Throughout the last few years, Braves Country has been a little dry in the backup catcher department. We've been forced to witness as guys like Todd Pratt, Brayan Pena, and Corky Miller gear up, whenever Brian McCann needed a day off or was on the disabled list, and the Jarrod Saltalamacchia ship just never quite took off. Going into the 2009 season, the Braves made sure to do something about this gaping wound, and did it the hard way - they bought themselves a free agent.
As much as baseball fans love it when the team finds the gem in the minor leagues, or acquires a steal of a player that produces huge, on a minor league deal, sometimes you have to stop trying to find value, and go out and get what you paid for. And in the case of David Ross, the Braves didn't quite get what they paid for - they got more.
Entering the second year of a 2-year/$3 million dollar contract, with a very successful 2009 behind him, Braves fans had plenty of reason to be optimistic if ever Brian McCann were to get hurt, or needed a day off or two. Ross shined admirably in 2009, with a .273 batting average, and cumulative .888 OPS while hitting seven homers, as well as gunning down 48% of would-be base stealers, contributing +2.0 WAR, essentially contributing more value in that year than the entire worth of his contract, mostly off the bench, no less.
2010 was about as nice for David Ross, overall. As far as backup catchers go, David Ross was so good, he was essentially declared the Perfect Backup Catcher, by Matt Klaassen of FanGraphs. Simply taking a glance around some of the other teams in the National League, shows that few teams are getting the combination of batting average, on-base percentage, or power out of their backup catchers, and looking specifically at the teams who have All-Star caliber (or used to) catchers (Yadier Molina, Carlos Ruiz, and for giggles, Geovany Soto and J Russell Martin) let's compare all the backups:
|David Ross, ATL||59||145||.289||.392||.479||17||28||20||28||8||31%|
|Brian Schneider, PHI||47||147||.240||.345||.384||9||15||19||25||8||21%|
|Koyie Hill, CHC||77||231||.214||.254||.298||15||17||12||61||8||18%|
|A.J. Ellis, LAD||44||128||.278||.363||.324||5||16||14||18||10||28%|
|Jason LaRue, STL||29||63||.196||.274||.321||3||5||5||7||3||50%|
Sure my stat choices are a little cherry-picked, and doesn't factor the disparity that some guys have more starts/appearances than others, but it gets the point across that amongst guys that are on the bench to be the backup catcher, there's little comparison that David Ross simply outclasses his competition.
Let's look at his numbers across the board: Ross quite literally had a career year, setting new personal bests with a career-high .289 batting average, as well as a career-high .392 on-base percentage. He sacrificed a little bit of power this year, with his slugging dropping to a still above-average .479 SLG, but one very good area of improvement which should be noted was the noticeable cut in strikeouts. Striking out only 28 times in his 145 plate appearances, on top of the 20 walks drawn, gives him a ratio of 1.4 K/BB, which is basically an entire strikeout better than his prior average of 2.4.
Ross leveled off his swing just a little bit this year, as indicative of the drastic increase of ground balls (38%) versus the noticeable drop in fly balls (41%), but David was still doing a good job of hitting line drives (20.7%), and they were falling mostly in the right places, based on his career-high .359 BABIP. A noticeable thing in Ross's splits is the difference in his approach based on the throwing arm of the pitcher; while he does an excellent job of hurting lefties (.308/.360/.526) he's clearly swinging a lot harder, based on the 19 strikeouts, but against RHPs, his approach and results are completely reversed; he's average with the bat (.256/.439/.395), but he's nursed out 13 walks versus nine strikeouts.
But the best thing about David Ross in 2010, simply put was how clutch the guy way. Based on Baseball-Reference's Clutch Stats index, in a year where far too many guys were inept with 2 outs, RISP, David Ross was a stud. 28 times he came to the plate with RISP, and seven times, he recorded a hit, five times, an XBH, and once a homer. Three times, he nursed out a walk, all culminating to a fancy .280/.357/.560 slash with two-outs, RISP. Furthermore, David Ross was a real general at leading comebacks. Progressively looking at whether the Braves were down 4 runs, 3 runs, 2 runs, 1 run, or are were in a tied game, Ross essentially became a tougher and tougher out, with the latter line showing a beastly .448/.467/.724 slash. Off the top of my head, I can vaguely recollect several instances where Ross came in late in the game, and drew walks, or hit something the other way, to score runs, or keep a rally moving.
Overall, David Ross was worth +1.6 WAR, according to FanGraphs. Yes, it's lower than the previous year's, but it was no less important to have his contributions to this playoff-caliber team. Break it down into win shares, and a guy making $1.5M on the year just contributed $6.5 worth of contributions. Not too shabby.
David Ross has apparently found something he likes in Atlanta, and certainly has no problem being second-fiddle to Brian McCann. For an organization that prides itself on integrity, and good characters, they've figuratively struck gold with David Ross, who despite the popular notion that he could start for many other MLB clubs, has decided to stay in Atlanta for two more years, signing another two year deal, worth $3.25M, effectively keeping him a Brave until 2013.