Today, we begin our round of season reviews for every starting player on the 2014 Miami Marlins! First off, the embattled free agent acquisition, Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
It was not easy being Jarrod Saltalamacchia in 2014 for the Miami Marlins. You would think with the Fish just one season removed from having to endure Jeff Mathis and Rob Brantly for an entire year, fans would be more forgiving of what can only be described as a "decent" performance by a catcher with a pulse. But Saltalamacchia came with a three-year, $21 million contract, and that brought in expectations of his breakout 2013 season.
The truth was that Saltalamacchia did not have to play even that well to be worth his contract, which pays him just $7 million per season. At that rate, the Marlins are essentially paying for a little over a win per season. But because Salty was a rare free agent addition to a team that does not jump into the market often, it made for the expectation that his deal should have come with better production.
Having said that, Saltalamacchia still delivered a disappointing campaign, his worst since before 2011. The problems began on offense, where his game took an odd twist. After a rampant first month of the season in which he hit .299/.409/.571 (.424 wOBA) with five of his 11 home runs, Saltalamacchia really struggled the rest of the year. Strikeouts became a major issue, as he whiffed in nearly 34 percent of his plate appearances from May onward. His power dropped significantly as well; Saltalamacchia slugged just .307 and put up an ISO of .108 after his strong power display in April. The home run per fly ball (HR/FB) rate of 11.6 percent is not so bad compared to his career mark, but he lost a lot of doubles this season. After peaking at 40 doubles with the Red Sox last year, he hit just 20 this season. That represented a drop in doubles and triples per plate appearance, from 5.7 percent career before 2014 to 4.6 percent this year.
His walk rate jumped as well and was the only redeeming factor to his batting line. As bad as that .220 batting average appears, the Marlins knew they had a batting average risk on their hands; Salty only hit .244 in three years with the Red Sox. But the walk rate made up for some of the power loss, as the 12.6 percent rate helped him get to an OBP of .322. But the sudden increase in strikeouts and walks may actually be an ominous sign for Saltalamacchia's bat speed.
One would think the transition to Marlins Park was what hurt Saltalamacchia at the plate, but it turns out he actually enjoyed the home cooking closer to his home in Palm Beach County. Salty hit .273/.330/.418 (.329 wOBA) at home, a perfectly reasonable batting line for a catcher. He hit just .162/.309/.302 (.281 wOBA) on the road. Interestingly enough, the power numbers were unaffected in the move, as he hit about the same number of homers and the same ISO at home or away.
Photo by Mike Ehrmann, Getty Images
Much was made of Saltalamacchia's problems at the plate, but ultimately his batting line was reasonable. There were 27 catchers who had at least 350 plate appearances in the bigs last year. Saltalmacchia's batting line was 20th among those catchers, alongside Brian McCann and Salvador Perez. This was right next to the league average line for all catchers; Saltalamacchia's 91 wRC+ was right next to the 93 mark for the average catcher, at only two percent worse.
The problem was that his defense was also a struggle. Saltalamacchia threw out just 19 percent of runners attempting to steal all year long, which was worse than his career 22 percent mark. The effect of this deficiency against baserunners cost Saltalamacchia and the Marlins between three and five runs in 2014. That is equivalent to about half a win or so. What may be more concerning were the problems with Saltalamacchia's pitch framing, as evidenced by multiple sources. The accounts show that Salty's deficient pitch framing, which was never an issue before arriving in Miami, may have cost Marlins pitchers 17 to 21 runs this season. Were this to be entirely credited to Saltalamacchia, it would crater his value and leave him below replacement level.
But it is hard to say that that is entirely due to Salty and not the pitching mannerisms of the Marlins' starters as well. And the suspicion is that, with Salty moving to a new league and a new team, this could have caused some of these unexpected problems defensively. But there were too many issues, both at and behind the plate, to ignore in 2014. Overall, Saltalamacchia put up a 1.3-win season according to FanGraphs, with similar evaluation from Baseball Prospectus. That is a nearly two-win improvement over the production in 2013, but there are enough foreboding signs that the Fish have to be vigilant and careful with Saltalamacchia going forward.