Fans watch baseball on a lot of different levels these days. Some just go for the hot dogs, beer, and thrill of watching home runs fly over the wall, or flashy double plays and bat flips. Some have tablets and even laptops in hand, calculating new stats with every pitch. Others have studied the game long and hard, and can appreciate subtleties that others might miss.
Thirty-eight-year-old backstop David Ross is a player that can be appreciated on all of these levels. This is likely his final year of active play, though his teammates would like to think otherwise. Most believe Ross is on a solid career path to managing a team one day. He’s smart, he’s experienced, and he sees the bigger picture in a game better than most who have settled in behind the plate.
Fans will often zero in on his lack of offense. In 2015 he hit only .176/.267/.252 with a single home run and a handful of runs knocked in. His primary on-field role has been to catch for starter Jon Lester, and to play in relief of Miguel Montero. For your average fan, that’s what they know about Ross, and many see him as part of a two man “hole” at the end of the lineup, paired with Lester in most games, and miss the incredible value his presence adds to the team defensively.
The art of “framing” pitches is a skill that has become a more prominent statistic in recent years, and there are very few catchers who can match Ross’ skill in this respect. Very simply put, he is able to get a called strike more often than most catchers on a ball thrown outside the strike zone through his stance, glove positioning, movement when making the actual catch, and several other factors. He can make a ball look like a strike to the fans, and more importantly to the umpire.
For a little more insight on this, in relation to David Ross, check out this short and informative piece by Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post titled The Hidden Value of Cubs’ Catcher David Ross.
Another thing Ross does very well is defending against stolen bases. There is a lot of strategy involved in throwing runners out, and Ross is a master of it (which is important when you are the personal caddy for a pitcher who refuses to throw over to first base). Among active catchers, he ranks fifth in percentage of runners caught stealing with 35.80%. That means, more than a third of all those who have tried to run on him have been thrown out. This high percentage is likely a reason you see Ross come in near the end of close games, despite his struggles at the plate. He can coax strikes from an umpire and keep runners honest.
Perhaps not enough has been said about David Ross as a veteran presence on a young team. When he is in the lineup, it’s like having a second manager out on the field, with a tight perspective on the action, and the strategy. There is a very cool interview with Ross, conducted by David Laurila at Fan Graphs titled David Ross: Future Big-League Manager, that focuses on what the catcher’s managerial style would be like if he were given a shot to run a team. If you make the shift in your mind from manager to player, you can see how much thought, experience and skill go into the way he calls a game. He is a thinking man’s catcher, and it shows in his defensive statistics. One telling point in the Fangraphs interview comes when he talks about defensive shifts. He is for them, by the way – and particularly would like to see more in the field because he knows how to create a situation where a batter is either playing into his own strength (right into the shift) or trying to do something outside his comfort range, which – while it might go to the unprotected side of a shift, is unlikely do so with power, trading a power hit double or home run for a dribbling grounder.
Let’s not forget that Ross also holds the distinction of being a position player who has pitched in relief twice now, both times producing a scoreless inning. With a fastball maxing out at about 72 mph and nothing else in the repertoire, that is pretty impressive. Ross plays it down as the novelty that it is, but even when he talks about those moments he mentions keeping the ball down, and doing so he was able to induce ground balls on very low velocity pitches.
Probably the most important role he’s filled in the Chicago Cubs organization has been veteran leadership. With 14 major-league seasons behind him, seven teams, a World Series Championship ring from 2013 with the Boston Red Sox, 619 starts and a lot of miles behind him, both mentally and physically, there is little that can shake this Georgia native. He knows when to stay calm, and he knows when to get fired up, and he provides guidance and support to the team on and off the field. David Ross is a class act and a serious asset to the 2016 Chicago Cubs team, an asset that could well be a major factor in their dream of finally bringing that elusive World Series title to the north side of Chicago.