The Miami Marlins have made their first big splash of the 2013-2014 offseason, and it came as a surprise to most people. Last night, I went to sleep fully expecting Miami to have a normal Tuesday afternoon, only to find that the Fish were embroiled in ongoing rumors for the best remaining catcher in the free agent market, Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Half a day later, Miami has signed the south Florida native to a three-year, $21 million contract.
In making this deal, the Fish have valued Saltalamacchia at around $7 million per season heading into his age-29 campaign. They have put a price on his power production, as he was the only significant bat left in the catching market. With Saltalamacchia averaging almost 18 home runs per 500 plate appearances, the Fish wanted to try and spruce up some of their anemic offense and improve on an embarrassing sub-100 home run season.
All of that is obvious and clear from our free agent profile from earlier today. Miami has an interest in Saltalamacchia because his bat will improve a league-worst offense. It is important to note that the Fish are moving from a batting line heavily anchored by known offensive gaping hole Jeff Mathis to a player who had a line three percent better than league average last season. The improvement there, even when you consider a drop-off in defensive performance, is probably close to two wins.
It should also be noted that Saltalamacchia's offense is not likely to reach the point it reached over the past three years. Before 2013, he had hit .228/.288/.452 for two seasons running. In 2013, he defied the odds with a .372 BABIP and put up a .273 batting average and .338 OBP. The massive BABIP spike is not likely to be repeated, and his Steamer-projected line of .230/.301/.414 (.312 wOBA) would not be as good as any of his last three seasons. He may still be expected to hit 16 home runs next year, even playing half of his games in Marlins Park, but the Marlins should not expect a torrent of long balls Giancarlo Stanton-style.
There are also the significant issues with his platoon split. As a lefty, Saltalamacchia has handled right-handed pitchers to the tune of a .263/.327/.469 batting line (.345 wOBA). However, against lefties, he has struggled to a .206/.267/.332 (.266 wOBA) line. His split likely is not as large as this, but it is very possible that Saltalamacchia is just a left-handed hitter rather than an actual switch hitter. The fact that he will be starting in front of Jeff Mathis means that he will not really have a viable platoon partner either, meaning Miami will probably leave him to struggle versus lefties more often than they should.
In His Defense
But the Marlins have positives to look forward to if fans are lucky enough to have him for three seasons. For one, questions of his plate discipline are buoyed a little by his growing walk rate. His walk rate has climbed a bit in each of the past two seasons despite his stagnant swing rates outside the zone. He has made more contact out of the zone and less in it, so his contact rates have remained stagnant. For the time being, it looks at the very least as though his discipline issues are not trending worse.
Rumors of the home run demise are also likely to be small. Saltalamacchia has averaged 18 homers per 500 plate appearances in the last three years. The difference between the Marlins' home run factors and Fenway Park's is not that drastic, however. There is a seven percent drop-off between Miami's lefty home run factor and Fenway's, and that is Saltalamacchia's preferred position (he has faced righties as a left-hander 1558 times in his career, versus facing lefties as a right-handed hitter 645 times). There is a 13 percent drop-off in the righty park factor, and given the expected ratio of Saltalamacchia's plate appearances, that turns into an expected 8.8 percent drop in homers. That would translate into a change from 18 homers to just under 17 home runs.
About His Defense...
Secondly, his defense likely is not as bad as previously advertised. Yes, Saltalamacchia is an awful thrower; he has caught just 23 percent of would-be base stealers in the last three years compared to a league average closer to 27 percent. He allows a pitch to get by him once every 20.5 innings caught, which is around where Mathis and the rest of the league is. But what makes his defense potentially special is that he may be saving runs with pitch framing and even game-calling, the sort of skills we contribute to the amorphous defensive whizzes of the backup catcher world, such as Mathis himself. Here's Matt Sullivan of SB Nation's Over the Monster on this very topic:
That is still a relatively uncharted territory of analysis, but it likely adds some value to Saltalamacchia's work behind the plate and helps to mitigate his weaknesses in preventing the running game. The Marlins are also far removed from the days when Chris Volstad was slowly delivering pitches to the plate, so the pitchers may be able to better assist Saltalamacchia in that regard as well.
But the most important feature of the signing are the details of the contract as they compare to other catchers. Look at the contracts of the players who recently signed and the average production they put up in the last three seasons.
You can knock up Saltalamacchia, McCann, and Molina an amount of wins of your choosing thanks to their prowess at pitch framing. You can knock Pierzynski down a peg for similar reasons. But the general idea of this chart is that, among the free agent catchers available, Saltalamacchia was second- or third-best (depending on how you view Ruiz's injury-shortened but excellent seasons) in terms of performance and the youngest in age.
But McCann received a deal worth $17 million annually and for five seasons with a potential sixth-year option. Ruiz, who is coming off the best of the catcher seasons but is also age 35 in 2014, got a deal worth $5 million more than Saltalamacchia. Pierzynski earned a one-year contract worth $1 million more annually than Saltalamacchia received. These catcher each earned a larger sum of market value without being significantly better over the last three years than the youngest player available.
This is not to say that Saltalamacchia next season will be better than McCann or Ruiz, both of whom have had injury problems in the last few years. But it is to say that their values are probably not different enough to justify the price. If Ruiz is worth one win more than Saltalamacchia now but is much more prone to a fast decline at his advanced age, is he really worth $5 million more overall than Salty? If McCann is one year older and has produced at an eerily similar pace to Saltalamacchia in his last three years, is he really worth the extra yearly salary and two additional guaranteed years of that salary?
The market for catchers was very high, or at least at the level of the so-called $6 million per win mark that was speculated early in the offseason. The Marlins almost assuredly got themselves a two-win player, even with all his negatives and accounting for the possibility of a more drastic loss in power in moving to Marlins Park. It is all benefit for Miami because the team had replacement-level talent at the position up until the signing. And, as we will discuss later, the Marlins made a signing that benefits both their present and the first steps of their future competitive franchise.
What do you Fish Stripers think? Good move or bad for Miami? The right price? Let us know in the comments!
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