Jarrod Saltalamacchia is coming off the best year of his career. A.J. Pierzynski is coming off one of his worst. And so, naturally, the Red Sox moved on from the former to sign the latter.
A.J. Pierzynski (AP)
The decision wasn’t made in a vacuum. The Red Sox hold catching prospects Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart in tremendously high regard, with a sense that both have futures as major league starters, with Swihart representing a potential All-Star. The projected 2015 big league ETA of Vazquez and 2016 projection for Swihart’s big league readiness left the Sox in a position where a deal of no more than two years represented the ideal scenario to avoid a catching bottleneck.
As such, Saltalamacchia’s quest for a three-year deal represented an imperfect fit for the Sox. That said, the one-year deal for Pierzynski also represents a less-than-ideal scenario for the Sox, who are now somewhat exposed at catcher beyond the 2014 season, given that the team’s two anticipated big league catchers (Pierzynski and David Ross) both will be 37 years old in 2014 and both will be free agents after next year. If Vazquez struggles in 2014, then the Sox could be left to scramble to create another catching bridge. (Though it’s worth noting that a number of team officials view Dan Butler as a solid major league-ready catcher with a long future as a backup who is expected to open the year in Triple-A with Vazquez.)
Still, in order to accommodate that preference, the Sox look like a team that has made a willing decision to take an offensive step back in 2014. After all, Saltalamacchia was clearly and significantly the more productive of the two players last season.
Saltalamacchia hit .273 with a .338 OBP, .466 slugging mark, 14 homers and 40 doubles in 121 games. The switch-hitter was a monster against right-handed pitching, posting a .294/.350/.523 line and playing a significant role in the Sox’ success against righties.
Pierzynski, meanwhile, had a nearly identical average (.272) but with a terrible OBP of .297, a .425 slugging mark, 17 homers and 24 doubles (plus one triple) in 134 games. He hit .269/.286/.438 against right-handed pitching.
But is that the likely performance level that can be expected from both going forward? It’s possible. After all, Saltalamacchia is 28 and in his prime; it’s possible his talent and experience came together in a way that portends a very promising future. And at 36 going on 37, it’s possible that Pierzynski — already a swing-at-everything hitter — has become even less selective at a time when he might be trying to cheat to create bat speed.
But the Sox followed a model a year ago in which they were comfortable betting on players’ career track records rather than focusing on their most recent performances.
“If you look at historically, free agents have been overvalued for the last 15 to 20 years, because they sign long-term contracts if they have great years and sign short-term contracts if they have poor years,” principal owner John Henry said in February. “There’s regression to the mean in baseball. It’s well-known.”
That may be what the Red Sox are betting on with Pierzynski and Saltalamacchia. Pierzynski is a career .283/.322/.428 hitter, someone who hits for average, doesn’t walk and has power. He’s a lifetime .290/.331/.442 hitter against right-handers. There is at least a chance that his diminished numbers against right-handed pitching in 2013 reflected a poor batting average on balls in play — a .268 mark, down from a career .302 tally — which does endure some year-to-year volatility. (However, his decline in walks against right-handed pitching could attest to a more significant development that points to a real decline rather than a statistical fluke.)
Saltalamacchia, on the other hand, is a career .246/.310/.428 hitter, with a lifetime mark of .263/.327/.469 against right-handed pitching — numbers that align fairly closely with those of Pierzynski. In 2013, though he looked during the regular season like a hitter who did a better job of zoning in on pitches and squaring them up, his walk rate (about 8 percent) and strikeout rate (a bit over 30 percent) remained unchanged from his career norms. He had an astonishing .406 batting average on balls in play against right-handers in 2013, well above his career-average of .349. That increase could be attributable to his increased selectivity, or it could be somewhat random.
So, if there is regression to the mean, then the offensive difference between Saltamacchia and Pierzynski could prove less significant than one might guess based on the performances of the two players in 2013. However, if the 2013 season pointed to career trends — with Saltalamacchia on the upswing in terms of his approach and Pierzynski in a state of his decline — then the Sox will have gotten their place-holding solution for Vazquez and Swihart, but at some cost to their chances in 2014.