Batting in front of the pitcher is no easy task. It takes the right balance of bat control and plate discipline to be serviceable in one of the most disadvantageous spots in the order.
That role has belonged to reserve catcher David Ross in each of Jon Lester’s eight starts. It’s a number that could increase now that the Cubs have returned to a traditional two-man catching tandem after they jettisoned Welington Castillo (and his career .810 OPS against left-handed starters) to Seattle.
Miguel Montero has not made a start against a left-handed pitcher this season and has a career slash line of .236/.298/.357/.656 slash line in 788 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers. Ross could take over the right-handed hitting part of this platoon, but the offensive drop-off from Castillo could be significant.
Ross has not posted an OPS+ at or above 100 since 2012. He hasn’t posted an OPS of .800 or better since 2010. At age 38, it’s highly unlikely Ross recaptures any kind of magic at the dish overnight.
Yet, one particular skill that hasn’t left Ross has been plate discipline.
Ross owns a respectable 10.7 percent walk rate in 2,299 career plate appearances. This season, Ross’ walk rate has jumped to 19.0 percent. In his starts, Ross has 6 walks in 30 plate appearances (20.0 BB%).
While Ross’ early season numbers set off the small-sample size alert sirens, his 10.2 BB% against left-handed starters shows he isn’t a complete offensive albatross — even if drawing a walk here and there turns out to be his one discernible skill at this stage of his career.
Still, Ross will need to keep a keen eye because the Cubs can ill-afford to have a second automatic out in the line-up, especially in front of the pitcher.
So, what is the value of Ross simply drawing a walk?
Of his six unintentional walks, two have moved runners into scoring position. His 11th inning walk against Craig Kimbrel set up Starlin Castro’s game-winning hit on April 18, the other set up a Jon Lester groundout one day later.
There is value in keeping the line moving — even if the most likely outcome that follows is the pitcher making an out — as it helps the Cubs turnover the lineup that much more quickly. (Last night, Ross walked after going down 0-2 in an early at bat with two outs, allowing Jon Lester to come to the plate, and Addison Russell to lead off the next inning.)
So, Ross’s patience is providing value to the Cubs, even if that means only getting through the pitcher in the eighth spot to set up a clean start the next half inning with Russell/Fowler/Bryant.