Salty vs. Ross

Six weeks into the season who deserves to be the primary catcher for this Red Sox team?

The Red Sox headed into the off season with all sorts of money to spend. Ben Cherington had shipped nearly every bad contract (I’m looking at you, John Lackey) on the books to the Dodgers, and now it was time to roll up our sleeves and dig in to the newly anointed crop of Free Agent players. Would the team make a big splash? It didn’t feel likely since the biggest hitter (Josh Hamilton) and pitcher (Zack Greinke) on the market both seemed to be terrible fits for Boston (a lesson previously learned that we should call the Carl Crawford Corollary).

I’m sorry, you were hoping for Josh Hamilton?
Would you settle for David Ross instead?
(Kelly O’Connor/sittingstill.net)

So the front office decided they would blow the doors off the eager fan-base and sign journeyman catcher David Ross! For fans that were clamoring for a major addition it was an underwhelming move to say the least.

However, six weeks into the season, while the signing may have been underwhelming as a headline, it has thus far proven to be a very solid baseball move.

Through Wednesday night’s game against the Twins, starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia has appeared in 26 games, while accumulating 87 at bats. Ross has appeared in 13 games and seen 38 at bats. So, to this point in the season it is fair to say that Salty is seeing 50% more action than Ross. That is a problem. The issue is that Ross is nearly equal offensively to his catching counterpart, and significantly better behind the plate.

Take a look at their offensive numbers head-to-head:

 Salty        

 Ross        

AB

87 38
Runs 13

7

HR

4 4
BB 10

6

SO

35 12
K% 36.1%

27.3%

BA

.253 .237
OBP .330

.341

SLG

.483

.579

OPS+

110

141

 oWAR

0.5

0.5

The numbers are very comparable in several areas. Their batting averages, on base percentages, and oWAR numbers are all closely aligned. The notable differences are that Ross has put up his statistics in less than half of the at bats of Saltalamacchia, Ross’ slugging percentage is nearly 100 points higher, and Saltalamacchia’s K% is 9% higher. Overall though, it is very fair to say that these two players have fared similarly at the plate so far in 2013.

While any team, the Red Sox certainly included, would love to see significant offensive contribution from the catcher position, it is primarily a defensive position. If a catcher can handle the staff and routinely call great games, many people (myself included) are willing to take less offense to ensure the maximum total defensive contribution (I would also include CF and SS on that list).  There are very few Buster Posey‘s in the world. The rest of us tend to get stuck with a catcher that can play the position well, or hit, but not both.

That is where the Salty train quickly derails. He is atrocious defensively, on many levels.

                 Salty        Ross       
CERA 4.71 2.78
SB 13 9
CS 1 3
CS% 7% 25%
E 3 0
PB 3 1
WP 12 3
Rtot/yr -26 2
Rdrs/yr -24 14
dWAR -0.2 0.2

There are several statistics there that should be somewhat alarming, but for me the most telling is CERA (catcher’s ERA). When Ross is handling the staff they have a 2.78 ERA, which puts him second among all catchers in the American League.  By contrast, when Saltalamacchia is behind the plate the pitchers carry a 4.71 ERA, slotting him as the 27th best catcher in the AL. Even in a relatively small sample size that is a very substantial difference. Too small of a sample size? Last year Ross’s CERA was 3.63, and Salty’s was 4.88. Ross calls and receives a better game than Saltalamacchia. That is pretty hard to debate.

Are the Wild Pitches Saltalamacchia’s fault? Well no, by definition they aren’t. But similarly to how a great 1B will save a SS a few errors during the course of the year, a solid catcher will block a ball in the dirt that spares his pitcher a WP every now and then. Ross, as with most major league catchers, is better than Salty at keeping the ball in front of him.

