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When “Oh Captain My Captain” Jason Varitek retired from professional baseball and the Boston Red Sox during spring training, I felt a sense of relief followed by a twinge of nostalgia. While I would no longer have to reintroduce my fist to my face with every Tek tapper to the second baseman, the reins were left in the hands of Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach.
Discounting the 2010 season that saw him play all of 12 major league games, Saltalamacchia couldn’t break .300 with his on-base percentage in his last two seasons. Meanwhile, Shoppach spent the past two years trying and failing to coax his batting average over .200. And that’s without mentioning what Josh Beckett would resort to drinking and eating without his personal catcher on hand.
This made it all the more unexpected when a catching controversy erupted – not because fans were clamoring for the resuscitation of Varitek, but because both catchers were playing like the second coming of Carlton Fisk (a washed out, Tupac-esque hologram version, if you will). Who would have guessed Shoppach would be going to manager Bobby Valentine this season with a legitimate gripe about not getting enough playing time, only to be scoffed at because Salty was tearing the cover off the ball?
Certainly not me.
When Shoppach originally stormed into the manager’s office near the end of May looking to strap on his catcher’s equipment a little more often, it seemed a rather ill-advised trip. Laughable, even. (At least, I laughed.) At the time, Shoppach was hitting a respectable .259/.355/.444 in part-time duty as the Red Sox back-up behind the plate. Unfortunately, Saltalamacchia was in the midst of a line drive binge and long ball barrage for the month of May, hitting a rather astounding .308/.345/.628. (In case you were wondering, yes, that’s particularly astounding for a guy who the Red Sox acquired two years ago for a sack of pennies and a cup of clam chowd-ah because he couldn’t even throw the ball back to the pitcher’s mound.)
After a couple weeks in June, however, Shoppach’s call for playing time looks almost prophetic. While he has boosted his average up to .280 with a .905 OPS, Saltalamacchia has dive-bombed back to the reality of his .253 batting average, including an ongoing 1-for-18 stretch that has seen him strikeout eight (!) times (with a golden sombrero for good measure). Naturally, Salty has started eight games to Shoppach’s four in the month of June.
Having said that, I still don’t think it makes sense for Shoppach to take over the bulk of the starts behind home plate (apparently, numbers do lie – don’t the ESPN number bias brainwash you). To begin with, his name is Kelly, and not in the way that J.D. Drew’s name was Nancy. It’s literally, actually, seriously Kelly. Second, he’s had all of 75 at-bats to get all of 21 hits. Cue any number of statheads screaming, “SMALL SAMPLE SIZE!!!” in panicked unison while frantically adjusting their glasses. Third, he’s a 32-year-old career back-up with a lifetime .227 average.
Meanwhile, Saltalamacchia is only 27 with the potential to continue developing into a better-than-solid starting catcher, glimpses of which we’ve seen already this season. Second, shslump happens. And lastly, he has a great name (one of the longest last names in MLB history) and a better nickname (Salty >>> Kelly).
Yes, Shoppach has been solid all season, with a spoonful of pop to go with a sprinkle of patience. I certainly don’t object to him letting Ryan Lavarnway get a little more seasoning down in AAA (and yes, apparently I’m hungry), nor do I find the possibility of leveraging roughly 100 quality at-bats of half-decent Kelly Shoppach into 15 quality starts from a half-decent starting pitcher (Joe Blanton? Bartolo Colon?). But let’s not get crazy here.
If we’re going down that road, might as well get on the phone to bring Varitek out of retirement and put the “C” back in controversy.