An Elegy for David Ross, the Greatest Backup Catcher of His Generation

David Ross is one of the best game-callers in MLB history. (via Keith Allison)

David Ross is one of the best game-callers in MLB history. (via Keith Allison)

When Bill James developed his defensive spectrum of position players back in the 1980s, he declared that catchers were the most valuable players out on the field. If one were to look only at the throwing and blocking abilities of backstops, one might say that James’s conclusion was a reach. Yet, even then, one could look to the sheer physical demands of the job, and also acknowledge those as-yet unquantifiable skills of pitch framing and game calling and recognize that catchers were probably the defensive bedrock of a baseball team.

And so it was throughout history. Light-hitting catchers survived years past the point where other players would have been shown the door. If they hit left-handed, they were likely to stay in the majors for more than a decade. “The tools of ignorance” was a pejorative thanks to the constant stress on one’s body, but it was also ironic, given the great deal of intelligence the job truly required.

David Ross was perhaps the purest embodiment of the role a catcher occupied in the game of baseball. He could only lay claim to the starting job for one-and-a-half seasons of his 15-year career. Ross became the leader of the drought-breaking Chicago Cubs in 2016, but only because Jon Lester wouldn’t sign with the team unless his personal catcher came along. Ross, on its face, seemed entirely unimpressive.

So why did he keep showing up? Why couldn’t he be ushered out the back, forgotten like so many other backup catchers before him? Quite simply, David Ross was the greatest backup catcher of his generation, and would hold his own among other pine-riding backstops of the past. Others could possibly challenge Ross to the throne—A.J. Ellis and Doug Mirabelli come to mind. And yet, I don’t imagine that a pitcher would demand that either should be part of a free agent deal, or that either would earn a curtain call upon entering the dugout for the final time at home during the regular season, or that either would headline an historic World Series victory parade and rally. Empirically, Ross stands alone. Emotionally, few can even touch his orbit.

Now that Ross has won his second World Series and hung ’em up for good, it is time to look back and fully appreciate every facet of his time between the white lines. That time lasted longer than anyone could have expected. By its end, it occupied its own unique place in the history of baseball.

Ross’s career didn’t begin auspiciously. The Dodgers drafted him out of the University of Florida in the seventh round in 1998. Ross was a 21-year-old junior who had passed on signing with the Dodgers out of high school, only to play in the College World Series with Auburn, and then again with the Gators after he transferred. He had some major-league upside, as do most young catchers with pop who can handle their defensive responsibilities.

Ross moved up steadily through the Dodgers organization, advancing a level with each passing season in the minor leagues. He was blocked by such varying talents as Ángel Peña, Chad Kreuter, Todd Hundley, and eventually Paul Lo Duca, so there was no rush to bring him up. Let his defense develop, let him add more to his offense if possible, and then if the time was right, GM Dan Evans would call.

He called in the middle of the 2002 season. The Dodgers owned the best record in the National League on June 29, the day Ross arrived for his major league debut. He was having a breakout offensive year at Triple-A Las Vegas, and when the team needed to fill a roster spot with the big club, Ross was chosen.

He struck out in a late-inning pinch hit appearance, but got to don the gear for his first start behind the plate a week later, on July 6. That day, he went 0-for-3 with a walk and a strikeout. Lo Duca was still the No. 1, and Kreuter was the backup. Ross filled out the 25-man roster as needed, and eventually returned to Las Vegas for the rest of July and August. Ross did notch his first career home run upon returning for September call-ups, a two-out, top-of-the-ninth bomb off Mark Grace that marked the 19th run in an eventual 19-1 drubbing against the Diamondbacks. Grace took it in stride, as one would hope in such a delightfully silly moment.

Ross would begin the 2003 season down in Las Vegas, where he promptly smacked five home runs in only 100 plate appearances. Then, Hundley hurt his thumb and lower back, and Ross came back to assume backup duties permanently. He didn’t disappoint. While he logged only 140 trips to the plate in a Dodgers uniform that year, he smacked 10 home runs, ran a .298 isolated power percentage, and hit for a 133 wRC+.

His defense flashed a lot of promise, too. Ross saved or stole 1.4 percent more strikes than the average catcher in 2003, per Baseball Prospectus’s Called Strikes Above Average metric. That mark was fourth in all of baseball among catchers who received at least 2,500 called pitches that year.

