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David Ross: Tony Sanchez's catching spirit guide

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Exactly ten years ago today the Pirates made a very minor transaction. They purchased the contract of 28-year-old backup catcher David Ross from the Los Angeles Dodgers for $75,000. Ross, after posting 1.5 WAR in only 140 plate appearances during an impressive rookie campaign, had hit just .170/.253/.291 in 2004. Despite his previous success and a sterling defensive reputation, the Dodgers had seen enough. His Pirates tenure would be similarly unremarkable—after half a season, the Bucs dealt him to the Padres at the trade deadline for unfortunately-named shortstop J.J. Furmaniak (I can only imagine the playground torments J.J. endured).

This wasn’t the end of the story for Ross, however. Improbably, he’s still trucking along 10 years later. Ross has played for five teams since his Pirates days, memorably winning a World Series with the Red Sox in 2013 and inheriting the title Practically Perfect Backup Catcher from previous sabermetric darling Gregg Zaun. He’ll be back in the NL Central in 2015, playing for the Cubs, who, despite the presence of both newly-acquired Miguel Montero and incumbent starter Welington Castillo, signed Ross to a two-year $5M deal this offseason.

There are multiple explanations for the Cubs’ decision to commit non-trivial resources to an aging catcher while already in possession of two seemingly competent options. If you’re convinced by the rest of this article, it’s justified solely on Ross’s on-field merits. Or, Ross’s acquisition could be meant to keep newly-signed Jon Lester happy (and receiving favorable called third strikes). Maybe his job will be to club opposing players with his artificial hip during brawls; perhaps it’s just a tribute to Ross’s magnificent beard.

I’m here to argue that it’s the first of these—that Ross is, in fact, a useful baseball player. And, more importantly, that his career might serve as a model for our own wayward, late-blooming catching prospect, Tony Sanchez.

We can apply a variety of terms to those athletes who garner less media attention than they merit by virtue of their performances. Underrated. Underappreciated. Unloved, if one is inclined toward both melodrama and a bit of creepiness. David Ross is all of these things, but most of all he’s underutilized.

Using data for every catcher since 2003, with a cutoff of 100 plate appearances, we can plot player productivity (WAR per 600 plate appearances) against playing time (plate appearances per season). Here’s the result:

Catcher Playing Time by Productivity, 2003-2014

This graph requires a bit of explanation. The x-axis represents a player’s career WAR per 600 plate appearances, or a rough metric of their productivity. The best catcher, by this metric, was Buster Posey (5.83 WAR/600), while the worst, albeit in only one season, was Ryan Lavarnaway (-5.42). Ross clocks in near the top, at 3.56, surrounded by guys like Russell Martin (3.79), Brian McCann (3.73), Javy Lopez (3.66), Yadier Molina (3.50), Victor Martinez (3.48), Matt Wieters (3.33), and even the now-displaced Welington Castillo (3.77).

The y-axis is the average number of plate appearances the catcher accrued per season. This is intended to measure how much playing time each player received. The larger, darker dots indicate catchers who played more seasons.

As we might expect, there’s a strong positive correlation between player quality and playing time. This isn’t exactly an earth-shattering finding—teams give their better players more playing time, and teams are generally pretty good at identifying their better players.

But the graph does offer two interesting insights—first, that teams have been very good at not allocating tons of playing time to terrible catchers (witness the relative dearth of dots in the top left portion of the graph). And second, that there are plenty of guys who’ve played like borderline All-Stars (or, at the very least, capable regulars), without ever getting borderline All-Star playing time. You can see on the graph above how Ross has received far less playing time than we’d expect given his performance. He’s been one of the best catchers in the game when he’s played, yet he’s averaged fewer than 200 plate appearances per season.

20 Best Catchers by WAR600, 2003-2014

Some of the guys are obviously unsuitable comps—Chirinos, Gomes, and Sandoval, for instance. (It's easy to forget that Sandoval played a bit of catcher in 2008 and 2009.) But it’s striking just how little playing time Ross has received given how good he is. One could argue that maybe this is causal, that if Ross played more his efficiency would decrease, and to that I have no answer—with Ross winding down his career, we’ll never really know. Consider, for example, Ross’s 2009, during which he served as Brian McCann’s backup in Atlanta. Ross hit .273/.380/.508 and accumulated 2.0 fWAR in just 151 plate appearances, making him roughly as valuable on a rate basis as near-unanimous AL MVP Joe Mauer. It could be that one of the best position players in the game spent most of the season healthy, sitting on the bench.

Another potential argument is that fWAR is an imperfect tool because it doesn’t account for framing. Which is also a fair point, except that Ross is one of the best framers of his generation.  Baseball Prospectus’s new model for assigning pitch-framing value thinks that Ross has been superb—as has Russell Martin. I’d recommend reading the article, as it’s far more eloquent and technically advanced than the discussion here, but the relevant graph is copied below. All credit to Jonathan Judge, Harry Pavlidis, and Dan Brooks for the research.

Top Framing Careers, 1988-2014

We can’t directly add framing figures into the WAR totals to compute a more accurate rate-based measure of catcher value—framing stats get a bit dicey before 2008, and I haven’t been able to find a fully readable source for CSAA data anyway. But you get the idea—Ross is an excellent framer, to the point that he appears on this list despite his lack of playing time (a distinction shared by Jose Molina).

And career WAR/600 might not even do justice to Ross—after all, we’re including his decline phase, much more so than several of the guys ranked above him. ZiPS and Steamer both think that his days as an offensive asset are over, projecting him for batting lines of .195/.265/.383 and .206/.275/.346, respectively. I think we can conclude, without too much controversy, that prime David Ross probably deserved to be a starter somewhere.

At this moment, it might not be entirely clear what any of this has to do with the Pirates. There’s the tangential 10-years-ago connection, plus the whole NL Central thing. But I’ve expended an awful lot of words heaping praise on the Cubs’ backup catcher. And nobody likes the Cubs.

Well, what if we take a look at the graph from earlier and highlight some recent Pirates catchers?

Catcher Playing Time by Productivity, 2003-2014

We have the well-appreciated (and now, well-compensated) Russell Martin, and we have a bunch of guys who profile pretty similarly to Ross—career backups who’ve nevertheless been very efficient with their limited playing time. None of Stewart, McKenry, or Cervelli is quite as good as Ross (and McKenry, unlike the others, isn’t a plus framer), but they’ve all played like average to above-average starters on a rate basis, despite limited playing time. This is how you get name-brand performance at off-brand prices.

Nor is this the only connection. Below are the age 24-26 seasons for two catching prospects. These are raw numbers (not adjusted for league or offensive environment), and it’s a bit of an unscientific comparison. See if you can guess who the players are:

Player One

Player Two

Player one is David Ross. Player two is Tony Sanchez. Ross had slightly more power, while Sanchez strikes out less often, but in general they’ve been remarkably similar offensive players, especially when one accounts for Ross playing in the hitter-friendly PCL.

I’m not saying that Sanchez will turn into Ross. Even if he has the potential to replicate Ross’s bat, most players with this profile don’t succeed. And Ross was one of the best defenders of his generation, while Sanchez combines excellent pitch-blocking and solid framing with an extremely erratic arm.

But many of us have been hoping for the likeable Sanchez to succeed ever since he was drafted. It appears, with Chris Stewart’s injury and his own fine play this spring, that Sanchez may be on the cusp of his best chance yet to justify his prospect status. It would be fitting if he could, following the tradition of Stewart, Cervelli, and McKenry, be a David Ross All-Star.