Catcher, a Rising Star?

 

April 22, 2011 was a low point for Boston catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. While the Sox won this game, Salty was terrible. He allowed three wild pitches and three passed balls and threw poorly as the Angels stole three bases against him. At that time, Salty was barely over the Mendoza line, hitting just .205 and he was creating less than half the runs of the average hitter (45 wRC+). He had been a liability on both sides of the ball to the start of the season (.-1 WAR) and fans were calling for a change.

At that point, the Red Sox were just starting to win games and their win that night was the third in what would become six straight; the beginning of a slow climb back into the AL East race. With Jason Varitek relegated to the role of Josh Beckett’s personal catcher and part time player and few attractive alternatives available, it looked as if the Sox were going to have to recover with a black hole at the catcher position.

Things have changed since that time. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has found his stroke. In the last thirty days, he has been the fifth best hitting catcher in the AL. He has also flashed some power over the past few days as well, going deep twice in the weekend series against the Cubs. Since allowing Bobby Abreu to score on a pass ball from second base, Salty hasn’t allowed another pass ball in 109 innings behind the plate.  He has allowed only two more wild pitches in that time, even while catching Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball. All told he has been worth almost half a win (by wins above replacement) in the month following that nadir.  

 

Should Salty be able to keep up this type of production, he would be worth around 2.5 WAR by season’s end. In the past three seasons only three catchers have averaged better than 2.5 WAR; Joe Mauer, Brian McCann and Victor Martinez. Four other catchers have been worth almost exactly that amount; Kurt Suzuki, Yadier Molina, Geovanny Soto and Mike Napoli. The average WAR for starting catchers is only 1.47 over the past three years and Saltalamacchia has looked capable of being well above that average mark in the past month.

The real question is; can we believe in these numbers? The small sample size of 109 defensive innings and 57 plate appearances suggest that we should not. Looking at the same time frame, two other catchers with weak track records, Ramon Hernandez and Matt Treanor, have posted audacious offensive numbers, a clear reminder that you can only read so much into a handful of games.

However, Salty differs from both Hernandez and Treanor in a few important ways. Mainly, he is not a veteran catcher, or even an experienced one. It seems easy to forget that Salty is just 25 years old. It is also easy to forget that the 25 year old catcher has just over a season and half worth of playing time under his belt and that is spread out over four years. Small Sample sizes are all there is when examining Saltalamacchia’s major league career. His only stint of regular playing time came two years ago in Texas when he saw just 310 plate appearances while playing in 84 games. This is the first time ever Salty is truly a starting catcher in the Show.

Regular at bats and innings behind the plate may be just what the former top-prospect has needed. In the past month, Salty has cut down on his strikeout rate dramatically, whiffing in just 22.2% of his plate appearances compared to his career average of 30.5 %. He has been making contact at a similar rate to his past numbers, but he has swung and missed less despite a more aggressive approach overall. His success over the past month is more than a mirage created by good fortune; his batting average on balls in play is a very moderate .282, below his career rate of .326. While he will likely strikeout a bit more than he has this past month, his success does not look unsustainable at all.

The most encouraging sign however, might be his fly ball rate. For his career, Salty has hit 41.7% of batted balls in the air. Over the past thirty days, 52.4% of his contact has been in the form of fly balls. This is a very good omen for a young player who has yet to translate the power potential he flashed in his minor league career into success in the major leagues. It has helped him reach a gaudy .241 ISO and a home run to fly ball ratio well above his career average.

In all likelihood, Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s true talent falls somewhere between his career numbers and the production he has shown us over the past thirty days. Should his current success prove to be more than a flash in the pan, however, the Boston Red Sox will have found a star catcher very much in the mold of Jason Varitek. When Tek was in his prime he was worth about three wins above replacement on average, he hit close to 10% better than the league average and his strikeout rate was around 25%. Salty will not walk as much as Tek did then, but he may hit fewer ground balls and make more consistent contact to even things out. 

Unlike one month ago, it now seems unlikely that Boston will need to look for another catcher any time soon. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has arrived as a major leaguer. With the low talent level of catching these days, he is unlikely to be a real liability to the Red Sox. If the past month has shown as anything, though, Boston might have found their next star catcher.

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