No, Salty, no! Don’t do it!
(Kelly O’Connor/sittingstill.net)

Then there is the minor issue of controlling the running game. Mercifully, Jarrod threw out his first would-be base stealer. At least now we can say there is a chance that a runner will get thrown out trying to steal a base on him. Ross has traditionally been one of the best in the game in this area. His 2012 Caught Stealing Percentage of 44% trailed only catching immortal Yadier Molina (48%). So far this year Ross has thrown out a respectable 25% of would-be base stealers.

The three to zero difference in errors may not appear to be that significant numerically, but each of these errors have felt like back-breakers from Salty. They have been airmailed throws to the outfield that were not remotely close to their intended targets and immediately cost the team runs.

While the most telling statistical difference may the disparity  in CERA, the most shocking gap is found in Rtot/yr (Total Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Avg. per 1,200 Innings) and Rdrs/yr (Defensive Runs Saved Above Avg. per 1,200 Innings) two statistics that attempt to quantify the value of a player compared to an average player at that position over the course of an entire season. On those two metrics, Salty costs the Sox either 24 or 26 runs with his defense over the course of the year. By comparison, Ross saves Boston between 2 and 14 runs depending on which measure you analyze. No matter how you cut it, that is a huge separation. As compared to an average defensive catcher Ross saves runs, and Saltalamacchia costs the team runs.

Could you live with Salty’s offense if he was a defensive star? Absolutely.

Could you make due with his defense if he hit .320 with 30 HR? Possibly, but you wouldn’t do it. If he hit that well you could make him a 1B or DH, but let’s be clear that while his numbers at the plate are decent for a catcher, they would not suffice at any other position in the lineup. In short he’s not good enough offensively to play any position but catcher, but he’s also not a good enough catcher to be an every day starter behind the plate. That is the Saltalamacchia Conundrum.

So where does that leave us? Hunter Golden took a look at some of the options for Salty on Wednesday, and the Fire Brand Podcast “Fireside Chats” addressed this issue this week as well. I would definitely recommend both resources. The team has certainly looked at the option of moving Saltalamacchia in a trade, and there is always the lurking presence Ryan Lavarnway in AAA. In the meantime, however, you can very easily make the argument that Ross should be getting the lion’s share of innings at catcher, at the very least a 3/2 split in his favor. As long as the 36-year-old Ross can physically handle the wear and tear of being the primary catcher on the team, the fact is that he deserves to see his name in the lineup more frequently than Saltalamacchia.

Categories: Ben Cherington Boston Red Sox Buster Posey Carl Crawford David Ross Jarrod Saltalamacchia John Lackey Josh Hamilton Los Angeles Dodgers Ryan Lavarnway Zack Greinke

I'm a native Mainer and life-long Red Sox fan living among way too many Yankees fans in New York. I spent most of my childhood convinced that Spike Owen was going to be awesome, sooner or later. The last time I punched a wall was October 16, 2003. My bucket list included personally thanking a Red Sox player for 2004, something I was finally able to check off when I met Trot Nixon. Follow @JK7_

3 Responses to “Salty vs. Ross” Subscribe

  1. cybellekate May 9, 2013 at 9:23 AM #

    I think any Error should be taken with a grain of salt, no pun intended. His elbow hit the mask of the umpire on that "airmailed" throw to Napoli in Toronto and he had to try to throw around the base-runner who was clearly outside the base path the other night. He's also had to catch Aceves' and Doubront's worst starts which makes his ERA skyrocket. But he's not the one out there on the mound throwing the ball like crap! We've established that Lavarnway is a Triple A player but he can't have the training wheels on in the big leagues in what is still a championship year. David Ross is 36 which is 112 in baseball player years. He's already seen more playing time than a normal back-up catcher and Salty plays better when he plays more. He hasn't gotten going the way he can but it's early May. I don't think we should be shipping him out just yet.

    • Gerry May 9, 2013 at 6:25 PM #

      A quick look shows that Salty has caught some bad pitching, but is any of that badness on him? Fair question. At this point the SSS include such miscues as bad calls by umps, enhancing his #'s negatively, but throwing out runners and blocking balls have never been strengths.

