Giving A Vote Of Confidence To Jarrod Saltalamacchia

The Red Sox appear to once again have a new catcher.

With last year's catcher, Victor Martinez agreeing to a 4-year contract with the Detroit Tigers and Russell Martin signing with New York Yankees last week, it seems that 25-year Jarrod Saltalamacchia will indeed be the team's primary catcher in 2011 with veteran Jason Varitek serving as his backup and mentor.

Saltalamacchia was acquired in a trade deadline deal from the Texas Rangers in exchange for minor leaguers
Roman Mendez and Chris McGuiness. A highly valued prospect in the Braves farm system, Saltalamacchia acted as the original center piece used to acquire Mark Teixeira in 2007. However, since being dealt to the Rangers, he has never really followed through on his promise, and been something of a disappointment.

His career numbers:

2007 (ATL and TEX): .266/.310/.412

2008 (TEX): .253/.352/.364

2009 (TEX): .233/.290/.371

2010 (TEX and BOS): .167/.333/.292

It's only been downhill for Saltalamachhia, who was only allowed into 24 games last season.  To be fair, he did battle injuries in 2010, including a shoulder injury that forced the Red Sox to put him on the season-ending disabled list.

Disappointment though he may be, Salty is still only 25-years-old and still has an opportunity to prove a lot to Red Sox nation this season.

Here are some thoughts to ponder on Salty before you throw him under the bus:

Three Years Ago, He Was The Top Catching Prospect In Baseball

Baseball America rated Saltalmacchia as the best catching prospect on 2007, as he landed 36th overall on their top 100 prospects list

Here is the scouting report on Saltalamacchia from 2007:

Excellent catcher's frame.  Makes average to slightly below-average contact. Plus power.  Above-average plate discipline.  Hitswell from both sides of the plate. There are some concerns about his defense, primarily his glovework and his game calling ability. Throwsout runners at a decent clip. Has had issues with throwing the ball back to the pitcher.

Saltalamacchia was hampered by wrist injuries which prevented him from reaching the majors until 2007, when he began with a backup role for the Braves with Brian McCann being the primary catcher. Along with Elvis Andrus, he was one of  the highest valued prospects in the Braves' farm system. With McCann still in his early twenties at that point, Salty's coaches were beginning to prep him to play first base and left field.

However, the process was stalled when they decided to ship Saltalamacchia, Andrus, and others to the Texas Rangers for switch-hitting first baseman and current Yankee Mark Teixeira. Splitting time with Gerald Laird behind the plate and playing a little first base, Salty was limited to only 176 PAs and 167 ABs. 

Defensively, Saltalamacchia recorded a 19% caught stealing percentage, four points higher than Victor Martinez recorded during his rookie season and just south of the league average that year.  Salty also only committed three errors as a catcher while collecting 11 as a first baseman in limited time (yikes).

This guy was once very valued as he was built as a prototypical catcher with developing defensive abilities plus some good power.  2007 was just three years ago, I don't think we should give up on the number one catching prospect three years removed and without a full season of work just yet.

Even Though He Has Been Around Since 2007, He's Still Only 25 Years Old

People may forget that Saltalamacchia is still fairly young and is an upgrade in that respect to the likes of the soon to be 32-year-old Victor Martinez and 38-year-old Jason Varitek. In fact, Salty ranks as one of the youngest starting catchers in the majors. Many successful catchers in the majors such as Yadier Molina, Jorge Posada, and Victor Martinez didn't exactly catch on in the majors until they were in their mid-to-late twenties.

Not to mention that Jason Varitek, whom we all love and adore, was just 25--the same age as Saltalamacchia--when he was finally handed the full-time catching role and has handled it pretty well since.  In his 3-year major league career, he has yet to play over 100 games, as he has been in a back-up role nearly his entire career.  Now that he is in Boston, he will be groomed into being a starter rather than a back-up.

In fact, you could almost compare the two, as through age 26, both actually had similar numbers, both offensively and defensively:

Through age 26, Saltalamacchia has been a career .248 hitter while Varitek at age 26 was a career .253 hitter.  It wasn't until Varitek turned 27 that he was consistently producing at the level we remember (such as his career .778 OPS and .436 Slugging percentage).

It's a little unfair to base Salty off of his statistics taking that he has never played more than 100 games and has never been a full-time starter in the majors. Despite never having recorded a WAR over 1 in his career, he is right up there in statistics with a typical backup like Josh Bard, whom recorded his first over 1 WAR his first year of being a starting catcher with the Padres.  You can't judge a guy yet based on statistics until he's been a starter whos played at least 100 games in a season.  (That's what happened with Big Papi and the Twins, basically.)

Salty Hits Right-Handers Well, Tek' Hits Left-Handers Well; Platoon Anyone?

Despite having horrendous hitting totals last season, Saltalamacchia quietly has had success against right-handed pitchers over his career.  Despite being a switch-hitter, he is clearly a better hitter from the left side.

Salty's career against RHP: .273 AVG, .343 OBP, .422 SLG, .765 OPS

Salty's career against LHP: .206 AVG, .266 OBP, .326 SLG, .592 OPS

His career splits show that he fairs much better as a left-handed batter hitting right-handed pitcher rather than batting right-handed against lefties.  Since Varitek can hit lefties well but not so much on righties, a platoon seems in order:

Varitek's career against LHP: .279 AVG, .359 OBP, .471 SLG, .830 OPS

Varitek will also likely see more time when pitchers Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka take the hill as Varitek is widely speculated to be their catcher of choice.  However, Salty will likely enter the game or start on Tim Wakefield days as Varitek has trouble with the knuckleball.

Letting Victor Martinez Go Could Have Been The Smartest Idea Of The Offseason

When you look at the 2011 Red Sox offseason, you could really argue this.  Although he was a reliable offensive option in the lineup, Martinez was horrible behind the plate in his time in Boston. He caught only 20% of baserunners, seemed to have the aforementioned struggles with Beckett and Matsuzaka, and had a few truly boneheaded plays earlier in the year. If you don't remember his throws to second letting a man score from third early in the year, consider yourself lucky.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia is no great shakes behind the plate himself, but it's important to remember that Victor Martinez was not just the offensive force we described to him--or rather that he was. He just wasn't a well-rounded player. If the difference in the money paid to Salty and the money that would've been paid to Victor allowed the team to sign a player like Carl Crawford, all the better. They're even receiving a pair of very good picks in a very strong draft in return.

At 25, Saltalamacchia really ought to have been spending his last few seasons primarily in the minors instead of bouncing around between backup jobs. So far in his career, Salty hasn't done much, but I believe we should give him a fair shot because, as Jason Varitek pointed out to us a long time ago, your career really doesn't get going until your mid-twenties.

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