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Free Agent Case Study: Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Dennis Eckersley filled in for Jerry Remy during the Red Sox road trip to play the Giants and Dodgers and has remained on board for the Orioles series. Eckersley’s analysis, cluttered with lingo like “cut the moss,” “throwing cheese,” and “Hello?!”, is also often insightful and informative. Such was the case when he praised Jarrod Saltalamacchia for his consistent season behind the plate for the Sox in 2013.

Jarrod-Saltalamacchia1
It’s hard to imagine another Sox catcher at this point in time.

Saltalamacchia has seemingly overcome the developmental issues that persisted during the early part of his career on the defensive side of the plate. His swing has always provided power and, perhaps most importantly, he has become a trusted game-caller by Boston’s pitching staff. Salty is playing in a contract year in 2013. In this post, I’ll take a look at the market for catchers, analyze Salty’s true value to the Sox, and give a prediction for whether I see him re-upping with Boston this offseason.

The Numbers

Saltalamacchia was once a top prospect in the Braves system and was the center-piece in a 2007 trade for Mark Teixeira. Much of the promise scouts saw in Salty arose from the power he generated from his uppercut swing from the left side of the plate. Like most young players with a long powerful stroke, Salty struggled with strikeouts and inconsistencies in his approach. Salty’s status as a star prospect diminished during his time in Texas due to his inability to put the ball in play, and the Sox took a flier on him at the end of the 2010 campaign. The numbers show the type of hitter that he has been from 2011-2013 with the Sox, but also point to a fundamental change in his approach in his most recent campaign.

From 2011-2013, Salty hit the 6th-most homers amongst catchers in Major League Baseball with 51 (Mike Napoli leads all catchers with 69, despite playing his entire 2013 campaign at first base). Salty is also last among all Major League catchers with a 69.8% contact rate and leads the group with a 30.6% strikeout rate. These are numbers that reflect a hitter who swings to hit the ball out of the park for each and every swing he takes.

Despite the strikeouts (which have been prevalent throughout Salty’s career), it is clear that he has gone through a fundamental change in hitting philosophy during the 2013 campaign. The graph below helps us visualize Salty’s trend during his time with the Sox:

SAlty_swings

The graph breaks down Salty’s batted balls by fly balls, ground balls, or line drives. When he arrived with the Sox in 2010, Salty was in the worst spot, batted ball-wise, of his entire career. His line drive percentage hovered around 5%, whereas his fly ball (and pop up) percentage was at the highest of his career. Since he has been with the Sox, Salty has reversed this trend, culminating in the highest line-drive (and lowest fly-ball) percentages of his career in 2013. This is one reason for Salty’s apparent decrease in power, as ZiPS projects him to hit 14 dingers this year following seasons of 16 homers in 2011 and a career-high 25 in 2012. Despite the slight dip in power, the change in approach has made Salty a more productive overall hitter: his greater propensity to hit line drives has caused his BABIP to rise dramatically from .265 in 2012 to a whopping .379 in 2013. Moreover, it has caused his overall average and OBP to rise to .270 and .341, respectively (up from .222 and .288 in 2012). The only surprising stat after noticing Salty’s decrease in FB% and increase in LD% is that his slugging percentage has not changed at all from 2012 to 2013, even despite the fact that his homer rate is down. But a quick review of Salty’s counting stats reveals that this is due to the fact that he ranks eighth in the Major Leagues with 34 doubles. We can again attribute this to his greater propensity to hit line drives, as many of the long fly balls that stayed up for just too long may be dropping for Salty in 2013.

As his batted ball trends and overall stats suggest, Salty has been on an upward slope as a hitter during his time with the Red Sox.

The Intangibles

While we have just examined the ways in which Salty helps his club with the bat, he holds arguably even more value to the Sox has their primary backstop. This is where the intangibles come in to play, which might be the single biggest factor as to why Salty gets a major pay-day (or why he doesn’t) on the open market. Simply put, there is much more to calculating player value for a catcher than offensive and defensive stats alone.

