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(For my take on Hector Olivera, click here.)
Backup catchers are sort of like backup quarterbacks. You might think spending money on one is a waste of resources until you need him to be there and produce. When that happens, you are happy that you had the foresight to get the best possible backup. For four years, David Ross fulfilled that role for the Atlanta Braves and they are still trying to replace him.
Born in March of 1977 in Bainbridge, Georgia, David Wade Ross later attended the aptly named Florida High School in Tallahassee. The Dodgers tried their luck with Ross in the 19th round of the ’95 draft, but he passed and went to college – first at Auburn and then at Florida. It was at Auburn that he teamed up with center fielder and sometimes pitcher, Tim Hudson. Several years later, Hudson and Ross would again be teammates, but we’ll get to that.
Ross had transferred to Florida for playing time and it led to him getting picked again by the Dodgers in ’98, this time in the 7th round. Expected to be a power hitter behind the plate with advanced defensive skills, Ross began his minor league career in style with a .309/.412/.487 slash with Yakima in Short-Season A-ball after he was drafted. Two years later, a return trip to Florida with the Jacksonville Suns gave Ross his second .800 OPS season. He continued the good run with a .297/.384/.519 triple slash the following season with Las Vegas. His solid game got him to the majors in mid-summer of ’02 and again in September. He would notably replace Paul Lo Duca in a 19-1 blistering the Dodgers gave the Diamondbacks. Long-time Cub Mark Grace took the ball to pitch the ninth and Ross put the cherry on the top with a first-pitch homerun. It was his first of what is currently 96 homeruns.
Ross missed much of 2003 before settling in as a backup in ’04, though the results were terrible (.170/.253/.291). After failing to beat out Paul Bako for the backup job the next spring, Ross was sent to the Pirates. You might have forgotten he played for the Pirates – I know I did. He struggled with Pittsburgh. A late move to San Diego helped his season stats, but he still finished the year with a .671 OPS. Ross was nearing 30 and looked like a journeyman and not a particularly good one at that.
For the second consecutive spring, Ross was squeezed out of the opening day roster – this time by Rob Bowen – and the Padres dealt Ross to the Reds. It was in Cincinnati that Ross found a little stability. In his first year, he took advantage of the Great American Ball Park’s generous dimensions to hit a career-best 21 homeruns with a .932 OPS. His follow-up campaign would see the power sustained (17 homeruns), but he simply could not get on base enough (.271 OBP). He would get a third year with the Reds and the results were a mixed bag. He improved his on-base ability, but his power nearly disappeared. The Reds moved on, releasing Ross that August. He briefly caught on with the Red Sox and would even play a game in the postseason.
That offseason, Atlanta was looking for stability behind Brian McCann. They had gone through Corky Miller, Clint Sammons, and Brayan Pena for two seasons. Pena was the only one to provide any element of offense, but the Braves didn’t seem convinced he was a capable enough receiver. McCann had played 145 games, which is still his career-high, and by the end of the year, he continued to produce though he lacked the power he had showed so impressively earlier in the season. Ross would help the Braves in a number of ways. The Braves had gifted Todd Pratt to McCann in the latter’s first full season of ’06, but the still young-McCann could benefit from a guy who had seen much the game had to offer in Ross. Plus, Ross was seen as a leader for a staff that began the year with 23 year-old Jair Jurrjens and later added 22 year-old Tommy Hanson. While little was expected from his bat, the prevailing assumption was that Ross would be able to contribute a few taters and not be a complete zero at the plate like Miller and Sammons.
Year 1 went about as good as the Braves could have hoped. Ross triple slashed .273/.380/.508 with 7 HR. His pairing with McCann was brilliant and the drop-off was nearly non-existent. His leadership was also present for both McCann and the pitchers he worked with. In the second year of a two-year contract, he continued to excel for the Braves, slashing .289/.392/.479 with 13 doubles, the second-best total for any season of his career. He would go on to appear twice that postseason as a defensive replacement. One of his biggest knocks of his first two seasons came in the fifth inning of the August 31, 2010 game against the visiting Mets. The Braves had began the inning down 2-1, but a two-run double by Jason Heyward and a run-scoring single by Alex Gonzalez had put the Braves on top. A batter after Gonzalez, Ross chased Jon Niese with a Grand Slam to deep left.
After bringing back Ross on a second two-year deal, the Braves catching situation remained the best in baseball in 2011. Ross never matched his production from the first two seasons, but he slashed .263/.333/.428 in 171 PA – a stellar effort from a backup. He picked up his second two-homer game as a Brave on April 26 and on July 2, he smacked his second Grand Slam as a Brave, providing the edge against Jake Arrieta and the Orioles 5-4. On July 27, he tied a 1-0 game with an RBI single against Paul Maholm and the Pirates in the sixth and four innings later, hit a walk-off single to win the game. A year later, he remained sturdy with a .256/.321/.449 slash. While the season would go down as the year Ross started over a hurting and struggling McCann in the ill-fated Wild Card Game, I think 2012 should be all about August 8 in Philadelphia. It was on that night, as the Braves cruised to a ho-hum 12-6 win, that Ross reached first base with two outs on an error. On the second pitch to next hitter, Paul Janish, Ross stole second. In his eleventh year in the majors, Ross has finally stole his first base.
But sure, let’s focus on that Wild Card Game. McCann’s shoulder was shot and he needed offseason surgery to rectify the situation. The two catchers shared a good deal of time in September rather than there being a clear distinction between the two. It was McCann’s worst season – well, until he became a Yankee. Over his final 19 games, McCann had hit just .209 with a .260 OBP and .328 slugging. So, it was not too surprising that Ross played ahead of McCann – yet it still seemed like it was. Ross stepped in and gave the Braves a boost, though. He singled twice and homered over four at-bats. And Fredi Gonzalez‘s decision probably would have been lauded had the umpires not changed what the meaning of the infield fly rule was. I’m half-kidding, of course.
The Braves had gotten away with paying Ross just $1.625M for the final two years of his Braves’ run. Over his four years with Atlanta, he had slashed .269/.353/.463. He deserved a pay raise and the Braves couldn’t match what he was worth on the open market. That was not a problem for the Boston Red Sox, who inked Ross to a $3.1M average salary. His season got off to a miserable as he hit the DL in mid-June with concussion issues. When he returned, he was able to regain his place as Jon Lester‘s personal catcher, which became important in keeping him in the mix for the playoffs. He began to steal time beyond Lester’s starts from Jarrod Saltalamacchia and in Game 5 of the World Series, he picked up a go-ahead RBI double off Adam Wainwright that helped the Red Sox win and inch closer to a World Series title. Two days later, with Ross behind the plate, the Red Sox beat the Cards 6-1, giving Ross his first World Series ring.
After another year with Boston that included some miserable results, Ross again hit free agency and joined the Cubs. His first year there was miserable at the plate, though his value in the clubhouse and behind the plate still impressed many. He even pitched two games – and did really well (2 ING, 6 batters up, 6 batters down). He returns for a farewell tour this year that has attracted a great deal of attention, which is a testament to Ross the person moreso than Ross the player.
For four years, the Braves had the best catching situation in baseball with an All-Star and a capable backup. The years since have shown how rare that is to put together. With his career nearly up, one has to wonder what’s next after 2016. With how well-liked he is and how his leadership is lauded, hard not to see a coaching future for Ross. Maybe that could be a pathway back to Atlanta. Just spitballing.
|Rossy gets some air as Chipper Jones sends a ball through the air against the Phillies on 9/2/12.|
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