Since May 15th, Salty's been as good as any catcher in baseball. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Jarrod Saltalamacchia came up through the Minor League ranks a highly touted prospect. At the Major League level, despite multiple runs of extensive playing time, Salty has not only failed to live up to the hype, but he's been a pretty bad player. When the Red Sox passed on Russell Martin and other potential contingencies this offseason, and it became apparent that Salty would be a major component of their 2011 club, three separate camps emerged.
The first camp, the skeptics, saw a 26-year old with 899 career plate appearances and a career slash line of .248/.315/.386 despite having played home games in hitter friendly Arlington, Texas. The second camp, the rationalizers, noted these same numbers but they also saw around the rest of Major League Baseball and couldn't find many catchers producing much better. If the Red Sox would be giving a lot back to the rest of the league at the position, it wouldn't be that much. Salty's career 82 OPS+ was just about dead-average for catchers over the last few seasons. Finally, there were the fanboys. Despite the 899 plate appearances of terrible output, Salty was once a major prospect and he was still just waiting to tap into all that potential. Theo just knew it was his time.
The way Salty's season has shaken down, all three of these camps have turned out to be right at different points in time. His start to the season was beyond disastrous, as he hit just .230/.250/.266 in his first 26 games, 84 plate appearances. It seemed the skeptics were right; Salty might not be cut out for the Big Leagues. Even the Sox themselves were reported to have sought alternatives.
Since May 15th, though, it's been the fanboys issuing "I told you so's." Salty turned it around in his proceeding 16 games and 63 plate appearances, pulling a Piazza-in-his-prime to the tune of a .321/.397/.679 triple slash. There hasn't been a better catcher in baseball over that stretch of time.
And look, it's a tiny stretch of time. That's why the rationalizers are also feeling pretty smart about now. When you net it all out, over the course of the season, Saltalamacchia has posted a 103 wRC+, which ranks him 18th out of 39 catchers with 100 plate appearances. In other words, he has been just about average, which is all the rationalizers were expecting anyway. Even the very best teams can't have superstars at every position.
As for where he goes from here, it's hard to say. He's working with a .529 BABIP in June, and that's not going to keep up. I would be more bullish on the rest of the season if he wasn't hacking as much as he is. If you look at his plate discipline numbers month to month, very little is changing in his approach. He has managed to boost his walk percentage so far in June, but he's still swinging every bit as often as he did in April and May. It's not inconceivable to me that "a book" on Salty emerges pretty soon, making it easy for decent pitchers to retire him.
At this point, though, I think we can rest easy that Salty will not be the team-crippling disaster the skeptics thought he might be. He's not Mike Piazza, but he's not Brad Ausmus or Jason Kendall either. He's going to hit some, enough that his floor figures to hover somewhere comfortably above replacement level, which is just fine for an otherwise stacked lineup. And if he can break out the way he has the last month or so and the way the fanboys thought possible, then the Red Sox get all the more scary.