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The awkward season of Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Jarrod Saltalamacchia was signed to solidify the catcher position over the next three years. In some ways, he has, and in others, he hasn't. It's been an awkward year at the plate and behind it for the veteran catcher.

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Last night, Jarrod Saltalamacchia had two singles in four chances at the plate and scored a run in the Miami Marlins' 6-5 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. Not many nights have gone like that for Salty, who signed a three-year deal worth $21 million this past offseason to catch for the Marlins full-time. The Fish have gotten performances like the one from two days ago a lot more often; in that one, Saltalamacchia went hitless, struck out twice, but also walked twice and scored two runs.

Thus the complaints about Saltalamacchia and his hitting have come. He strikes out too much, his batting average is low, and the power output that he put up in the last few seasons in Boston just has not been the same here in his first year in Miami. The truth is he is not producing as he did in his contract year in Boston, when he hit .273/.338/.466 (.349 wOBA), and that probably disappoints a certain number of Marlins fans. Combine that with his questionable defensive reputation, and you have the recipe for a John Buck-style turning.

Or do you? It is easy to forget that Saltalamacchia does more than just hit home runs and strike out. In 2014, he is posting his highest walk rate of his career, up to 14.2 percent this year. The batting average might be low, but his OBP almost matches that of last season without the 50 extra points in batting average. That has done a great job of sustaining his value at the plate. Saltalamacchia may not be proud of that accomplishment, but he does take some solace from the perforance, as he notes here for Juan C. Rodriguez of the Sun-Sentinel (above link).

"Without a doubt," said Saltalamacchia, asked if he could take some solace in his walks even though the hits weren't coming in abundance. "A lot of teams take a lot of stock in the on-base percentage and slugging, and OPS. You may not have a high average, but if you're getting on base then you're doing something to help the team.

"Whether they hit you in and get runs, that's something else, but at least you're in a scenario where you can score. I'm definitely happy with that, but I don't expect to do this again. [This season] definitely has been frustrating, but at the same time the team has played well with the lack of support from me."

Saltalamacchia's spot in the lineup would be well served with some extra pop, but consider that the Marlins have a more difficult stadium in which to knock long fly balls out. However, Saltalamacchia's home run rate has actually been close to even compared to his career rate; he has hit a homer in 3.2 percent of his plate appearances this year versus 3.5 percent for his career before 2014. It has been a lack of doubles that has dropped his slugging percentage a tad, as his 4.4 percent rate represents a full percentage point drop from the career 5.4 percent mark heading into the year. Marlins Park is essentially neutral to doubles, but those large gaps tend to yield more triples, which Saltalamacchia cannot take advantage of due to his catcher slow-footedness.

A drop in power was probably expected heading into a new season at Marlins Park. What is interesting is that, according to both projections before the season and his performance in his time with the Red Sox, Saltalamacchia's offense is right in line with expectations. In three seasons with the Red Sox, he hit .243/.307/.455, which was good for a batting line worth 3.6 percent better than league average. In 2014 with the Marlins, his line is certainly different in alignment, but FanGraphs has it as two percent better than the league average after park adjustment. And given our projections for him before the season, that is actually well above expectations. Despite the awkward style with which he got his numbers, Saltalamacchia is doing fine at the plate.

It has been behind the plate where the struggle has been. Salty has recovered from an ugly early-season dive in catching would-be basestealers, but he still has only nabbed 20 percent of them on the year, which is seven percentage points worse than the league average. However, according to most metrics, that has led to just two runs below average for the season, According to Baseball Prospectus's statistics, Salty has also blocked pitches at about a league average rate, as he has only cost Miami one extra passed ball or wild pitch versus the average catcher in his innings caught. In total, those two contributions are only worth three runs below average this season. So while he has not played well behind the plate, it has more or less been within acceptable boundaries.

The only concern is the matter of pitch framing. After coming here with a good reputation and seemingly good numbers, it appears as though Saltalamacchia has let a lot of strikes pass by Marlins starters. According to StatCorner, Saltalamacchia is costing Miami pitchers nearly 1.8 strikes per game, which is tantamount to 17 runs below average in a full season. Of course, there is difficulty in hashing out appropriate blame for lost strikes between pitchers (who are already getting credit for those missed strikes in WAR) and catchers, but it is important to note that Saltalamacchia has not performed well in this department.

Overall, Salty's 1.3 Wins Above Replacement (including lost runs on blocked pitches) seems reasonable. Miami only paid $7 million a season, meaning they were expecting close to a win per year from Salty, and they have more or less already gotten it. For this year, Miami is getting its money's worth. But high-strikeout guys who suddenly spike in whiff rate and have high walk marks are not stable players going forward. Saltalamacchia will be 30 years old next season, so it is not unreasonable for him to begin declining. A decrease in contact rate could be signaling a fall in his bat speed, and for guys already on the brink of unacceptable whiff rates, it is only a couple of steps away from being an unusable player. For now, Salty is fine, but Miami cannot feel certain about the future at catcher right now.