In the sixth inning of the seventh game of the World Series, 39-year-old Cubs backup catcher David Ross got his first plate appearance of the night. He found himself up against Cleveland’s unstoppable postseason force, relief pitcher Andrew Miller. Even the game’s greatest hitters find themselves looking foolish against Miller more often than not, so a journeyman backup catcher with a career .229/.300/.365 slash line and 93 wRC+ faced an uphill battle.
Baseball however, being the magnificent, unpredictable game that it is, does not care about probabilities and expectations. On the fourth pitch of the at bat, behind 1-2 in the count, Ross got a 94 mph fastball right over the heart of the plate and deposited it just beyond the center field wall.
He had already won a World Series ring from his stint with the Red Sox in 2013, but this was the biggest hit Ross had ever had. He would walk in his second and final at bat and be lifted for a pinch runner.
In the biggest game of his career and the most important game in Chicago Cubs’ history, Ross did not enter until the fifth inning but ended up with the second highest win probability added on the team (.170, trailing only World Series MVP Ben Zobrist’s .251). It was a performance well deserving of celebratory crotch bumps.
In his 15-year career Ross played for seven different teams, never surpassing 350 plate appearances in a single season. He accrued 15 fWAR in those 15 seasons (symmetry!) while carrying slightly above average walk (10.9%) and strike out (27.8%) rates to go along with above average isolated power (.195). A career 93 wRC+ squares logically with those numbers. Ross was a below average hitter overall but not a complete void in the lineup as most backup catchers tend to be.
Where Ross really added value was behind the plate. He did well to control the running game posting a 35 percent caught stealing percentage over his career against a league average of 28 percent over the same time period. When you combine Ross’ throwing ability with Jon Lester’s quick delivery it’s clear that the pitcher’s trouble holding runners has not been more heavily exploited due in part to Ross’ defense.
Controlling the running game is not the only area where Ross excelled. He was also an exceptional pitch framer. According to Baseball Prospectus he produced a positive number of framing runs in every season other than the 26 innings with the Dodgers in 2002 that began his career.
|Innings Caught||Framing Chances||Framing Runs|
Though his offense was not great, it was certainly adequate for a player in his position. His defense and pitch framing were top-notch, and compensated for offensive shortcomings. The most talked about and perhaps most important facet of Ross’ game was his presence in the locker room. In an article last year by Wayne Drehs of ESPN, members of the Cubs expressed exactly how much Ross meant to the clubhouse culture of the team:
"He's been there. He's caught the last pitch of the World Series. He's won a ring. He's been a part of one-run games in the playoffs. He's special. He's something this team needs. And a lot of people on the outside don't know it."
"You cannot overstate the chemistry thing and what he does to help your team win.“
"It's hard to put into words. It's something that the guys that sit behind computers and make up all these new stats can't make a stat for.”
Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo love Ross so much that they started an Instagram account (@grandparossy_3) with the sole purpose of documenting his final year. The frequency of updates dipped in the final weeks of the season, but the fact that two of the games brightest young stars aimed to honor the team’s backup catcher in such a way speaks volumes of his off the field impact.
There has always been discussion and debate among the sabermetrically-inclined about how much team chemistry matters. It’s baseball most unquantifiable trait. A happy locker room won’t make a bad team good, but might it make a good team slightly better? Probably! The breaker-of-curses Theo Epstein is a believer, and who are any of us to argue with him? From a Chicago Sun-Times article last offseason:
“You can’t just say, ‘Oh, I’m going to get a bunch of guys in a room and they’re going to win and then we’re going to have chemistry,’ ” he said. “I don’t believe in that. I believe (chemistry) can be intentionally created or done.’’
Not everyone has the capacity to be a leader, and not just anyone gets hoisted upon their teammates shoulders after they have won the World Series, but David Ross does, and David Ross did.
We are predisposed to root for the underdog, and perhaps no one position in sports represents the underdog more than a journeyman backup catcher. In the grand scheme of things they are still among the best baseball players in the world, but in the vacuum of Major League Baseball they are a call-up or trade away from being unemployed in the blink of an eye.
It is with this in mind that we can properly appreciate the length of Ross’ career. He was a solid but unspectacular backup catcher who captured the hearts and minds of fans and teammates in every city in which he donned a uniform. He is a reminder that being an all-star is not required to make an impact on the game of baseball.
Congratulations on a wonderful career, David Ross. Enjoy retirement.