BOSTON — There’s an old adage in baseball that says backup catchers make the best future managers. Talking to David Ross, the Red Sox’ newest backup backstop, it’s not hard to see why his kin is so highly regarded for its baseball acumen.
It’s just the second time through the Red Sox’ rotation, and Monday’s home opener marked Ross’ third start of the season, but already the veteran talks about his pitchers as if he’s been catching them for years. On Monday afternoon Ross guided Clay Buchholz through seven innings of shutout baseball, but after the game he could only talk about how easy his job is when he’s catching such talented pitchers.
“From Day 1 of spring training, I was excited when I signed here to be able to catch those guys,” Ross says of the Sox starting rotation. “I know those guys are horses, I know they’re front-end starters in the rotation on anybody’s team in the major leagues. It’s no secret, we know they’re good, they know they’re good, and I enjoy catching them.”
On Monday, Buchholz probably didn’t have his best command, throwing just 65 of 113 pitches for strikes. However, the right-hander was able to hold down the Orioles for seven innings — continuing his hot start after last season’s rough beginning — and a lot of his ability to keep hitters off-balance was due to the gameplan him and Ross stuck to. Though Buchholz’s cutter wasn’t at the top of its game, the duo was able to rely on his two- and four-seam fastballs to keep the O’s off balance.
“Some of these guys are strike breaking-ball hitters, so I had to pick and choose when we used that,” said Ross of their gameplan. “I like as a catcher, in general, to use the fastball, I like to establish the fastball. I like to get guys committed to the fastball, it makes everything else better. I thought [Buchholz] did a good job of that, I kept calling it and he kept trying to make a pitch, two-seam and four-seam. Maybe we called more heaters than he normally throws, but he was trying to feel that release point and it made his other stuff better.”
Ask any catcher and they’ll tell you that the goal of any given game, from their end, is to have a pitcher never shake off a call. When a pitcher and catcher are on the same wavelength, that confidence grows upon itself and gives a pitcher the knowledge that a specific pitch is the right choice in a situation. However, at this point early in the season, a head shake is also an opportunity to learn about a pitcher’s tendencies, and that was exactly the case when Andrew Bailey faced Nick Markakis in the eighth inning on Monday.
“Today, Bailey shook to an 0-0 breaking ball to Markakis when he came up, first lefty,” said Ross. “I didn’t know he had the confidence to throw that ball in for a strike right away. We had a three-run lead, I didn’t know if he was going to do that or not, and he shook to the breaking ball. I was just talking with him in the shower about it, and he can flip that in there. That gives me a lot of confidence, those guys are doing a great job feeding me information.”
Ross was something of a surprise signing this offseason. With Jarrod Saltalamacchia seemingly entrenched as the first-choice catcher, most figured the backup job would probably be given to rookie Ryan Lavarnway, who’s a heady student of the game in a similar vein to Ross. However, the veteran is not only proving his worth with his relationship with the pitching staff, but is clearly pushing Saltalamacchia for playing time with his attention to detail behind the plate.
While Ross is clearly a fast learner, he also credits spring training as a time that’s integral to the pitcher-catcher relationship. He also says that the communication between the coaching staff, pitching staff and Saltalamacchia has been excellent, with everybody trying to feed each other as much information as possible.
“I think pitchers and catchers benefit the most from spring training,” said Ross. “Hitters have to see pitches and at-bats, but I benefit so much from spring training, and I’m still learning. … It’s all the way around, from the coaching staff to Salty to the pitchers, we all communicate really well and we all hang out, talk a lot in our meetings.”
Ross will undoubtedly make a great coach some day should he choose to stay in baseball. Not only is his baseball acumen just off the charts, but he has a straightforward, easy-to-understand manner of speaking that indicates a great communicator. He also has an example, without prompting, for every question he’s asked postgame.
Ross will surely make a great teacher some day, but for now the Red Sox are glad to have his veteran leadership around.