Although the 2013 Boston Red Sox have questions about their starting pitching, surprisingly, they can improve their rotation by making David Ross their starting catcher.
There are a number of reasons why installing Ross as the starter could be just as beneficial as adding another pitcher to the mix.
Earlier this offseason, The Boston Globe's Peter Abraham advocated for the team to pursue a frontline starter through trade or free agency.
The only offseason upgrades so far have been newly signed free agent Ryan Dempster and John Lackey, who is returning from a major injury. This may necessitate improvement coming from other areas. The answer lies in re-evaluating the team’s catching position and making Ross the starter.
ESPN Boston’s Jackie MacMullan wrote that the Red Sox are counting on new manager John Farrell to help the struggling rotation. He was Boston’s pitching coach from 2007 to 2010, and has worked previously with all of the team's starters except Dempster.
Boston can’t just count on their starting pitchers making huge leaps in 2013 or responding to Farrell’s influence. The team must also recognize the role Jarrod Saltalamacchia played in last year’s rotation struggles and replace him with the decisively more polished Ross.
There's no question that several of Boston’s returning starting pitchers withered with Saltalamacchia catching their games last season:
Staff ace Jon Lester had a 5.62 ERA with 89 strikeouts and 17 home runs allowed in 101.1 innings when caught by Salty. He had a 3.86 ERA and struck out 87, while allowing eight home runs in 98 innings with anyone else behind the plate.
Clay Buchholz had a 6.30 ERA with 50 strikeouts and 17 home runs allowed in 75.2 innings when caught by Salty. He had a 3.41 ERA and struck out 79, while allowing eight home runs in 113.2 innings with anyone else behind the plate.
Felix Doubront had a 4.95 ERA with 136 strikeouts and 22 home runs allowed in 123.2 innings when caught by Salty. He had a 4.58 ERA and struck out 31, while allowing two home runs in 37.1 innings with anyone else behind the plate.
Who should be Boston's starting catcher in 2013?
Although he’ll be 36 at the start of next season and has only twice played in as many as 90 games during his 11-year major league career, Ross should be a no-brainer to replace Saltalamacchia as Boston’s starter.
Ross is a better defensive player by just about any metric.
He has thrown out 39 percent of baserunners for his career, an excellent number when compared to the league average of 28 percent during that time. He also has a good career Rdrs (defensive runs saved above average) of plus-13.
Pitchers have generally performed better when caught by Ross. According to BaseballReference.com, they have a 4.08 ERA with Ross, as opposed to the MLB average of 4.27. More impressively, Ross’ seasonal ERA hasn't topped 3.59 since 2008.
Saltalamacchia has not been nearly as good behind the plate. His 23 percent caught-stealing rate lags behind the MLB average of 27 percent during his career. His glove has also resulted in a career Rdrs of minus-16.
Saltalamacchia has struggled throughout his career to manage pitching staffs. When he catches, his pitchers have a collective 4.64 ERA, compared to a 4.18 MLB average during that time.
Although Saltalamacchia hit 25 home runs last season, making Ross the starting catcher wouldn't necessarily be sacrificing offense for better defense.
Ross’s career OBP/OPS/OPS+ splits of .324/.769/100 are all significantly better than Saltalamacchia’s .302/.720/89.
Ross may only be a career .238 hitter but has gotten much better in recent years. Since 2009 he has had 577 at-bats, representing approximately a full season. In that time he has hit a combined .269 with 24 home runs and 94 RBI.
The steadier hand of Ross could positively influence Boston starters more than any new pitcher or coaching advice. Although it may be unconventional, substantial evidence shows that the Red Sox could expect a jump in production from their rotation simply by switching catchers.
Statistics via Baseball Reference