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Saltalamacchia may be catching on

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  May 19, 2011 01:52 PM

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The Red Sox' catching situation was the team's biggest question mark coming out of Fort Myers, and the early answers the season provided left us longing for the heady days of Muggsy Allenson. Jarrod Saltalamacchia's brutal start behind and at the plate (.216 average, .547 OPS in April) put him on short notice with the fans and led to increased playing time for 39-year-old Jason Varitek, whose knowledge of the pitching staff didn't exactly make up for his salami bat (he had a .339 OPS in April. Not on-base percentage. Not slugging percentage. His OPS.)

Lately, Saltalamacchia has demonstrated some encouraging tools of competence. He hit his first homer of the season, a Johnny Damon special over the short right field porch in New York, for a key insurance run in the third game of last weekend's sweep. And last night may have been his best game with the Red Sox since coming over from the Rangers at the trading deadline last July 31. He doubled home the winning -- and only -- run in the eighth while also catching a seven-inning, no-run, 127-pitch performance by Clay Buchholz. That he did it with Victor Martinez, who had built a notable rapport with Buchholz as the Sox catcher the past two seasons, in the opposing dugout enhanced the accomplishment. Perhaps last night's game is one we will eventually look back upon as Saltalamacchia's turning point

But even if it proves nothing more than a random good night at the ballpark and consistency remains elusive, at least we can say this with some certainty: The Red Sox catching situation at the moment is more than workable. Over the past two weeks, Saltalamacchia has hit .292 with an .820 OPS, while Varitek is hitting .292 himself in May. It's probably safe to keep the Bengie Molina talk on hold for the time being.

Besides, hanging out here in our myopic corner of the baseball world here in New England, the Red Sox catching problems sometimes lacked proper context. Quality catching is a scarce resource for the vast majority of major league clubs at the moment. Taking a prolonged chance on Saltalamacchia, a 26-year-old former phenom with an admirable work ethic and attitude, is a far shrewder approach to filling the void behind the plate than what many teams have done. Skeptical? Let's take a quick look at each AL team's catching situation to try to gain perspective on where the Sox really stand.

John Jaso: .225, 2 HRs in 87 PAs; 675 OPS.
Kelly Shoppach: .159 average, .424 OPS in 69 PAs.
Comment: Jaso has a sneaky-good rookie season last year (.372 on-base percentage.) He'll get better in this, his age-27 season.

Russell Martin: .252, 7 homers, .836 OPS in 134 PAs.
Comment: Martin, a two-time All-Star with the Dodgers who has been plagued by injuries in recent seasons, has made the Yankees look shrewd for pursuing him more vigorously than did the Red Sox. If Jorge Posada even looks at a catcher's mitt, he gets tased by Tony Pena. Girardi's orders, you know

J.P. Arencibia: .231, six homers, .781 OPS in 120 PAs.
Comment: John Farrell calls him a "work in progress," but he's second among AL catchers in homers has recently taken over more of the catching responsibility from Jose (Don't Call Me Bengie, Yadier, Or Especially Gustavo, Who Isn't Even My Brother) Molina.

Matt Wieters: .264, four homers, .756 OPS in 137 PAs. He's thrown out 50 percent of base stealers (12 of 24).
Comment: Maybe he'll never reach those crazy Piazza-with-a-mitt heights pinned on him when he first arrived in the big leagues. (Baseball Prospectus famously projected him to hit .311 with 31 homers and a .939 OPS as a rookie -- after one year of minor league ball.) But the confident bet here is that he's still going to be a genuine star. He's just 24, he's improving, and catchers have a steep learning curve.

Thumbnail image for vmartfinnsox518.jpgfinntigers518.jpgTIGERS
Vict . . . whoops, Alex Avila: .268, six homers, .854 OPS in 130 PAs.
Comment: The Tigers have stuck to their plan to use Martinez mostly as a designated hitter -- he's caught eight games, making six starts. And it's worked. While Martinez has a .900 OPS, the 24-year-old Avila has been a revelation with the bat while throwing out 38 percent of would-be basestealers.

