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Entering the 2011 season, baseball analysts across the country made many different predictions for how things would turn out for the Red Sox. Through the ups and downs of the lengthy season, individual story lines have emerged for different players, such as the struggles of Carl Crawford, the revival of Josh Beckett and Jacoby Ellsbury, and the success of MVP candidate Adrian Gonzalez.
Predictions are fun to look back on, especially when people are completely correct in some areas and totally wrong in others. Before things got underway in 2011, the one universal belief by all experts was that the Red Sox had a weakness at the catcher position. Veteran and team captain Jason Varitek was no longer seen as a viable option as an everyday starting catcher, leading to Theo Epstein bringing in Jarrod Saltalamacchia at the trading deadline in 2010.
A former Atlanta prospect, ‘Salty’ had had a roller coaster of experiences in the big leagues entering the 2011 season. The Braves liked what they saw in the young catcher, but lacked a place for him in their system because of Brian McCann. First base was a weakness for Atlanta, but the Braves felt transitioning Salty to becoming a first baseman wasn’t worth the trouble, and instead packaged him in a blockbuster deal to the Rangers for Mark Teixeira, a trade often deemed one of the worst in Braves history.
Salty experienced problems throwing during his stint in Texas, and managed to strike out in 28 consecutive games, the most by any position player in the history of the game. However, things have changed for him in 2011, as his arrival in Boston and status as the starting catcher has allowed him to reach a solid level of play for the catching position, turning the Sox tandem of Salty and Varitek to become of the stronger catching duos in the game.
Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com on Saltalamacchia’s 2011 outlook:
“The most popular topic of scouting gossip in Fort Myers this spring was Saltalamacchia, and whether he will prove to be Boston’s weak link. Skeptics abound. Saltalamacchia, in part due to injury, has not lived up to the raves he received when he was ranked Atlanta’s No. 1 prospect and considered the centerpiece of Texas’ trade of Mark Teixeira to the Braves in ’07. Saltalamacchia is 25, the same age that Jason Varitek was when he came to Boston, and Varitek says Saltalamacchia is far more advanced than he was, technique-wise, behind the plate. The power potential remains, the pitching staff has expressed its confidence in him, Gary Tuck put him through catching boot camp this winter, and Varitek is his safety net.”
Edes also projected Salty’s statistics for the season, giving him a .254 average with 8 home runs and 32 RBI in 279 at bats. So far this year, Salty has played much more than expected because of his success behind and at the plate compared to expectations. In 351 at bats, Salty is not getting on base as much as projected, but has shown significantly more power, with 16 home runs and 56 RBI. And his defense has also been solid, especially since numbers such as passed balls and wild pitches associated with him come in games pitched by Tim Wakefield. Amongst American League catchers to have played at least 800.0 innings this season, Salty ranks fourth in throwing out base runners at about 31.9% (36 out of 113).
His all-around solid play has changed the perception that catching is a weakness for the Sox, and has instead given much hope for the future after Jason Varitek. The catching position throughout baseball is a universal weakness, with teams constantly looking for young catchers to bear the burden of catching the majority of the season while having the offensive expectations of a National League pitcher. Catchers who are great hitters are now being moved away from the position because of the physical toll catching takes on the body. The Minnesota Twins signed Joe Mauer to a large contract but now hope to move him to becoming an everyday first baseman or designated hitter to preserve his offensive talents. Saltalamacchia has shown signs of durability this season, staying relatively healthy throughout the season and putting up offensive numbers that rank him in the top half of all catchers. Realistically, not too many better options exist for the Sox, which is why I believe that Saltalamacchia is the long-term solution to the catching position for the team, and he should be given the opportunity to establish himself.