As I was skimming some of the day’s baseball news, I came upon the latest of Nick Cafardo’s mailbags. While these mailbags typically provide good information and some solid analysis, sometimes the questions can be mildly puzzling, to put it lightly. However, in yesterday’s edition, it was one of Cafardo’s answers that stood out to me.
"When his plate discipline gets better, he’ll hit 30 homers every year."
That quote was in response to a question asking whether or not the team should deal Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Cafardo was not in favor of trading the catcher, and attached some pretty high expectations. Those expectations seem a little far-fetched.
Firstly, the quote assumes that Saltalamacchia’s plate discipline will certainly get better. While plate discipline typically does improve with age, his has been at a level that he would have to improve substantially in order to live up to those expectations that Cafardo set. To expect 30 home runs a season from someone who’s never hit that many through his age-27 season is pretty ridiculous. Some will point to Jose Bautista’s late-blooming, but his career has been the exception, not the rule.
To test this theory, I looked at every player since the start of the live-ball era who struck out in at least 29 percent of the time through his age-27 season, minimum 1,000 plate appearances. The search yielded eleven results, with Saltalamacchia included, ranging from players such as Mark Reynolds and Bo Jackson, down to Wily Mo Pena and Melvin Nieves. Of the eleven players who met the qualifications, the Red Sox catcher ranked exactly in the middle in fWAR through his age-27 season. However, a lot of that had to do with the positional adjustment. From a pure hitting standpoint, he was tied for last in wRC+, and was tenth in weighted on-base average (wOBA).
Looking deeper into the numbers, it is clear that Saltalamacchia is in the lower-tier of this group. First, he hasn’t walked as much as the other players listed, as his 8.1 percent walk rate ranked eighth of the eleven. His .180 Isolated Power (ISO) ranked ninth. Th players on the list were mostly your typical power hitter who strikes out a lot but also draws a lot of walks. Saltalamacchia struck out less then most of the players on the list -- his 29.4-percent strike out-rate was the second lowest -- but his power and walk-rate lagged behind. With his still high K rate being his strongest stat compared to the others on the list, it’s safe to say that he provided less offensive value than most of his high-strikeout counterparts.
The next step would be to look at how the others on the list performed after their age-27 season. However, this is a much tougher task, as all but four players on that list were either out of the league by their age-28 season, or are still active but under 28. Therefore, when considering the following table showing the average change and range of change in performance after 27, the small sample size must be taken into consideration.
|K%||-1.8%||-4.3% to 1.3%|
|BB%||1.2%||0.1% to 2.1 %|
|ISO||-.010||-.340 to .120|
The data may not have a huge sample size, but it does provide a bit more insight into Cafardo’s comments about Saltalamacchia’s future. For one thing, it is typical for a player’s plate approach to advance with age. That’s something we already knew about baseball players in general, but it also applies to high-strike out guys. In fact, every player on the list increased their BB-rate after their age-27 season, while only Bo Jackson saw an increase in his K-rate, and injury was probably part of that.
Things get interesting is when looking at the players’ power. ISO is the simplest way to measure a player’s power, and there was no clear pattern in power increase or decrease after the age-27 season. This goes to show that Cafardo’s statement was far off-base, as improved plate discipline doesn’t necessarily lead to greater power.
However, the point of this article wasn’t to tear apart one sentence from Cafardo’s mailbag. I’ve seen a lot of optimism regarding Saltalamacchia’s future, and I think it needs to be tempered. This isn’t to say he’s been a bad player, as he’s been about an average major-league catcher since joining the Red Sox in 2011. The data above just tells us that he’s not likely to improve by leaps and bounds. The best-case scenario is that he’d become a slightly above league-average catcher over the next four or five seasons, with maybe a couple of 30 home run seasons. What’s more likely is that Ryan Lavarnway is the player who represents the best chance of the Red Sox having a great, or even very good, catcher. Though anything is always possible, it’s likely that what we’ve seen from Jarrod Saltalamacchia is what we’ll get going forward.