Carlos Santana: .233, six homers, .786 OPS, .367 OBP, 28 walks in 158 PAs.
Comment: Ignore the batting average. The 25-year-old Santana is a wonderful player. In 350 career plate appearances -- roughly half a season -- he has 12 homers, more walks (65) than strikeouts (58), and a .386 on-base percentage.

Matt Treanor: .243 , .756 OPS in 96 PAs.
Brayan Pena: .203, .504 OPS in 68 PAs.
Comment: Jason Kendall, last year's starter and a truly atrocious offensive player, is on the DL after undergoing shoulder surgery last September.

A.J. Pierzynski: .252, .593 OPS, 1 homer in 141 PAs.
Comment: If this were a list of the catchers most likely to be slugged by a teammate, opponent, or random sabermetrician, he and his .323 career on-base percentage would be at the top.

Drew Butera: .108, 0 homers, .278 OPS in 77 PAs.
Joe Mauer: .235, 0 homers in 38 PAs.
Comment: It's tough watching injuries again plague Mauer, who should be one of baseball's signature stars no matter how many dumb commercials he does with Troy Polamalu. No knock on Matt Capps, but that Wilson Ramos trade is going to grow only more regrettable. Butera has a minus-21 adjusted OPS. He's a chip off the ol' out: His dad, Sal, had a .597 OPS in parts of nine seasons.

Yorvit Torrealba: .216, three homers, .576 OPS in 122 PAs.
Comment: Mike Napoli (.195, six homers, .816 OPS) has started 10 games behind the plate, but Torrealba, who has thrown out 33 percent of basestealers, is a far superior defensive option. Plus, his name is Yorvit, always a plus.

Jeff Mathis: .193, .486 OPS, one homer in 89s PAs.
Hank Conger: .270, .757 OPS, three homers in 80 PAs.
Comment: Mike Scioscia's son Matt is senior C/1B at Notre Dame. But it's suspected that his favorite son -- related or otherwise -- might be Mathis, an atrocious hitter (his highest batting average in six seasons is .211) whose defensive and game-calling prowess mirror his manager's best assets as a player. Conger can swing it -- he had an .847 OPS in Triple A at age 22 last year.

Kurt Suzuki: .259, .730 OPS, four homers in 151 PAs.
Comment: Suzuki is just 27, well-regarded, a reported favorite of the Red Sox front office. . . but perhaps a little overrated? His top three all-time comps are Brook Fordyce, Ed Ott, and knuckleball-phobe Josh Bard.

Miguel Olivo: .203, .540 OPS, two homers in 141 PAs
Comment: The Mariners have one hitter in their starting lineup with an OPS of .700 or better. So I guess that sort of explains why Olivo has batted cleanup in 16 of the last 18 games.

* * *

So . . . not exactly the heyday of Fisk and Munson in the AL right now, is it? The somewhat educated guess here is that the Sox' catching tandem will probably rank in the middle of the pack among AL teams when the summer is over.

Cleveland's situation is enviable -- Santana is the definition of a franchise cornerstone. And Baltimore is set for a decade with Wieters. I'm a believer in Detroit's Avila, and you know V-Mart will help him any way he can. And the Yankees have unusual organizational depth at the position, though Jesus Montero can permanently leave his mitt in his locker when he gets to the big leagues.

Beyond those teams, there's a lot of uncertainty and flawed ballplayers. Who knows what the immediate future holds for Mauer and Minnesota -- currently, the Twins are the only team without a homer from its catcher. They were left alone at zero when Saltalamacchia finally got his. Pardon the optimism generated by his recent performance, but with occasional assistance from Varitek, there's no reason he can't be right there with Arencibia and Suzuki in the AL's capable middle class of catchers.

And should Saltalamacchia falter? Well, the Mariners are always looking for a cleanup hitter.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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