The Red Sox offense has been an inconsistent ball of struggles this year, and one of the main culprits has been the production from behind the plate. Offensively speaking (in terms of wRC+), Boston's catchers are in the bottom third of the league. The majority of the criticism has fallen on the shoulders of A.J. Pierzynski, who has quickly become a polarizing figure in Boston. His reputation precedes him off the field, and on the field he's a subpar defensive catcher with an offensive game that doesn't really fit with the Red Sox's philosophy. In fact, there have already been calls to replace him with one of the younger catchers in Pawtucket.
A consequence of all this focus on Pierzynski has been the fact that David Ross has quietly been much worse in the backup role. It's still early enough in the season and he hasn't had enough plate appearances to be done with him, but if anyone behind the plate is being replaced in the near future, it's going to be Ross.
The now 37-year-old was arguably the best backup catcher in the game when he was in Atlanta, performing as both an above-average offensive and defensive backstop in that time. Since joining the Red Sox prior to last season, though, things have gone downhill. He didn't live up to his normal standards last season when he was able to play, but he was entirely acceptable for his role. This year, though, Ross' struggles have been far worse in both phases of the game. He's only had 71 plate appearances this year, but in them he is hitting a paltry .167/.225/.303, good (bad) enough for a 37 wRC+. He's got a very low .231 batting average on balls in play, but he also looks worse than ever at the plate. He's striking out more than 35 percent of the time, while walking in just eight percent of his trips to the plate. His swinging strike rate is a terrible 20.4 percent, the worst rate in the American League amongst batters with at least 50 plate appearances. Even on defense, which is typically his bread and butter, he looks worse. He's letting more balls get past him than ever, and runners have been running wild on him. After catching 39 percent of potential base stealers coming into this season, he's allowed 13 of 16 to reach safely in 2014. Whatever the reason is, his all-around game is just bad right now.
Of course, as a 37-year-old, one would expect a steady decline at this point of his career, especially for a catcher. This steep of a drop off, though, is always unexpected. To go from an elite backup to a sub-replacement level player in less than two years is unheard of, and can't just be chalked up to his age. Ross' injury troubles last season probably paint a better picture as to why he's struggling. For those who don't remember, Boston's catcher dealt with major concussion issues last year, missing a total of 77 games throughout the 2013 season. The issues were so serious that there were times that he thought he may have to retire because of it. And though he's returned, there's no doubt that Ross hasn't looked the same. A lot of that is probably due to pure age, but it wouldn't surprise me if the concussion issues are contributing to this steep decline of his this year.
Now, it comes to the point where you have to decide how long you can keep this kind of production on the roster before looking for an alternative. A big reason to keep him around is how comfortable the team's best pitcher seems to be with Ross behind the dish. Jon Lester has made 12 starts this season, and nine of them have come with Ross behind the plate. In those starts, the lefty has a 2.32 ERA compared to a 6.00 ERA with Pierzynski behind the dish. It's clear he has some chemistry with Ross, and as we've covered before, his style better meshes with Lester's as well. Still, is that alone enough to keep him around if he continues to struggle? Eventually, Lester is going to have to pitch to someone else. A defensive minded catcher like Christian Vazquez could be a perfect replacement battery mate should Ross not make it through the end of the year, especially if the Red Sox are serious about keeping Lester around. Starting that relationship this year could be a helpful tool.
There is also the matter of the often-forgotten Dan Butler, Pawtucket's other catcher. While he's not nearly in the same class as Vazquez or Blake Swihart, the Red Sox thought enough of him to put him on the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. With that being said he has struggled this year, too. He's hitting just .203/.284/.297 against Triple-A pitching, so it's tough to see Ross struggling enough to want to use Butler as a replacement.
In the end, Ross still has time to figure things out, and maybe all he needs is a little BABIP luck going in his favor. However, watching him play this year, I wouldn't count on that being the case. Whether it's just and age thing or a problem relating to his concussion issues a year ago, he just doesn't look like the same player. He will likely be given until at least the All-Star break to figure things out, possibly even longer, his relationship and chemistry with Lester being a huge reason. Eventually, though, a move will have to be made. After so much clamoring for Christian Vazquez to replace A.J. Pierzynski, it's beginning to look like Ross will be the one he'd be stepping in for, and it could be happening relatively soon.