The Miami Marlins signed Jarrod Saltalamacchia before the 2014 season in order to get stability at the catcher position. Prior to this year, none of the Marlins' various catching prospects had really made any waves or proven worthy to play at the big league level, so the Fish were concerned about their long-term future and rightfully signed Saltalamacchia to a below-market $21 million contract for the next three years. Given what other players were signing for, his deal was a steal for the Fish.
So far this season, Saltalamacchia has been just as expected overall, but the way he got there has been a rollercoaster of a ride. In the month of April, he rode a massively hot BABIP streak (.393 that month) to a .299/.409/.579 (.423 wOBA) batting line. There were not complaints of his defensive miscues or his large strikeout rate (25 percent) when he was hitting like an MVP. In May, things have bottomed out to the tune of a .162/.301/.294 (.274 wOBA0 batting line and all of a sudden I started hearing talk about his performance with runners and the fact that he is striking out so often (37.3 percent this month).
But the overall batting line that Saltalamacchia has put up is an enviable one. Salty is hitting .247/.343/.420 (.337 wOBA), a batting line that is currently 12 percent better than the league average. Only four catchers with at least 150 plate appearances have a better batting line relative to their home park than Saltalamacchia. Given that we predicted that he would not hit this well in 2014, Marlins fans should be ecstatic about the early success.
Overall, Saltalamacchia has hit well and has played enough defense to put up a one-win season so far in 175 plate appearances. That might not seem like much, but before the season he was expected to put up almost two wins in almost 500 plate appearances, so he is actually well ahead of schedule. So why are Marlins fans upset, and do they have a right to be?
Offensively, the answer is probably no. Yes, Saltalamacchia strikes out a lot, but this was already well-known to the Marlins before he signed. Prior to this season, he struck out in 29.4 percent of his plate appearances, and this year he is whiffing in 30.3 percent of them. A lot of the complaints have come after his heavy-strikeout month of May, but he has walked more often as well in the month, garnering a free pass in almost 17 percent of his attempts. This may all stem from an attempt by pitchers to avoid him in the strike zone; knowing Saltalamacchia's trouble with swinging out of the zone, they have thrown pitches in the zone just 42 percent of the time. It is the same method they are using to attack Garrett Jones and avoid GIancarlo Stanton.
Saltalamacchia has struggled against this approach, but overall he has dropped his swing rate out of the zone slightly from 33 percent in the last three years to 32 percent this season. If he can adjust to this more avoidant pitching style, he should be able to recover some of those strikeouts.
On defense, however, the Marlins should be a little concerned. Saltalamacchia has always been bad at throwing baserunners out, so that is not a new problem. So far this season, his rate has plummeted, but it is early in the campaign and this is not any worse than he was in 2012, when he also caught just 18 percent of runners. Over the last three years, he has caught 24 percent of runner attempts, and for his career he has snagged 22 percent of guys, and these numbers could all be reached by season's end.
One interesting thing regarding his defense right now is his pitch framing data early into the year. Saltalamacchia is estimated to have cost Marlins starters 27 called strikes so far this year, which has cost the Fish almost 11 runs this season. Before the year, it was figured that this aspect of the game could be a positive for Saltalamacchia and help mitigate his problems with baserunners. So far this season, that has not happened, and the fact that he has been negative for the season may sink his value this season further down.
The defensive problems are way too early to call for Saltalamacchia's head, and we still are not sure of the full impact of any given season's ratings on pitch framing, but it is safe to say that Saltalamacchia needs to hit to have decent value. So far this season, he has done just that, on the back of a huge walk rate and a .337 BABIP. But he will have to adjust to a new style of pitching in order to continue his strong play so far in 2014.