The Miami Marlins signed Jarrod Saltalamacchia to anchor the catcher's position in 2014 and beyond. So far, he has had a mixed first season as the team's backstop. On the one hand, he has been an enormous improvement over the Marlins' production from last year; he has been between half a win to 1.5 Wins Above Replacement, depending on which WAR system you subscribe to, and even at its worst, that is still at least a 1.5 win improvement over last year's team production at catcher. On the other hand, his defense has suffered all year, especially in terms of his pitch framing component. Saltalamacchia has cost the Marlins between three and five runs on stolen bases this year, and measurements show him as costing something like 17 to 20 runs in terms of called strikes.
The defensive problems are what they are. Before the year, the Marlins knew they were getting a sub-par controller of the running game. Saltalamacchia has been average at blocking pitches at the plate. As for the pitch framing, part of that may be due to adjustment to a brand new pitching staff, as there was never any history of complaints in pitch framing before the season.
[Reliever Mike Dunn]:Just to get to see him behind the plate, the way he receives, because every catcher looks a little bit different, the target is presented a little differently. It looked clean back there, even if I made a bad pitch, he made me feel like I threw it good because of the way he caught it.
As for his offense, the complaints have been about his terrible .222 batting average, but Saltalamacchia has also posted a .326 on-base percentage thanks to a spike in his walk rate. Salty strikes out a lot, but that has always been his modus operandi throughout his career, and after considering park adjustment, his batting line this year is not all that dissimilar to what he put up in 2011 and 2012 with the Boston Red Sox. A little bounce back in his power and he should be back in the team's good graces, right?
Well, given the trends that we are seeing, that is not a guarantee. I have defended Saltalamacchia's batting line all season, on the back of an increase in walks along with the increase in strikeouts. All told, it has not been a terrible tradeoff for him. But if you dig into his plate discipline statistics, you do not necessarily see a great reason for his increase in walks.
Things across the board look very similar. Pitchers are not throwing a whole lot more pitches out of the zone against him. Salty is swinging as aggressively as he has in seasons past. The only major difference is a stark drop in contact rate, down four percent from last year and from his career marks.
That could easily be a blip in the radar, something from which Saltalamacchia bounces back. But there is a concern that it is a sign of bad things to come. A sudden rise in strikeouts and walks, especially one that is disproportionate to his career numbers, along with faltering contact numbers, could be a more damaging sign for a guy who has classically struck out a lot in his career. A few former Marlins have exhibited this in the past.
In 2011, John Buck signed with the Marlins for three years and $18 million. That year, a guy who classically never walked (career 6.5 percent walk rate) started doing so in Miami. He stopped swinging at so many pitches, as his swing rate dropped from 54 percent for his career to 49 percent that year. His contact rate went up to 76 percent, and his strikeouts actually dropped along with a rising walk rate. Things were looking good, though the drop in swings was not necessarily selective, as it was even on both pitches in and out of the zone. But Buck hit a still mediocre .227/.316/.367 (.303 wOBA) that was 13 percent worse than league average.
The next year, his swing rate dropped even further, to 45 percent, and the contact rate dropped back to around career levels. That combined with increases in walk and strikeout rates to career highs, but also resulted in a horrific .192/.297/.347 (.284 wOBA) batting line. Two years later, Buck is almost out of the league.
Dan Uggla did not have the same problem in Miami, but he experienced it in Atlanta with the Braves. He had a monster second half in 2011 en route to a decent season in which he posted a 73 percent contact rate and a 46 percent swing rate, the highest of his career. The next year, he could not keep pace with those swings, and his rate dropped back down to 43 percent, around his career mark. His contact rate fell three percentage points, to what was his lowest mark of his career at 70 percent. But that came with a huge bump in strikeouts and walks, as Uggla led the National League in walks that season. All good, right?
His contact rate fell again to 67 percent in 2013, his walks stayed high, but his strikeouts rose to a career high, and a year after that, he is almost out of the league at age 34.
The concern is the patter of a high-strikeout player suddenly spiking his walk rate, often times by taking more pitches both in and out of the zone. This is accompanied by an increase in whiffs. It is all potentially indicative of a player whose bat speed is declining, and whose only recourse is to "cheat" on more pitches and guess and otherwise lay off on them if he cannot catch up.
Saltalamacchia is not exhibiting all of those signs. His swing rate is stable, but the drop in contact could lead to him taking more pitches in 2015. If that is the case, and if the strikeouts and walks remain high, that could mean that a sharp decline could be on the way.
The good news is twofold. For one thing, this decline may be two years away, in which case Miami will have figured out their catching situation one way or another. Either Saltalamacchia would have transitioned to another role or his contract would have run out, allowing Miami to escape relatively unharmed. The other good thing is that the development of these trends is not quite advanced, enough so that there is still time to recover with work with hitting coach Frank Menechino. Saltalamacchia and the Marlins both have time to fix this, but there is still a concern for something that requires attention.