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The Value Of Backups And Relievers (Or: Is David Ross Overpaid?)

The Red Sox paid a backup catcher $3 million. The question is did David Ross deserve less, or more?

Denis Poroy

Our own Matt Collins brought this short Twitter exchange between a Braves fan and Braves writer David O'Brien to my attention today. I'll translate it a bit for those not versed in Twitter syntax:

Braves fan: I think Braves were victim to Boston's terrible clubhouse. [David] Ross likely overpaid to help stabilize chemistry

O'Brien: Valid.

Now, I don't want to get too deeply involved in the rat warren that is the clubhouse chemistry of the 2011-2012 Red Sox. I will say that it seems like concerns over the issue are likely overblown at this point given that Bobby Valentine is gone along with Kevin Youkilis, Adrian Gonzalez, Kelly Shoppach, most of the coaching staff; pretty much every major player in that soap opera is gone except for the clubhouse leaders like Pedroia and Ortiz who have already publically thrown themselves behind John Farrell.

What I will say is that I think calling David Ross overpaid at $3 million a year is to really underestimate the value that Ross brings to the table.

Usually, the argument I'd be making here is one for relievers. For years, the Red Sox have been had an absolutely loaded roster with no holes that could realistically be filled (even if there were weaknesses, the Sox were not likely to bench Julio Lugo in 2008, for instance). Meanwhile, stat-wise fans would grumble about, say, giving Jonathan Papelbon (back when he was at his best) $10 million. "He's just a reliever," they would say, arguing his 60 innings limited his value.

And they did have a point. Sort of. Relievers simply aren't worth as much to a team as starting pitchers. Even the best of them tend to max out at around three WAR where the best starters can hit eight. And for most teams filling a hole in the bullpen for $10 million when the rotation or lineup need serious fixing is a bad idea.

But for a team with a roster like those past Red Sox teams, a guy like Papelbon could be worth every penny. Not because of some pseudoscientific attempt to place a value on WAR, but because it was maximizing the value of that $10 million that the team was going to spend one way or another, end of story.

After all, while money is typically the most obvious constraint on building a winning roster, there are other commodities that have to be doled out with some thought as well. In particular: innings. There are only so many to be played, so many starts to give, so many at bats to be taken or pitched. Generally, these have a pretty standard distribution, ignoring the unfortunate reality of injuries. The starters get a lot, the relievers get only a very few.

As a result, any team is going to have a large number of roster spots for relievers and backups where the expected value is low. And so, when all the high-value slots are filled, anyone who can produce a lot of value in a limited spot is actually worth quite a bit to these teams that are really trying to maximize their roster.

Of course, that's not the situation the Sox find themselves in this year. They've got a million holes to fill. But it's not hard to see how the situation is still similar, because there's just not enough options in free agency. With the Sox desperate to avoid another albatross contract, and only so many players willing to sign for short years, they're going to run up against a wall at some point where they simply can't add that much more. In the rotation they're already running out of roster spots even if the actual cast assembled is still very much lacking.

This is not a team simply out to put the final touches on, but it is one that's likely to need every last scrap of value they can gather, and that's where Ross comes in. Now, even ignoring the fact that $3 million a year is such a negligible amount to a major league team like the Sox that it's hard to really complain about it being an overpay, it's still hard to classify this David Ross signing as anything but good value. It lets them spend a certain amount of their money in their ideal time frame on a player who will provide quite a deal more than any other player is likely to provide at that position. In his four years with the Braves, Ross has consistently provided 1.6 fWAR a year while starting only a quarter of their games. And that might even be ignoring his most valuable ability in framing. How many backup catchers come close to that?

I don't know about the clubhouse concerns. Maybe there's still a problem there, maybe there isn't. Maybe David Ross will come Merry Poppins the place into a model of camaraderie and companionship, or maybe he'll go nuts and cause everything to come collapsing down again. Who can say? What I'm sure of is that, if Ross can produce the way he did for Atlanta while leaving the Sox free to do what they want with their starting catching position, then he's worth $3 million and probably a fair bit more.