      He should bring something back im a trade. So should Acevas and others, but not enough to get a better C. There are good internal options. I strongly object to categorizing Lavarnway as AAA. His "bad" performance came after catching a full season for the first time followed by a make or break promotion while already fatigued. That much is generally accepted. Is he the catcher of the future? Is
      Butler, Vasquez? Each would benefit and grow wbile splitting time with Ross over 2 seasons. For that matter, so will Salty.

  2. Mike May 10, 2013 at 2:21 AM #

    Hmmm. While I generally agree with your points, I don't really like the stats you chose for this article. First of all, can we all please agree that CERA is a really really stupid stat? I've seen other writers here on firebrandal mock outside writers for their use of CERA. While the catcher can certainly help the pitcher, the pitcher still needs to make the pitches. As mentioned above Saltalamacchia has caught some of the worst performances by our pitchers. Aceves. Doubront. Even the game yesterday where Webster got knocked around.

    Saltalamacchia's CERA was 4.88 last year and Ross's CERA was 3.63? Well the Red Sox had a 4.70 ERA as a team and the Braves (whom Ross played for last year) had a 3.42 ERA as a team. And that's Salty's fault?

    Also, for some of the other stats, you need to take into account that Saltalamacchia has played in twice more games than Ross. Then the WP count is 12 vs. 6. Can you really blame the extra 6 on Saltalamacchia with certainty? Maybe he's just unlucky and the pitchers did a bit worse when he was catching? (we are early in the season after all). Adjusting for games played, Ross has allowed more SB, although the CS heavily favors Ross here.

    Look, I'm not trying to deny that Salty is a bad defensive catcher, because everyone is telling me that he is. But I don't like the way you used some stats to argue for yourself. I almost left in disgust when you seriously talked about CERA. Personally, I'd rather see the pitching statistics of every pitcher with splits based on the catcher (because that would be a much better comparison), probably only starting pitchers since each RP pitcher probably hasn't pitched enough innings to be significant. I've never heard Rtot or Rdrs or how they work and how reliable they are, but they're probably not as bad as CERA.

    And as for the offensive numbers, you definitely could make a better argument if you just look a bit further. I thought this blog has a group had adopted advanced stats? Just look at the most basic one BABIP. Salty's is .375 and Ross's is .227. If you imagine what happens when they regress, it's kind of scary. I don't know when you look at other advanced stats that this blog likes to look at -maybe Line drive% or HR/FB%, but you should have.

    And when I look at the offensive stats that you put up, I look at the 30 difference in OPS+ and the fact that Ross has compiled the same oWAR in half the games, and I'm not sure why you say Salty and Ross are about the same. Maybe it's because you think it's too early in the season to just make conclusions based on those (I'm fine with that), or you maybe just want to talk about the defense asap (that's what I feel). Either way, when I see those numbers, I see that Ross is slightly the better batter. So I'm curious why you just declare them "about the same"

    As for what to do moving forward… (these are just my thoughts. done with my criticism.) I still want to see what Salty can do at the plate a bit more, but his leash can't be too long. But the worries of playing Ross too much at his age are legiminate. And I don't want to bank on Lavarnway, because although he's been good in the minors offensively, he has been pretty bad in the majors so far. But I do believe he gets a long solid chance in the majors before deciding how good he is. I've heard that he's not great behind the plate, so he could be Saltalamacchia 2.0, but I've also heard that he's improving defensively so I'm not sure where he is right now. I think I've heard that the Sox are shopping for a catcher, which sounds about right. As long as Salty continues to not be an adequate catcher, we don't have to give up much, and we can get someone decent, that might be the best option. Not sure what we do with Salty – I don't know if we can DFA him (which the Sox wouldn't do anyways), send him to AAA (does he have any options left?), and I'm not sure what his trade value is. Can't imagine a team giving up much more than a marginal prospect. Not sure where.