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The Red Sox signed Saltalamacchia to a one-year, $2.5 million contract Sunday, the Boston Globe reported, avoiding arbitration and giving Saltalamacchia a $1.75 million bump over his 2011 salary.
Though he may never be the biggest offensive contributor on the team, Saltalamacchia proved last year he’s a legitimate power threat from the bottom-third of the lineup. He set many personal bests in 2011, including hits (84), doubles (23), triples (three), home runs (16) and RBIs (56). Saltalamacchia’s 2011 season ranks ahead of all of Varitek’s post-2007 seasons in most offensive categories, including batting average (.235 for Saltalamacchia in 2011).
The Red Sox have plenty of hitters in the middle of the lineup, but the deeper they can maintain their power, the better. If Saltalamacchia can continue to improve offensively – especially reducing his fifth-among-catchers 119 strikeouts – the hitters in front of him will enjoy more-hittable pitches.
Not only did Saltalamacchia drive in runs, he likely saved quite a few as well. Saltalmacchia threw out 37 runners in 2011, ranking fourth in the majors. Varitek has never thrown out more than 31.
Defense isn’t the problem for Saltalamacchia. But finally given the starting job, Saltalamacchia needs to take control of the pitching staff.
Red Sox pitchers allowed over a run more per game with Saltalamacchia behind the plate than with Varitek. Saltalamacchia posted a 4.63 CERA (catcher’s ERA) to Varitek’s 3.56. Varitek hasn’t posted a CERA that high since 2006.
Of course, the pitchers Varitek and Saltalamacchia worked with played a big role in the differences between their numbers last season. Varitek has long been the designated catcher for Josh Beckett and Jon Lester – Boston’s two best pitchers. Saltalamacchia, meanwhile, has had to work with high-ERA guys like John Lackey and Tim Wakefield.
Saltalamacchia will finally get a chance to work with the true aces of the team, and he has to prove he can handle them. While Beckett is the more vocally arrogant of the two, Lester’s recently revealed behavioral issues in the clubhouse suggest that he too has quite an ego. Both start every game thinking they know exactly what to do to dominate and win the game.
Faced with such brash personalities, it’d be easy for Saltalamacchia to leave all the pitch-selection decisions to the pitchers. But that’s not being a catcher – that’s being a backstop. Saltalamacchia must develop the self-confidence to tell Beckett and Lester when a fastball needs to be away, when an off-speed pitch gets an easier out, and when a pitch just isn’t working.
Varitek’s encyclopedic knowledge of hitters and rigorous work ethic made him an incredibly smart catcher. He always knew how best to approach a lineup, and he didn’t mind disagreeing with his pitchers when he had a better idea. That’s why Beckett and Lester respected him, and why he became their go-to catcher.
Saltalamacchia hasn’t earned that trust yet. At 26, he’s only been in the league four seasons, and he only joined the Red Sox in 2010.
Saltalamacchia’s still learning the AL East. With more games will come more experience – the key to a catcher’s success. How well a catcher applies his knowledge of a batter’s previous at-bats – both in-game and from other games – determines how the catcher will go after him.
Baseball is as much mental as it is physical, especially for catchers. Saltalamacchia already has the physical skills: he can drive in runs, block the plate and throw batters out. Now he just needs to add the mental wherewithal to take control of the Red Sox’s pitching rotation once and for all.