Who Is Jarrod Saltalamacchia?

 

Alright, I know Jarrod Saltalamacchia is the 25 year old catcher picked up by the Red Sox last season from the Texas Rangers for Chris McGuiness, Ramon Mendez and Michael Thomas (who ever they are). I know he had trouble last season throwing the ball back to the pitcher and his stock has fallen drastically since he first landed on the Red Sox radar. I know all of this, but I still feel like I don’t really know much about what we can expect from Salty next season if he is, in fact, our primary catcher. As you might expect, when I want to know who a player is (in the performance sense), I start with the numbers.

Saltalamacchia got his first taste of the majors in 2007 at the age of 22 while he was still with the Atlanta Braves organization. Since then, he has only seen 899 plate appearances at the major league level, or just about a season and a half’s worth. The first thing that stands out when looking at Salty’s time in the show is his strike out rate. In his limited experience, he has fanned 30.9% of his time at the plate. That would have been the 13th worst rate in the league last season. This isn’t as bad as it may seem though, as catchers generally have higher strikeout rates than other players. Mike Napoli has been successful with a strikeout rate of almost 30% and last season Miguel Olivo managed his best year while striking out 29.7% of the time.

Mike Napoli has mitigated the damage from his strike outs by hitting for exceptional power and walking at better than the league average rate. Salty has yet to post even average Isolated Power. He has flashed some power in the minors, but he isn’t likely to be able to sustain a rate anywhere near Napoli’s .234 ISO. Salty is also unlikely to reach Napoli’s career 11.1% walk rate, though he has shown a decent eye at the plate. He has swung at close to the league average percentage of pitches outside the zone thus far despite swinging more than most hitters overall. His walk rate is basically average. It is isn’t unreasonable to believe that he can improve on both his contact rate and his power and become an above average hitting catcher. We should expect that he will fan quite regularly, however.

The one positive that stands out in his offensive numbers is his career line drive rate. He has hit liners on 20.8% of his balls in play and during he two longest stints in the majors he managed even better rates. Combined with his eye, his line drive heavy hitting style can help him to a strong batting average on balls in play. Thus far he has hit .330 on balls in play, well above league average. While the sustainability of that BABIP is certainly questionable, his skills give him a real chance at keeping it up.

Defensively speaking, catcher is one of the hardest positions to evaluate. The Total Zone system has Salty at -6 runs for his career 1603.2 innings behind the plate, which is essentially average defense. My favorite catcher’s defense system is the one developed over at Beyond the Boxscore, by JinAZ and Matt Klaassen. Their evaluation of Salty in 2010 concurs, putting him at .5 runs above average. For all of the concern about his play behind the plate, Saltalamacchia hasn’t been bad at anytime. He will not be Ivan Rodriquez behind the dish, but he is already looking much better than Napoli or even Victor Martinez.

Given Varitek’s age and injury history, I expect that Saltalamacchia will see a slightly larger amount of playing time than the captain, and a complete platoon situation is quite possible. Both catchers are switch hitters, but Salty has been much better as a lefty thus far in his career. From the left side, he has more power and walks more regularly, though he has struck out a bit more on that side was well. Varitek has been better as a righty throughout his career, making a platoon of the two backstops ideal. Starting primarily against right-handers will give Saltalmacchia the larger share of playing time and allow Varitek to still play consistently enough. The combination of the two should yield good results on both sides of ball.

While Jarrod Saltalamacchia is unlikely to be one of the best catchers in the game next season, he is still a good fit for the Red Sox right now. His offensive game has some obvious holes, but it also has potential. His catching could also use some work, but he can clearly hold his own behind the plate. Given the chance to play in the majors regularly throughout 2011, Salty should establish himself as reliable, if unspectacular backstop, in the mold of John Buck or Nick Hundley

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