Between Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach, the Red Sox have to consider themselves extremely lucky to have two players yielding above-average offense at a position that does not typically provide it. Catchers have produced the third worst weighted on-base average (wOBA) by position, beating out just second basemen and shortstops. Yesterday, in a move corresponding with sending Daniel Nava to the 15-day disabled list, the team also called up offense-first backstop Ryan Lavarnway, adding to their embarrassment of riches behind the plate.
As I pointed out in this morning's Daily Links, many Red Sox fans were expecting Ben Cherington to trade one of the team's two veteran catchers in order to clear up room for the rookie. Instead, the team opted to keep all three on the team and the rest of the league is surely green with envy at Boston's depth behind the plate.
Between Saltalamacchia and Shoppach, the Red Sox have received a .343 wOBA from their backstops, good for seventh in all of baseball and trailing only Minnesota (who has the benefit of being able to play the tremendous Joe Mauer behind the plate) in the American League. Where the Red Sox' catchers really stand out amongst their major-league counterparts is in the power department. The pair rank second in the MLB in slugging percentage, trailing only Philadelphia, while their .263 isolated power (ISO) leads all major-league teams with a 35-point cushion over the second-place Phillies.
Most of this advantage in the power-department comes from the performance of the starting catcher, Saltalamacchia. Since joining the Red Sox, the former top prospect has finally begun to hit the ball like the baseball world always expected him to. While there are still plenty of holes in his offensive games, his power alone makes him above average offensively at a position that has produced an average slash-line of .248/.319/.400 this season. Saltalamacchia, by comparison, is currently sitting at .233/.288/.502. His .269 ISO gives him a substantial lead in that category amongst catchers with at least 250 plate appearances, as he edges out Chicago's A.J. Pierzynski by 33 points.
While this power may not be completely sustainable--one would probably be wise to expect some regression from his 23.3 percent home run to fly ball rate (HR/FB) given his career mark of 14 percent--the first two components of his slash line stand to improve. Both his batting average and on base percentage should increase as his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) regresses from its current .267 towards his career mark of .313.
Of course, Saltalamacchia is still not a finished product. As has been a problem throughout his career, he still finds himself striking out far too often. Amongst all batters with at least 250 plate appearances, his strike out rate of 30.8 percent is the sixth highest, wedged between the immortal Mark Reynolds and Carlos Pena. However, while both of those players walk over 13 percent of the time, Saltalamacchia's rate is just over half of that at seven percent. The average player in 2012 walks about eight-percent of the time, with catchers walking a tick above that rate. With that being said, at a position that's not exactly known for its offensive prowess, his extreme power goes a long way in hiding that poor plate discipline.
As the team's backup, Shoppach has been one of the biggest surprises of the season. In his second stint with the Red Sox (he had all of 16 plate appearances for the team back in 2005) he is providing the sort of production he managed only in his best season back in 2007 with Cleveland. Like Saltalamacchia, much of his offensive value comes from his power. His .258/.346/.508 slash-line slants towards the slugging percentage, and his .250 ISO is a whole 98 points above the league average for catchers.
Regression is surely coming for Shoppach, unfortunately. As good as he's looked this season, there's just no way he can sustain his .406 BABIP. Luckily, his power seems at least somewhat sustainable, as his current 18.5 percent HR/FB rate is close to his career figure of 17.3 percent. Even with some regression from his current .365 wOBA, Shoppach will still be a very serviceable backup.
New to the catching depth as of yesterday is Lavarnway, who flashed some of his offensive prowess in 43 major league plate appearances in 2011. He has spent the entirety of 2012 in AAA Pawtucket, mainly to shore up his defensive abilities. While his power has been disappointing this year (his .144 ISO is his worst power display at any professional level), he's still produced at an offensive level that's 25 percent above the International League average (as evident by his 125 wRC+). Last season, in his first stint at the big league level, he had a slightly disappointing .231/.302/.436, which was good for a .323 wOBA. However, between some expected regression to the mean from his .259 BABIP and the general strides expected after a rookie's first exposure to major league pitching led the Marcel projection system to predict a .330 wOBA for him this season.
With the waiver trade deadline still a month away, it is possible that one of these catchers (likely Shoppach) could still be moved. However, as Alex Speier pointed out yesterday, the team may be wise to hold all three of these guys for the stretch run. The team has been extremely fortunate with injuries behind the plate this year in that they've been nonexistent. For such a risky position injury-wise, it would be dangerous to assume that luck can last another two months. As it stands right now, if any one of these three goes down, the team will still have a solid one-two punch behind the plate. However, if they do eventually deal Shoppach, and Saltalamacchia goes down, Boston would be left with Lavarnway as the starter and no desirable backup in the organization. The Red Sox are extremely fortunate to have the catching depth that they do, and they should not take this for granted. Who knows, it could be the difference between playing baseball in October instead of golf.