Nothing Ross did was going to unseat Lo Duca from his perch, and that was proper. Lo Duca was one of the best defensive catchers in baseball in those years. He had the best glove, the best arm, and a respectable bat. He had also become a clubhouse leader. Ross swung too much and didn’t get the wood to the ball. If the Dodgers could get some power and respectable defense in order to rest Lo Duca every few days, then they would take it.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

It was a different story in 2005. The Dodgers were in the midst of the controversial reign of Paul DePodesta, and decided to overhaul their options at catcher. Ross had split time evenly with Brent Mayne in the second half of 2004, after Lo Duca headed to Florida in the infamous Brad Penny trade. DePodesta traded for Jason Phillips and Dioner Navarro in the offseason, leaving Ross stranded.

The Pirates bought Ross’ contract and sat him behind Humbero Cota and Ryan Doumit. Ross hadn’t yet earned the “Grandpa” moniker, but he was older than both Cota and Doumit, and the power he’d flashed in 2003 had dried up. His defense wasn’t enough to keep him around, and he even spent six games at Triple-A Indianapolis. Pittsburgh flipped him to San Diego, where he clocked only 19 plate appearances with the big club, and another 23 with Triple-A Portland. Ross was 28. After two forgettable seasons, it appeared as if his career was already near its conclusion.

Then, Cincinnati stepped in. Ross was adrift in the 2005-6 offseason, and the Reds snapped him up in a trade. Ross was now suiting up for his fourth team in three seasons.

Cincinnati was where Ross’ legend was to truly begin. Ostensibly brought on to back up longtime Reds backstop Jason LaRue, as well as serve as Bronson Arroyo’s personal catcher, Ross started hitting. A lot. Ross smacked 12 home runs and ran a 155 wRC+ in only 139 plate appearances in the first half of the season. LaRue, meanwhile, earned himself a 49 wRC+ in the same time frame and a comparable amount of plate appearances. Ross became the de facto starting catcher for Cincinnati in the second half of the season. It would also go down as his best year in baseball, with a 4.1 WARP.

Ross was now ready for his moment in the spotlight, as it were. He signed a two-year, $4.5 million deal with the Reds, and was named starting catcher out of spring training the next year, logging the most games, innings and plate appearances of his career. If only his offensive performance had been able to carry over from the season before. Ross still flashed some power, but his plate discipline left him, like Charlie Gordon’s intellect in Flowers for Algernon. Ross’s defense, his occasional power, and that magical home run total from 2006 undoubtedly saved and lengthened his career. His one opportunity to cement himself as a No. 1, however, failed. He lost the starting job out of spring training in 2008 to fellow journeyman Paul Bako, and by August, Ross had been designated for assignment and released. He signed a minor league deal a few days later with the Red Sox, and caught a handful of innings in September. A free agent once again, the 31-year-old Ross was at a crossroads.

In spite of the disappointments of 2007 and 2008, Ross was about to enter the most stable period of his career. The Braves signed Ross to back up Brian McCann for two years, and then extended him two years after that. Ross would be with Atlanta longer than any team in his career, and would also earn more money from Atlanta than any other team.

Ross maintained his superlative defense in those years, while also posting a very respectable 123 wRC+ in 663 plate appearances. He rediscovered his power stroke and took his walks. He still couldn’t hide from the gaudy strikeout rates that his long swing generated, which had prevented him from ever becoming a starter in the first place. That ability to smack doubles when he did make contact still made Ross valuable, not to mention the leadership role he had come to adopt inside the clubhouse. Ross’ reputation as a thinker and psychologist had grown over the years, and he fully embraced it while in Atlanta. It didn’t hurt that he was usually the funniest guy in the clubhouse to boot.

Ross even got to start behind the plate in the 2012 NL Wild Card game, going 3-for-4 with a two-run home run in an eventual loss to the Cardinals. It would prove to be Ross’ final game as a Brave, but he left Atlanta with a bang.

Ross’s legacy was now cemented. He was a backup catcher who had tasted everyday duties for only a year-and-a-half, but still managed to hang around the majors for over a decade, exhibiting a league-average bat with excellent framing, a cannon arm, and a game-calling reputation that few could rival. Going into his age-36 season, Ross signed the biggest contract of his career with the Red Sox at two years and $6.2 million. He would still be serving as backup, to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but the word was out: Ross was the “best backup catcher in baseball.”

