There are certain aspects of baseball that tend to cloud fans' judgements of a player, no matter how they do in other portions of the game. Perhaps the most common instance of this is with strikeouts. It's so frustrating to watch a batter strike out that it tends to linger in one's mind much longer than a common fly out or ground out would. This makes sense, because any ball in play has a chance in resulting in an error or hit, whereas the chances of that happening with a strikeout are extremely slim.
A perfect example of this would be Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and I'm just as guilty of it as anyone. It's not easy to get overly excited about an upcoming plate appearance when the batter strikes out as much as the Red Sox catcher does. Coming into this season, he had struck out in 29 percent of his career plate appearances, and he hasn't gotten any better at that in 2013, with his season rate at 34 percent. That is to say, he is striking out in slightly more than one-third of his plate appearances. Despite all of that, though, he is putting together a fine season, and it seems to be going mostly unnoticed.
Of course, the biggest strength in Saltalamacchia's repertoire is his power. This is not so surprising, even if you've never seen him play, as he's listed at 6'4" and 235 pounds. In his first two seasons with the Red Sox, he had a .452 slugging percentage, and a .224 Isolated Power. With 131 plate appearances to his name thus far in 2013, he's keeping up his power tendencies. Forty seven games into the season, Saltalamacchia has hit five home runs, as well as ten doubles, which have helped him put up a .479 slugging percentage and .214 ISO. At first blush, one may think he's benefiting from an inflated home run to fly ball ratio of 16 percent, but that's likely not the case. That ratio is actually below the 20 percent number he put up in 2012, and only slightly higher than the 14 percent from 2011. His power is very real, and even if some of his other qualities will fall off, the power has been consistent with what we've seen in the previous two seasons.
The area that Saltalamacchia has improved in the most this season has been his ability to get on base. After two straight seasons with a .288 OBP, the big catcher has upped his on base percentage to .346, which can be attributed to two factors. The first is an inflated batting average on balls in play. He came into this season with a career BABIP of .309, but so far in 2013 he is hitting .379 on balls he has put into the field of play. Some of this is thanks to a career-high 27 percent line drive rate, but it is something that will surely regress, bringing down each component of his slash-line. In addition to that, though, has been his ever-improving walk-rate. In 2011, his first year in Boston, Saltalamacchia walked in just six percent of his plate appearances, and upped that number to the league average of eight percent last season. Now, in 2013, he has raised that even higher to 11 percent, an impressive rate considering how often he strikes out. Unsurprisingly, his rising walk-rate has been accompanied by a decrease in swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. Even after some regression in his BABIP, the improved walk-rate should help push him to an OBP above .300 for the first time in a Red Sox uniform.
Photo Courtesy of Jesse Johnson
On top of all of this, Saltalamacchia has also been palatable on defense, though he's still far from a Gold Glove candidate. His arm is still worrisome, despite the fact that he threw out two (2!) White Sox base stealers in last night's game after throwing out only one all season prior to that. However, he's improved some in blocking pitches in the dirt -- while still leaving something to be desired -- and he's been pretty solid at framing pitching. Both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs agree that he's provided negative value with the glove, but it doesn't seem to be at an egregious rate, especially given his offensive prowess thus far.
There are a lot of reasons to be happy about the first two months of this season. The starting pitching looks good, which is an amazing sight after what was seen last season. David Ortiz is putting up stupid numbers at the plate, despite being in his age-37 season. The team has a 28-19 record, which is good for the third best in the American League. Quietly involved in that group, though, is Saltalamacchia's season.
Though he's never done it for a full season, he's been above-average at the plate, with a 120 OPS+ and a 119 wRC+. Projection systems believe he can stay better than average, as ZiPS has him finishing with a 103 wRC+ and Steamer pins him for 102. The high number of strikeouts is definitely frustrating, and in any start he gets, there's a good chance he'll strike out at least once. Consider, though, that Saltalamacchia is playing a position where the average wRC+ is 92, and he's been significantly better than that this year. It's not something that should be taken for granted, and his season is one that deserves more recognition than it has gotten.
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