs than he had in 2006. And his various batted ball rates were all more or less consistent with his career. But for 348 plate appearances, they just weren’t falling.
Of course, you probably know what happened after that. Ross latched on with the Braves and spent four years backing up Brian McCann. In those four years, he posted an .816 OPS over 663 PAs. Not bad for a backup. In 2013, he signed a two-year deal with the Red Sox and though his numbers weren’t as good this year, he did get a World Series ring for his troubles.
I’ve always liked the story about Mickey Mantle insisting that Bull Durham was a sad movie. Crash, he said, could hit. He just never got a shot because there were others in front of him.
I don’t know if we can call the story of David Ross sad. He’s had a good major league career. He’s made millions of dollars. He’s won a World Series. But it’s not what it could have been. For a while, he was Crash Davis, blocked by other players. Then, when he got his shot, fate wasn’t with him.
I’ve been watching Ross for years and constantly wondering why he didn’t get more chances. It seemed to obvious to me. The only thing you can pick on is batting average, and who has ever really cared about a catcher’s batting average? But guys get a reputation of not being able to to start. Of being a good backup. Sometimes, that’s probably justified, and sometimes it isn’t.
David Ross will be 37 next year and there’s a good chance it will be the last season of his major league career. We’ll never know for sure if he was qualified to be a full-time major league catcher, but I’d sure like the chance to make that bet.