Real baseball is finally being played, meaning Opening Day is on the way. With that in mind, we'll be profiling the key players from the Red Sox roster leading up to the first regular season game. The focus will be on what we think is an important attribute or question surrounding these players in terms of their potential 2012 success.
The Red Sox wanted Jarrod Saltalamacchia long before they acquired him in 2010. There was uncertainty as to whether Jason Varitek would re-sign with the Red Sox after the 2008 season, and for how much longer he would be a viable option for Boston as well. The Red Sox were looking at multiple young catchers who profiled as positives at the plate -- backstops like Miguel Montero, Mike Napoli, Russell Martin, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
The Texas Rangers had (in theory) plenty of catchers around at the time, as they had Max Ramirez, Taylor Teagarden, and Saltalamacchia all under control at the same time. While history has shown us that hasn't exactly worked out, they were all highly-regarded as far as their hitting was concerned, and chances were good at least one of the trio would pan out for the Rangers. The problem, though, is that the Rangers wanted a hefty price if they were going to deal one of these catchers. They demanded Clay Buchholz in exchange for Saltalamacchia, and the Red Sox were not willing to make that move. That didn't stop them from scouting him in winter ball, though -- Boston was going to keep tabs on him, as they liked Salty's potential quite a bit.
Salty would hit just .233/.290/.371 in 2009 for the Rangers. He dealt with a sore shoulder a significant chunk of the year, and eventually required surgery to repair it. His back and his leg were problematic in 2010, and he was kept almost entirely in the minors while with Texas that year. At the trade deadline, the Red Sox came calling with both Victor Martinez and Jason Varitek's free agency pending.
This time around, whether because Texas was tired of waiting for Salty to develop (or stay healthy), or because the last two years had killed his trade value, the price was dropped significantly. Boston gave up Chris McGuiness, Roman Mendez, Michael Thomas and cash for Saltalamacchia. That was a lot of bodies, but except for Mendez -- a then 19-year-old Dominican righty with strikeout stuff -- Boston likely wouldn't miss any of them. And if Salty developed the way they thought he would, they weren't going to miss Mendez, either.
Saltalamacchia didn't get a chance to play much in Boston, either, as he dealt with a leg infection and then required surgery on his thumb in September. The Red Sox had faith in him, though, letting Martinez leave for the Tigers and spending their money and prospects on the voids in left field and first base instead of behind the plate. Salty was set to split time with Varitek, in what was likely to be the latter's final campaign given he was 39 years old.
He had a huge spring training -- big enough that it wasn't out of the realm of possibility that the potential Texas had waited years for had finally come through. Salty hit .355/.432/.645 in spring training, and while spring training stats are mostly whatever, it gets to a point where you should pay attention when the player in question has destroyed their own career line in a given March. John Dewan of Baseball Info Solutions says that point is a slugging percentage 200 points higher than a player's career slugging, and with Saltalamacchia's career slugging at .386 prior to 2011, he more than cleared the goal.
That's no guarantee of success, of course. But it is a threshold to look for, where you can think about spring training stats for more than half-a-second without being in the wrong for doing so.
Salty did succeed in 2011, hitting .235/.288/.450 (.255 True Average) over 103 games and 386 plate appearances. The on-base percentage makes it look worse than it is, but remember, catchers are generally not good offensively: the average AL backstop hit just .238/.305/.391 with a .251 TAv in 2011.
He could have been better -- awful bookends to the year in April and September brought down an otherwise well above-average performance -- but the real problems with Saltalamacchia were on defense. He was worth -0.6 defense wins above replacement, and -2.1 fielding runs above average. Throwing out runners wasn't his issue -- he stopped 31 percent of attempted base-thievery in its tracks -- but passed balls were.
Saltalamacchia led the majors with 26 passed balls allowed in 2011. The next-highest total was J.P. Arencibia up in Toronto... with 12. In fact, you have to add catchers 2-4 together to surpass Salty's passed ball total. This isn't entirely Salty's doing, though. He was the personal catcher for a certain knuckler who is now retired, and in addition to those 26 passed balls, he also had 41 wild pitches -- some of which were most certainly Tim Wakefield's doing.
This isn't meant to bash Wakefield in any way. The nature of the knuckleball is that it's sometimes going to go where it damn well pleases, and that isn't always the glove of the catcher. Salty was the poor guy who had to deal with that reality every five days.
Bojan Koprivica, in his excellent look at blocking pitches, rates Saltalamacchia as one of the worst at the gig in the majors over the last four years (PP stands for "Passed Pitch"):
Per 120 games, Salty loses about half-a-win on defense just from a failure to block "passed pitches." How much of that is the knuckler, and how much of it is Saltalamacchia? Koprivica includes another graph titled "Knuckleball Effect" for a reason:
This chart tells us two things: one, that every catcher who deals with a knuckleball is bad at catching it, and two, that Saltalamacchia is far worse than everyone else who has had to deal with that pitch. That's some Morrissetian Irony for you right there.
Without having to chase the knuckler around -- and with another year of familiarity behind the plate with this pitching staff -- Saltalamacchia's defense might turn out to be helpful in 2012. It likely won't be Varitek-levels of great, but it doesn't have to be for him to improve over last year's good start to a useful catching career.