David Ross, the Little Catcher That Could

Right before heading to their giant mansions and speed boats that can also turn into underwater compounds for the weekend (I don't really understand the lifestyle of the rich), the Red Sox signed David Ross to a 2 year, $6.2 million contract. You may not find that particularly noteworthy in an offseason dominated by Josh Hamilton's contract demands and Walt Weiss' managerial hiring, but that's because you haven't been paying enough attention to Mr. Ross. In a league where 30 teams have to field a starting catcher, Ross may very well be better than half of them, but hasn't been given the playing time to prove it. 

Despite being 35 years old and having been in the league since 2002, David Ross has only had one season with more than 300 at-bats, one more with over 200. In those two seasons, coming with the Reds in 2006 and '07, Ross hit 38 home runs in 644 plate appearances. To put that into perspective, Edwin Encarnacion hit 42 this past year in the same number of PA and he was met with 90% fanfare and 10% astonishment as to how the Blue Jays can endlessly churn out these massive home run hitters. Of course, after cracking 21 home runs in only 296 PA in 2006, posting a .255/.353/.579 line, Ross didn't do himself any favors, hitting .203/.271/.399 the next year to send him right back to the backup heap. But still, he was a catcher, one with power and a surprising amount of patience behind the plate. Those are skills that roughly 95% of the backup catchers lack. 
Since those two seasons in the sun, Ross has been a startling example of quality behind the dish without picking up any extra playing time. After signing with the Braves in 2009, Ross has posted a .269/.353/.463 line despite never seeing more than 196 plate appearances in a season. To be fair, he's been playing behind Brian McCann, so if anyone had the excuse not to put Ross in the lineup more often, it's Atlanta. Still, you would have thought some team would have been interested in a powerfully patient and patiently powerful catcher earning approximately one-and-a-half million dollars, offering up some sort of prospect package enticing enough to pry him loose. That never happened. 
It's not like he's injury prone, having gone on the disabled list only three times in his career, injury free for the last two seasons. And he doesn't need to be platooned either: he's a career .234/.323/.448 hitter against righties, .244/.325/.438 hitter against lefties. Seriously, I had to double check Baseball-Reference because the numbers are so similar I felt there must have been an enchantment put on them by a dark wizard. The sample size may be small (1,243 PA against RHP, 727 against LHP), but it's not Ross' fault that no one wants to test those numbers more rigorously. 
Is it his defense? Well, considering that Rod Barajas (6% CS in 2012) and Wilin Rosario (21 passed balls) each saw more time, you wouldn't think team's are overly concerned, but no, that's not it either. According to Matt Klaassen's catcher defense rankings, David Ross was the 14th best defensive catcher in the sport, though with so little playing time and with defensive rankings being difficult to judge, perhaps that's not a true measure of his value. But look in the Baseball Prospectus Annuals from the last three years and you'll see that they call him "the best backup catcher in the business" who "plays good defense" (2010), "shuts down the running game" (2011), is "a plus receiver and avid hunter of basestealers" and is also the "Practically Perfect Backup Catcher" (2012). Huh. And Ross never earned more than $1.6 million in a season before now? I hope his agent is skilled in other avenues than negotiation. 
Since 2009, Ross has earned only 6.25 million while compiling 6.4 fWAR. Not only is that incredibly efficient production given Ross' playing time, but take the average $4.2 million per WAR that teams spent on catchers from 2007-2011, and Ross has been one of the best bargains in baseball. He comes out even better when you start comparing him to the other veteran catchers who have sucked down playing time. 
Here's how Ross matches up against a few bigger name catchers over the last four years: 

– Miguel Olivo ($10.7M, 5 fWAR)

– Rod Barajas $10.25M, 3.5 fWAR)

– Ramon Hernandez ($18.515M, 4.2 fWAR)

– Kelly Shoppach ($8.335M, 3.7fWAR)

That's just a small sample of those who have all earned more money, received more playing time, and been much less productive. Hell, Again, I must ask, why did no team knock down the Braves' door for Ross? 
The only explanations I can think of are: 

1. Ross hates the game of baseball, preferring to spend his days and evenings drinking and playing dominos. 

2. Ross was an indentured servant of the Braves and he has finally paid off his enormous debt.  

3. Frank Wren and David Ross are best friends and have been writing a buddy cop movie and they needed time to finish. 

4. I dunno, something about Ross being the lone protector of the Earth against pure evil? 

But while the Red Sox just ponied up the richest contract of his career, at the age of 36 it could very well be Ross' last paycheck. Maybe the easy schedule he's been given has saved his knees and Ross can play effectively into his 40s, though the chances of that are unlikely. If teams didn't think him worthy of more than 200 at-bats a season before, I can only imagine their opinion of him once his contact rate dips and his quick release is not so quick. Last year, only five catchers over the age of 36 appeared on a Major League diamond, posting a combined and somewhat poetic fWAR of 0. In fact, the only player with a positive mark was Jose Molina with his 0.9 showing. The others, made up of the Barajases and Ramon Hernandezes of the world, quickly sucked all the value out of that group.
With Jarrod Saltalamacchia, another powerful but average-resistant catcher in the fold, one who struggles mightily against southpaws, the Red Sox have the makings of an effective catching platoon next year. But, oh wait, the Red Sox also have the young Ryan Lavarnway, who, in his brief Major League time, has shown an ability to hit lefties better than their right-handed counterparts. Unless the Red Sox option Lavarnway or trade Saltalamacchia, it looks like it will be another season with Ross on the bench, stepping out of the shadows every few days to hit a home run or throw a runner out or stop a crime already in progress. After all, it's apparent that no one will trade for Ross, so he may very well be returned to the role of "Practically Perfect Backup Catcher," despite his abilities to be the "Perfectly Competent Starting Catcher."