Catchers can improve a pitching staff with their daily preparation and ability to call a game. In an effort to quantify Salty’s game-calling ability, I’ll reference an article called “Salty’s Defense/Game-Calling Impact” on the Pro Sports Daily forums. As of August 5th, the chart below gives pitcher’s ERA during Salty’s starts as compared to his back-up’s starts over the past three years:

SAlt

While there is much more to calling a game than simply “pitcher ERA”, the trend is a bit alarming when estimating Salty’s value. Numbers don’t tell the whole picture, of course, but they certainly wouldn’t support a claim that Salty improves a pitching staff through his game-calling. One thing is clear: pitchers are doing better in 2013 while Salty is behind the plate, but it remains a mystery whether this is because he’s calling a better game or simply because the pitchers he’s catching are better.

Josh Beckett was one pitcher who spoke out about Salty’s inability to be on the same page as the starter, but many have spoken in defense of the backstop’s ability during the 2013 campaign. Jake Peavy, for one, has commended Salty’s approach to game-day: “I can’t say enough about his willingness. Salty has got some time here, some time in the big leagues. For him to be so humble in his approach, to not say, ‘This is how we do things here’; it was him saying, ‘Hey, man, what do you need to win tonight? What do you need me to do?” In any case, his familiarity with the Sox pitching staff likely makes Salty more immediately valuable to the Red Sox than any other team.

On another note, Salty has been very durable during his time in Boston. He has missed just 4 games due to injury from 2011-2013 and has not been placed on the disabled list once. While durability is always valuable, it is especially valuable in a catcher, in which the day-to-day bumps and bruises are far more prevalent. This should make teams more comfortable offering him a long-term deal.

The Market

Of the 18 catchers on open market following the season, Salty is the youngest at age 29. He will likely be the second-most coveted free agent catcher (behind Atlanta backstop Brian McCann), though that could change if Salty gets hot or McCann gets hurt again (he missed time in 2011 due to an oblique injury and missed time in 2013 due to offseason shoulder surgery). There have been very few free agent catchers over the past 3 years, likely due to the fact that familiarity with a team’s pitchers is very important to front offices. Thus, we notice that there have been many contract extensions for catchers, but very few catchers who actually hit the open market. Salty is, in fact, in a very unique position as a productive free agent catcher who will likely fetch a deal for more than 3 years. In any case, here is how the free agent/extension market has looked over the past two years:

market

Miguel Montero seems to be the most similar comparable by age (29) and overall production (using ZiPS projections, Salty will have a 2.1 average fWAR over the past 3 seasons when he hits the open market). Montero’s signing was actually an extension, so even though his overall production was a bit higher when he signed, it’s certainly not far-fetched to believe that Salty will get a 5-year, $60 million contract when teams are bidding for his services.

The Suitors

I expect the White Sox, Angels, Athletics, Yankees, Braves, Rangers, Rays, and the Red Sox to be in the running for Salty’s services based on their need behind the plate for next season. I doubt the Rays or the White Sox would spend the money on the current Sox backstop, and a signing by the Angels and Athletics seems equally unlikely due to the Angels’ payroll and Oakland’s frugality. This leaves the Red Sox, Yankees, Braves, and Rangers as Salty’s primary suitors, and their free-spending tendencies should make Salty’s eyes light up in free agency.

Prediction

This is a really tough call. I think that if Atlanta does sign a catcher to a long-term deal, they will simply retain Brian McCann (familiarity, as discussed previously, is likely very important to teams when evaluating catchers). A look at the remaining teams’ organizational depth charts could provide insight into Salty’s destination. According to mlb.com, catcher Gary Sanchez is the Yankees’ top prospect with an ETA of 2015. He’s also the second-highest ranked catching prospect in baseball behind Travis d’Arnaud. I expect the Yankees to hold off on signing Salty. While the Rangers’ top prospect is also a catcher, Jorge Alfaro is not expected to arrive until at least 2016 and their 40-man catching depth is weak. The Red Sox have multiple catching prospects in their system (#10 Blake Swihart, #13 Jon Denney, and #15 Christian Vazquez) and have depth on their 40-man roster with Dan Butler and Ryan Lavarnway. If the price does indeed use to my predicted contract of 5 years and $60 million, it’s hard to see Salty re-upping with Sox GM Ben Cherington. Instead, I see him jumping town for Texas, an organization where his prospects once faded, but one that now might make him a very rich man.

Vince D’Andrea is a rising senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His blog, Dave Roberts’ Dive, can be found here.