Ross may have had his best year in Cincinnati, but it was with the Red Sox that led to this article being written. His bat went cold again, but Ross rekindled a friendship with Sox ace Jon Lester that had begun five years before, when Ross had passed through Boston upon his release from Cincinnati. Their relationship became so strong that Ross was tapped as Lester’s personal catcher, the first time Ross had been so named since he worked with Bronson Arroyo. Ross supplanted Saltalamacchia during the World Series that year, catching Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz to close out the Sox’s third title in 10 years. How could it get any better than that?

How about walking into Wrigley Field? Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer had spent the past three seasons rebuilding the Cubs, and were ready to go after some big-name free agents. Lester, whom Epstein had given his big league debut when Epstein was running the Red Sox, was top of the list. There was only one caveat: Ross had to join him as his personal catcher. Sure, Epstein thought: What’s another $5 million and two years for a superlative backup catcher when we’re getting the best starting pitcher on the market for a discount?

Turns out they got a lot more, while it seemed they may have gotten a lot less. Ross’ defense was still net positive, but 2015 proved to be the worst offensive season of his career, and he could barely stay above replacement level. He was 38, and only two years removed from two concussions suffered during his first season with the Red Sox. Ross’ body was breaking down. It was time to hang ’em up.

Ross announced in the offseason that 2016 would be his last go-round. This in itself felt more than a little ridiculous on first blush. David Ortíz was the guy getting the year-long retirement. How could Ross hope to follow in those footsteps?

It was then that the full force of Ross’ intangibles, the “soft” skills of clubhouse chemistry and leadership, came sharply into public view. Anthony Rizzo wouldn’t shut up about the father figure he had found in Ross. Other players spoke about how Ross was the de facto captain of the position players, including those far more talented than he. It seemed like not a day went by in spring training without some new prank or joke honoring the newly dubbed “Grandpa Rossy.” Rizzo and Kris Bryant even started an Instagram account documenting his yearlong retirement party.

Someone had a rough day of catching drills today.. But thats what friends are for! #yearlongretirementparty

A video posted by David Ross (@grandparossy_3) on

Ortíz received touching gifts from every team he visited throughout the year. Cubs players bought Ross a Rascal as a retirement vehicle.

It was clear that while his on-field contribution could often feel muted, his off-field imprint stretched for miles. So much so that Ross, during the Cubs’ final home game of the 2016 regular season, was pulled in the seventh inning so that the Wrigley faithful could pay their respects one more time, and perhaps give the only standing ovation to a retiring backup catcher in baseball history.

Forget the off-the-field stuff for a moment. Ross was back with a vengeance in 2016. Big Papi may have lived through a career renaissance, but so did Ross, in his own way. He racked up 205 plate appearances, his most since 2007. He was walking at an elite clip, perhaps the byproduct of the team’s new philosophy of patience. He hit 10 home runs, the first time he had cracked double digits since he was a starter in Cincinnati. His .217 isolated power percentage was his best since 2009, and his 101 wRC+ was his highest since 2012. His 2.3 WARP was the most he’d accrued in a season since 2010. A rising tide raises all boats, and the 2016 Cubs did that for just about every single one of their players. Ross was no exception.

How do you cap an historic year like that? By hitting a home run in Game Seven of the World Series and acting like it was no big deal, and then getting carried off the field on your teammates’ shoulders after you end the longest title drought in American sports history. Again, this is a 39-year-old retiring backup catcher being treated like Rudy.

So what about Ross’s claim to being the best backup catcher of his generation? It can’t really be argued that his longevity should speak for itself. Even if you isolate that season-and-a-half when he was starting for the Reds, Ross accumulated over 2,000 plate appearances in 13.5 seasons as a backup. He played until he was 39. Overall, his career 93 wRC+ and .260 True Average paired with 106 career home runs demonstrates legitimate offensive power. Ross hit home runs in 4 percent of his career plate appearances, only slightly worse than Mike Trout’s career rate.

Where Ross truly shone, however, is through his defense. We’ve discussed his excellent framing skills already; those never went away. The quality of his arm gradually decreased, but he was single-handedly responsible for preventing runners from destroying Jon Lester on the basepaths for three straight years. Ross picked off 11 runners in his two years with the Cubs. No catcher comes close to that total.

