At a Ross for Words: Can We Stop Badmouthing the Backup Backstop Already?

On Friday night in Sin Louis, I was standing down near the wall with my kids while my daughter penned likenesses of the ballpark and players and my son tried to get an autograph. Another boy a few yards down called out to David Ross as the catcher made his way to the cage, but Ross was unable to sign.

“Can’t do it right now,” he said, “But I’ll probably be out later. Gotta head to the batting cage.” Then, to the rest of us, he admitted, “Nah, I won’t be back out here. Shh, don’t tell him.” It was all a bit of light-hearted good fun and I had a laugh, but I got to thinking about how some people would probably have taken his words the wrong way.

Not that anyone has ever gotten on Ross’s case for not following through or anything. It’s funny how things work for backups in different sports, isn’t it? I mean, people are still hoping Josh McGowan will eventually earn a long-overdue beatification for serving as Jay Cutler’s understudy/spot starter while Ross gets dumped on for not hitting .200.

Maybe I’m just naive, or maybe it’s because Twitter wasn’t around then, but I don’t recall Paul Bako or Hank White getting this kind of heat for lugging Greg Maddux’s jock around during their stints in either Atlanta or Chicago. I assume Desipio hated both though, if for no other reason than their inferior bat-flip skills. Personally, I loathed Bako’s ‘stache, but that’s irrelevant to his skill.

Then again, those guys were catching an all-time great and Ross is caddying for a guy who went from the embodiment of the Cubs’ rebirth to the effigial model of their flawed composition. Plenty of people have bemoaned Lester’s big contract, and it seems as though those gripes have bled into the assessment of his catcher. But it doesn’t make any sense.

So let me now humbly request that those of you yammering ignorantly about Ross being a waste of a roster spot kindly zip it. Your arguments are likely constructed solely on his feeble .200/.300/.300 slash, but such protestations hold less water than those bargain-brand toilet tissues in every Charmin commercial ever.

If you are indeed clinging to the antiquated notion of batting average as an adequate measure of a player’s value, I suppose I’d have better luck pimping Ross’s veteran leadership and knowledge of opposing players to state my case. And while those are certainly valid propositions, I’m gonna try to bring a little more uptown funk to the table. Don’t believe me? Just watch.

You see, a catcher’s value goes well beyond what he does while he’s standing at the plate with a bat in his hands. In fact, what he does sans bat is at least as important to his overall value. That’s why a player like Kyle Schwarber could be such a unicorn and also why he’s going to spend more time in the minors to hone his receiving skills. Even his phenomenal bat can’t make up for his glove at this point.

It’s entirely possible that a sub-par hitter can be a valuable part of his team with the way he blocks, frames, throws, and calls games. And it’s those aspects, not the anemic offensive stats, that should be used to define Ross’s value. Of course, there’s a nice little catch-all called WAR that defines a player’s relative value over a replacement player at his position. I’ll assume you’re familiar with this metric and will dispense with the rudiments for that reason.

So if we distill the concept of WAR to its simplest form, it would figure that we’d have 30 starters (one for each team) and then a large number of backups. Given the flack Ross has taken all season, you’d assume that he’d find himself somewhere amid the 31-60 range, if not even lower. After all, many were in favor of cutting him rather than trading Beef Castle, or in keeping Schwarber as the backup.

Such logic would of course be dictated by the thought that one could simply plumb the ranks of the minor league system to find a more capable backup than David Ross, right? Well, that’s what flawed logic would say anyway. But what if David Ross isn’t the worst of the varied cast of backup backstops floating around Major League Baseball?

According to Fangraphs, Ross is currently sporting a WAR of 0.3 (B-ref shows him at a .6 for what it’s worth), which means that he’s actually been better than the average replacement player. What’s more, that total places Ross 31st in all of baseball. In other words, he’s ranked ahead of some starters and pretty much every backup.

And Welington Castillo, the player the Cubs traded away in order to make Ross the sole backup? Well, he’s posted a 0.0 WAR with 3 teams thus far; basically, he’s the absolute definition of an average backup player. As a team, the Cubs have gotten an extra 1.5 wins from the catcher position, 9th in baseball. That’s, uh, not bad.

Finally, I’ll look at the concept of incremental value of wins, which attempts to assign a dollar amount to a player’s performance. After all, even a guy putting up a positive WAR could be a bust if he’s being paid a disproportionate amount of money to do it. FanGraphs estimates the value of a W at about $8.1 million, so a player making $20 million to put up a 2 WAR is actually not living up to his contract. Follow?

By that measure, Ross has been worth about $2.7 million to the Cubs this season while earning $2.5 million. Now you’ll have to bear with me because I haven’t had to do much math since that tiresome calculus class they required in my freshman year of college, but I believe this is telling us that David Ross has had positive value to the club, relatively speaking.

And just in case none of the numbers sway you, what about the throw that begat the featured image above? That move alone, plus the primal scream that followed, should be enough to mitigate a low average for even the juiciest of meatballs out there.

So there you have it, folks: David Ross is a capable backup who has been more than adequate for the Cubs in 2015. So I will repeat my request and ask you to kindly refrain from throwing any more rotten verbal tomatoes at the guy. Ah, who am I kidding? If you’ve been complaining about the guy so far, nothing I just said is going to stop you.

But at least the choir liked my sermon. Right? Anyone? I’ll just show myself out.


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