The Miami Marlins expected to stabilize their catcher position before the 2014 season by signing Jarrod Saltalamacchia to a three-year, $21 million contract. The reasoning behind the move was simple: Saltalamacchia had come off three straight decent years, culminating in a three-plus win campaign for the Boston Red Sox, and the Fish appeared to not have any promising young prospects to take over the catcher spot for the next few years.
Fast forward one year later and the situation has drastically changed. Saltalamacchia struggled defensively throughout 2014, lost some power in the transition to Marlins Park, and put up a season between replacement level and one win. Meanwhile, J.T. Realmuto re-established himself as the catcher of the future and is nipping at Saltalamacchia's heels for a starting spot. However, Miami will still depend on the 30 year-old veteran to hold the backstop for another season as the team looks to contend in 2015.
So can Saltalamacchia recover from his poor year? What are we to expect this season?
1. Jarrod Saltalamacchia
2. Jeff Mathis
Minor League Depth: J.T. Realmuto
Saltalamacchia has no pressure from his primary backup, as the Marlins picked up Jeff Mathis's $1.5 million option for this upcoming season. However, he will face the pressure of Realmuto if the prospect continues to play well in his next stint in Triple-A New Orleans. In order to avoid losing his job prematurely, Saltalamacchia will have to improve his game from last year, particularly on the defensive end.
Before he can improve, we must first uncover some truths about last season. For a catcher, his batting line was not all that poor. The average catcher put up a .244/.309/.379 batting line that was seven percent below the league average. Saltalamacchia hit .220/.320/.362, which was nine percent below the league average. And that is based on FanGraphs's park factors. It appears Baseball Prospectus's park factors were more generous, as Saltalamacchia rated at near league average in their True Average (TAv) total offense metric. TAv is park- and league-adjusted to set average at a TAv of .260, and BP had Salty at a .259 TAv for the season.
Despite the terrible batting average, Saltalamacchia was not all that bad at the plate. However, he did have a concerning trend. This was the first season that he truly depended on walks to supplement his line, but there are concerns about decline with a sharp increase in walks like this. The fear is that the reason why Saltalamacchia picked up his walks was not because he was smarter with his swings, but rather that he simply took more pitches because his bat began slowing down. There is at least anecdotal evidence that high-strikeout sluggers who spike walks and strikeouts at around this time in their careers could be as early as two years from a batting tailspin.
Much of Saltalamacchia's production in Boston was from power, but he needs to add more power this season in order to match up. His ISO fell to .143, and that was due to a drop in both homers and extra-base knocks. In 2013, Saltalamacchia hit 40 doubles to supplement a new line drive approach and drop in home runs. In 2014, those extra bases dropped; after averaging a double or triple in 29 percent of his hits from 2011 to 2013, he only put one up in 24 percent of them in 2014. Combine that with similar power production to 2013 and his line came off worse than in his last three years.
We cannot be sure that that will happen to Saltalamacchia. His swing rate stayed pretty stable, but his contact did drop to its lowest career rate. The good news is that he has hit similarly before. According to FanGraphs, he hit a similar batting average and had comparable (but better) batting lines in Boston in 2011 and 2012 after correcting for park. It is not a stretch to imagine similar production even after a down year.
Defensively, however, Saltalamacchia really struggled. He failed to control the running game, putting up an ugly 19 percent caught stealing rate compared to the league average of 28 percent. He also failed miserably at pitch framing according to most metrics, as he cost the club upwards of two wins on missed strikes! Saltalamacchia never had a great reputation behind the plate, so that makes his struggles more significant and likely to be repeated, though not to the degree we just saw.
The framing, however, could be a one-year fluke, as Baseball Prospectus rated Saltalamacchia as a positive three years in a row before this past season. He could chalk up his difficulties this season to learning a new pitching staff or the vagaries of one-year catching framing data. But adding new potential concerns to an existing pile of real problems, no matter how likely to regress, is always a negative.
All that being said, projecting Saltalamacchia's season going forward has been erratic among multiple systems.
The mix ranges from a .299 wOBA to a line closer to the expected league average for 2015. Most projection systems are essentially expecting a bit of a bounce back for Saltalamacchia, The important part of this comeback is in the power department; each system projected an ISO better than the one he posted last year, though still not matching the rates he put up in Boston. Each system is expecting around 12 to 14 home runs and about 20 or so doubles. The batting averages are all low, as expected for a chronic strikeout artist like Saltalamacchia.
Defensively, Saltalamacchia is being credited as close to an average catcher. This may account for regression in the ugly caught stealing numbers combined with his traditionally solid plate blocking skills. I would be willing to bet that he would be below average next season based on our prior knowledge of his skills and his increasing age, however.
What does the total package give us? The average batting line between the three systems is at .228/.303/.391, which should yield a very similar wOBA of around .305 for the upcoming year. With that line and a defensive profile of a -5 run catcher in 440 plate appearances, you would expect Saltalamacchia to put up 1.4 Wins Above Replacement.
A 1.4-win season would be a reasonable performance for Saltalamacchia, especially given what the Marlins are paying him. A win nowadays costs between $6 million and $7 million, so the Fish are likely paying him at a fair rate. If he can gather up more playing time, he may get close to two-win production. Saltalamacchia should have every opportunity to redeem his awkward season from last year.