If you put it all together, not too many catchers fit Ross’ profile, much less match his ability. Ross accumulated 24 WARP in his career. That’s nearly 21 more wins than A.J. Ellis. That’s 18 more wins than Doug Mirabelli.

WARP goes back only to 1950. WARP is also the best wins above replacement model to use for catchers, thanks to its incorporation of pitch framing data, and its more precise measurement of a catcher’s throwing and blocking skills. Since 1950, only 46 catchers have accumulated more WARP than David Ross. None of those 46 played as infrequently as he did. We might be so bold as to say that Ross was not only the greatest backup catcher of his generation, but the greatest backup catcher since World War II.

Jon Lester saw it. Anthony Rizzo saw it. The Cubs all saw it. Cubs fans all saw it. In his final game at Wrigley Field—which just so happened to be Game Five of the World Series—Eddie Vedder dedicated his rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” to Ross. And finally, in his last moment as a Cub, this 39-year-old retiring backup catcher got to headline the Cubs’ five million strong World Series victory rally. (Skip to 2:57)

David Ross could hold his own calling a game. He could snatch strikes on the edges of the zone better than just about anybody. He could gun down runners with ruthless efficiency. He was good for a double or home run when the occasion called for it. He led clubhouses with his fire and his humor. He could never develop the bat speed to shorten his swing, and thus his gaudy strikeout totals denied him a permanent starting job. Perhaps if he were 10 years younger, his framing and game-calling skills would have been properly valued, and he would have become a starter anyway. We’ll never know. No matter. Grandpa Rossy is a hero in his own right, and has earned his place in history.

No Cubs fan or player will ever forget that.

References & Resources


Evan Davis is a writer and broadcaster living in New York City. He has appeared regularly on MLB Network. Follow him on Twitter @EvanDavisSports and Instagram Instagram.
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Carl
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Carl

Was a very good article Evan and once you referenced Charlie Gordon and Flowers for Algernon, became a great one. First time I’ve ever seen that referenced in a baseball article. Well done.

Tepid Coffee
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Tepid Coffee

He even got a standing ovation in his last regular-season road game, in Cincinnati, when the Reds put up a surprise highlight tribute on the Jumbotron in the middle of the 1st.

Jetsy Extrano
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Jetsy Extrano

Pat Borders is the platonic ideal of a different kind of fringe catcher: he spent a long career splitting time between the majors and the minors. He played in the minors almost every year, more than he played in the majors altogether, but he kept getting time in the majors too. He got major league playing time at age 42. Pat Borders is awesome.

L Wolfe
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L Wolfe

Simply excellent. Both the article and the man.

Philip
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Philip

A home run in game 7 of the World Series . . .

. . . in his last official career at-bat.

That’s got to be a first.

bucdaddy
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bucdaddy

And he pulled down close to $23 mil for his career.

Good for him. I hope he enjoys retirement, though if he’s really funny I’d expect he has a broadcast career ahead of him.

Yipes, Cincinnati got 38 HRs out of him in what amounts to about a full season’s PAs. I’d give him a standing O too.

Alex Bensky
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Alex Bensky

It’s not unprecedented for a pitcher to demand that he be tied to a catcher, though. Think of Henry Wiggen, Bruce Pearson, and “Bang the Drum Slowly.”

Yehoshua Friedman
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Yehoshua Friedman

I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a coaching or managing career ahead of him.

Irene
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Irene

Thanks for a nice tribute to David Ross. One story that says a lot about what his teammates think of him that you didn’t include was Jason Heyward’s getting him a hotel suite for Ross and his family on all the Cubs’ road trips this year, as thanks for how Ross helped him when he broke into the big leagues with the Braves. http://www.foxsports.com/mlb/story/chicago-cubs-jason-heyward-david-ross-theo-epstein-road-trips-052316 I do have one quibble with your story however. You claim that Lester wouldn’t sign with the Cubs unless they also signed Ross. There were no reports whatsoever that said that at the time the Cubs… Read more »

Connie C.
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Connie C.

What is wrong with the Chicago Tribune??? The new special book “Won for the Ages” has nothing about Dave Ross, a key player, preferred catcher for Lester and he is not mentioned in the book? Whaaaatt.