It’s a weird time for Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
He’s finally arrived as a catcher. He’s having a great time. He knows the Red Sox staff really well and his receiving, throwing, and handling of pitchers have improved considerably under bullpen coach Dana LeVangie. Having David Ross around for tech support has also been a big factor.
Saltalamacchia is having one of his best all-around seasons as he heads into free agency. And he should be the beneficiary of a healthy, multiyear deal.
At this time a year ago, maybe this scenario wasn’t possible. But now, based on how the pitchers feel about throwing to Saltalamacchia, it appears the Red Sox have come too far with him not to execute a longer association.
It didn’t hurt his cause that he hit a grand slam to break a 4-4 deadlock in the seventh inning Friday night. It was his 13th home run. He also logged his 36th double in the third. He now has 59 RBIs and is hitting .263. Other than Brian McCann, he’ll be the best out there among free agent catchers given his age (28) and experience overseeing one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.
In fact, every time he does something against the Yankees, you wonder if he could be playing for them next season, with that short porch in right field suited for his lefthanded swing.
Yet, it’s an uneasy time for Saltalamacchia as well. He doesn’t want to go anywhere. He’d sign a contract tomorrow. He’d give the Red Sox a hometown discount, just like Dustin Pedroia did, and be happy to do it.
But there have been no talks. This is not unusual, because there haven’t been talks concerning Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen Drew, or Mike Napoli either. The only Sox player who benefited from in-season talks was Pedroia, who signed an eight-year extension in July.
The Red Sox are deep at catcher. They have Ross coming back for one more season. They have Ryan Lavarnway, who you would think would be ready to be a full-time major leaguer next season. They have Christian Vazquez, a Carlos Ruiz-type who can really catch and throw. They have Dan Butler. And they’re waiting for Blake Swihart, who spent the season with Single A Salem and projects as the Sox’ long-term catcher.
But are any of their young catchers ready to take the next step?
The Red Sox have come a long way with Saltalamacchia, taken their lumps with him, and are now reaping the benefits of that. Do you just let him go? Do you make him the $14 million qualifying offer, and if he accepts it are you paying him too much for one year?
Saltalamacchia certainly thinks about the future. He’s done what the Sox have asked him to do. He’s improved in every facet — calling a game, throwing, cutting down his strikeouts, making more consistent contact.
He’s allowed the most steals in the majors (84) but part of the blame falls on the Red Sox wanting the pitcher to focus more on the batter than the base runner. Saltalamacchia’s catcher ERA is 3.87, which ranks seventh in the majors, and his defensive WAR is 0.3, an adequate figure.
Saltalamacchia won’t match the 25 homers he hit last season, but he’s become a much better hitter. His OPS is .788, up from .742 last season. His batting average also has seen a similar spike.
On the grand slam, Saltalamacchia said: “With Shane [Victorino] at third and with his speed, if I can get the ball up in the air, he’s gonna be able to score. I saw how [Preston Claiborne] pitched [Daniel] Nava. I know he had good stuff. I think I only faced him once, so I was just trying to get a pitch to do something with. But, yeah, grand slams always feel good.”
The Red Sox wanted to get a look at Lavarnway behind the plate late last season so Saltalamacchia often found himself as the DH.
“I was DHing the last two months of last season, so that’s not what I am and that’s not what I’m used to,” he said. “When I catch, I’m a better hitter and a better contributor to the team. So I think being able to catch and staying loose and involved in games has helped me.”
Saltalamacchia has had a bad back for a month, but when it got worse last week he decided to take some time to heal so he wouldn’t hurt the team. He wound up missing five games. The rust seemed to fall off Thursday in Tampa when he homered to break an 0-for-21 slump.
“I wasn’t trying to hit home runs last year, but I was trying to drive the ball even with two strikes. This year I try to take what pitchers give me,” he explained. “I know the league a little better and know how they’re trying to throw to me. Not swinging at so many bad pitches. That’s what we’re trying to do. Maybe get some pitches and hit singles or go the other way with it.”
He’ll hit free agency this fall at a relatively young age for a starting catcher.
If the Yankees don’t land McCann, perhaps they’ll see Saltalamacchia as a cheaper alternative. Maybe the Red Sox will decide to pursue McCann.
It takes a while for a veteran pitching staff to come around to a catcher. Saltalamacchia has won them over. Now can he convince Ben Cherington and his staff that he’s worthy of being here for a few more years?Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.