EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 23, 2013

Sox face tough decision on Saltalamacchia

On Pro Baseball
Christopher Smith

---- — BOSTON — Jarrod Saltalamacchia is in his third season as the starting catcher for the Red Sox and has enjoyed his time here tremendously. But could his stay in Beantown be coming to an end?

The 28-year-old will be a free agent at the end of this season.

That brings up an important question: Is Saltalamacchia Boston’s answer at catcher for the next 3-4 years?

“My family loves it here and I love it here so I’d love to stay here,” Saltalamacchia told The Eagle-Tribune. “No, there’s been no talks or anything. Don’t know what’s going to happen. My focus has mainly been on the team and winning.”

Saltalamacchia has been a streaky hitter with an on-base percentage just below .300 with Boston.

His defense never has been considered stellar and he had thrown out just 18 percent of base stealers this year entering Friday.

But he does have value because he hits for power.

Last year, he belted 25 homers, the third most among major league catchers.

He entered Friday with eight homers, a .475 slugging percentage and .802 OPS in 198 at-bats.

And although it’s difficult to quantify, Saltalamacchia appears to be improved handling the pitching staff.

“I think even from the beginning of this year there has been more familiarity with the guys on the mound, what their capabilities are — and his ability to read swings has shown up in the pitch selection he’s used,” manager John Farrell said.

“He’s had obviously a couple good games where his throwing and transfer has been quick and efficient.

“He’s always had arm strength. But I think his overall game has taken a step forward.”

The club does have Blake Swihart (at Single-A Salem) and Christian Vazquez (at Double-A Portland) who have high ceilings defensively. Swihart also projects as a top offensive catcher. But neither will be ready to start on Opening Day 2014.

Meanwhile, the power and offensive ability Ryan Lavarnway has shown at Triple-A has yet to translate to the major leagues in 203 big league at-bats.

Handling the staff

Saltalamacchia thinks he’s made great strides with his defense.

Entering Friday, Red Sox pitchers had a 4.04 ERA with Saltalamacchia as their catcher.

That’s much better than his 4.57 career ERA and 4.84 last year.

“With young catchers it comes with time,” Saltalamacchia said.

“You’re trying to get comfortable behind the plate with a staff, with your hitting. I was kind of raw, I guess, and then I got with (former Red Sox bullpen coach Gary) Tuck when I got here and really cleaned up a lot of stuff.

“I think just three years being here and being comfortable and kind of doing the same routine every day, it has really helped me a lot.”

He feels controlling the game is the most important part of his job.

“If you can somehow slow that game down for that pitcher in tight situations — second and third and no outs, bases loaded and no outs. That’s what makes a good catcher,” Saltalamacchia said.

“That’s something I think Tek (Jason Varitek) was the best at. And receiving is a big part. If you can steal a strike to get it to 0-1 instead of 1-0, that helps.”

Saltalamacchia thinks he always has been good at blocking balls in the dirt.

“I’ve always taken pride in that,” he said.

Learning process

Saltalamacchia has been backed up by some talented defensive catchers here. First Varitek, then Kelly Shoppach and now David Ross.

Varitek took him under his wing and the two are friends to this day.

“A guy like him to take his time and work with you and speak with you ... it was huge in the beginning part of my career here,” Saltalamacchia said.

“Shoppy was just kind of laid back,” Saltalamacchia added.

“There wasn’t like a routine set like there was with Tek. It kind of helped me realize that if something doesn’t go perfectly on time that day it’s not the end of the world.

“And then Rossy, just being a veteran guy with his game-calling, (has helped). He’s helped me a lot with throwing to second.”

Unlike Varitek, Saltalamacchia isn’t the type to have the big books out, examining scouting reports and planning intensely for upcoming lineups.

But he does seem to have found his right balance of prep work for him.

An interesting offensive note is Saltalamacchia, a switch-hitter, must improve from the right side of the plate.

Entering Friday, he was hitting .170 with one homer from the right side compared to .291 with seven homers from the left side.

Ironically, he is a natural righty.