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Jarrod Saltalamacchia: Good Fastball Hitter

Really, who isn’t? OK, maybe Zack Cozart.

But, in general, a fastball is what a hitter sees more often than not. And, in general, a hitter hopes to see a fastball in a “fastball count” more often than not. Perhaps the one they want is of the four-seam variety, but any fastball will do if a pitcher isn’t commanding it. Which probably has something to do with how the pitcher arrived at the fastball count in the first place.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia isn’t any different from most hitters in that regard.

The good news for him is that in 2014 he’s seen fastballs nearly two-thirds of the time, more than 10 percentage points greater than the rate at which he has in his career. That kind of rate, with exceptions, has been reserved for leadoff hitters and such. The better news for him is that he seems to have upped his game against the pitch type, according to Brooks Baseball data.

2007-2013

Pitch Type Count AB K BB HBP 1B 2B 3B HR BAA SLG ISO
Fourseam 2987 582 221 73 3 76 28 0 31 .232 .440 .208
Sinker 1538 345 64 35 0 69 33 1 12 .333 .539 .206
Change 1314 323 69 21 0 51 15 0 9 .232 .362 .130
Slider 922 258 126 15 1 27 12 3 12 .209 .419 .209
Curve 931 208 103 3 0 26 7 0 5 .183 .289 .106
Cutter 457 119 28 12 2 14 13 0 3 .252 .437 .185
Split 242 71 21 2 0 11 7 0 1 .268 .409 .141
Knuckler 7 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000
Slow Curve 10 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000
All Fastballs 5224 1117 334 122 5 170 81 1 47 .268 .468 .200

2014

Pitch Type Count AB K BB HBP 1B 2B 3B HR BAA SLG ISO
Fourseam 201 37 11 11 0 7 1 0 4 .324 .676 .351
Sinker 91 17 2 2 0 5 1 0 0 .353 .412 .059
Change 60 13 3 1 0 3 3 0 0 .462 .692 .231
Slider 25 11 7 1 0 0 1 0 0 .091 .182 .091
Curve 42 6 3 0 0 0 0 0 1 .167 .667 .500
Cutter 31 7 2 1 0 0 1 0 1 .286 .857 .571
Split 6 2 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000
All Fastballs 329 63 16 15 0 12 3 0 5 .317 .603 .286

The impending bad news is that he’ll definitely start to see fewer fastballs. Hey, he’ll cross that bridge when he comes to it. His fantasy owners hope that it’s not something like the Bridge on the River Kwai. But it’s worth noting that his advances against fastballs were in evidence in 2013. The mix of stuff he saw, from month to month, that season was fairly consistent – and so were his results.

Why is he seeing the heater so often, then? Opponents’ first-strike rate against Salty is 55.0%, down several percentage points from previous seasons. Pitches in the zone against him are down a tad, as well. He seems to have started with plenty of favorable counts, which may help to explain why he’s seen an improvement in his strikeout rate despite his reduction in contact rate.

Saltalamacchia’s rates of pitches per plate appearance may say something about his development, too. This year’s is 4.14, an improvement upon his marks of 4.06 and 4.03 of the past two seasons. Has his identification – at least his ability to differentiate between a heater and a change – improved? He’s hammering the changeup this year, too. That’s new.

A few things about Miami’s lineups are interesting to note. Lineup spots have no grand effects on results, but in certain cases, such as those around Giancarlo Stanton, one could understand if they occasionally affected outcomes. Other notable hitters in the team’s order – Marcell Ozuna, Casey McGehee and Garrett Jones – have seen fastballs between 51 and 56 percent of the time. Each of them, including Stanton, has taken upwards of 3.72 P/PA this season. Perhaps Salty has just been fortunate more often.

Brooks Baseball’s landing page for Salty sums up his discernment this year:

It’s not entirely clear why he’s seen such a favorable blend of pitches. But it shouldn’t be a surprise when that changes. How much has the switch hitter dictated his circumstances because of the development of his eye? Not this much.

But Salty has become a smarter batter. His walk rate has been trending upward, and his free-pass frequency was regularly in the low teens in the minors, when he was, lest we forget, one of the best prospects in the game – tops in the Atlanta Braves’ system in both 2006 and 2007, according to Baseball America. His strikeout rate was less than 24% in the final three-plus months of 2013. A hitter with a sub-par contact rate succeeds more often than the average player because he hits the ball hard, which Salty does.

Saltalamacchia’s offensive output in 2014 has made him the most valuable catcher – one of the 10 most valuable players thus far – fantasy or otherwise. Naturally, we can look at his .373 BABIP, 26.1 K%, 64.5 contact% (which would be a career low) and 50.8 FB% and think, Well, that ain’t gonna last.

And we’d almost certainly be correct. Even though the Miami Marlins’ backstop has walked in 15.3% of his plate appearances (nearly double his lifetime rate, with no intentional freebies), suggesting that he’s controlled the strike zone extremely well, and he’s posted a .269 ISO (which would easily be a career best), indicating that he’s punishing the baseball when he makes contact, we’d be correct. After Saltalamacchia, who just turned 29, hit .273/.338/.466 in his final season with the Boston Red Sox, we likely thought something similar, the way Chris Cwik did.

But is .301/.405/.570 slash line going to crash or just regress toward a rising mean? Salty has savored that predictability no less than the next guy has, perhaps more. Until pitchers attack him differently, we won’t know, but we’re going to learn a lot about his advancement when they do.

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