What to make of the Red Sox catching situation at a time when uncertainty surrounds it?
Especially through the first two months of the season, Jarrod Saltalamacchia looked like an All-Star. He pulverized the baseball and seemed more locked in than at any other point in his career. He took even his inspired play over a stretch of four-plus months in 2011 to new heights, at times collaborating with David Ortiz to carry an underperforming and injury-riddled Red Sox lineup.
In the process, he laid claim to the unquestioned title of everyday catcher, with speculation that he could carry the load for 130 or even 140 games. It was his job, his pitching staff, his time – no questions asked.
And why would there be any? He was hitting .279 with a .325 OBP, .593 slugging mark, .917 OPS and 11 homers in 44 games. The performance was little short of staggering.
But more recently, over a stretch that has now reached nearly two months (dating to the early days of June), he has staggered in a different fashion. Saltalamacchia continues to kill the baseball when he makes contact with it, as evidenced by the fact that he now has nine homers in his last 39 games, but there’s not a lot of contact.
Since June 6, he’s hitting .185 with a .250 OBP, .407 slugging mark and .657 OPS. He’s striking out in 35 percent of his plate appearances (52 of 148) after an 0-for-4 night in which he fanned twice and grounded into a killer double play in the Red Sox’ 7-5 loss to the Tigers.
Given how outstanding his peaks are -- the first two months of this year, the middle four months of last -- it is tempting to suggest that Saltalamacchia will work his way back towards his dominant form. But it’s also hard to ignore that, while his power has been on the steady uptick, his average and OBP are very much in line with his recent norms:
2009 (84 games): .233/.290/.371/.661
2011 (103 games): .235/.288/.450/.737
2012 (83 games): .233/.288/.502/.789
“The success is fragile,” said one rival talent evaluator of Saltalamacchia’s hot streaks, which have been bookended in recent years by severe cold spells. “It’s always tenuous.”
His struggles to hit for average and get on base, in turn, have opened the door to a fairly considerable redistribution of the catching workload. Saltalamacchia has been the starting catching in just six of the last 14 Red Sox games, with Kelly Shoppach -- who would sometimes sit even against left-handers earlier in the year, much to his chagrin -- now having gotten the majority of starts behind the plate over the last two weeks. (It is worth noting that Saltalmacchia got a pair of starts at DH.)
The somewhat fitful playing time, Saltalmacchia suggested last month, at a time when he was out of the lineup for three straight days against three straight left-handed starters, isn’t necessarily ideal for permitting him to work his way out of his struggles.
“It's a timing thing. When you're kind of struggling at the plate, the more at-bats the better. All it takes is one hard hit ball, or one crappy hit ball that goes through,” Saltalamacchia observed. “You take any time off, your swing is going to start to change a little bit. Your timing is going to be off. That's the main thing. Having [a few] days off messes up your timing a little bit. But it's part of the game.”
Still, Saltalamacchia’s struggles -- somewhat reminscent of his dreadful performance last September -- highlight some short- and long-term concerns for the Sox at a position of vital importance.
Even when he was hitting the ball with a sledgehammer, Saltalamacchia would maintain consistently (true to form for a catcher) that his performance boiled down solely to whether the Sox won or lost. He understands and cares deeply about his responsibility to his pitching staff; his teammates seem to adore him for it.
In all respects, he carries himself as a team would want a catcher to do. But that comportment only amplifies this oddness: The Red Sox are now 29-39 (.426) in games that Saltalamacchia starts, and 24-13 (.649) when Shoppach starts.
The Sox are aware of that gaping disparity. The front office has talked to players and members of the coaching staff to figure out if it’s merely a startling coincidence or reflects something more tangible. According to a team source, the conclusion is the former. Still, the Sox find themselves at a strange place with regards to the catching position.
Saltalamacchia still has strong slugging numbers relative to his position on the season, thanks to his huge power numbers. He’s hitting .233/.288/.502/.789 with 20 homers. However, he’s struggling in the most critical situations, going 2-for-21 (.095) with one walk and 11 strikeouts in his last 22 plate appearances with runners in scoring position (noteworthy: both hits are homers).
His pitching staff has a 4.59 ERA with him behind the plate (a problematic measure, but a measure nonetheless) and he’s thrown out 20 percent of potential base stealers.
Shoppach, meanwhile, has had a tremendous under-the-radar season, hitting .258/.346/.508/.854 with five homers. Sox pitchers have a 3.63 ERA when working with him. He’s thrown out 35 percent of those who dare attempt to steal against him.
And then, there is Ryan Lavarnway. With Shoppach hobbled temporarily after slamming a foul ball off of his shin on Tuesday, the Sox called up Lavarnway for Wednesday’s game to provide them with a healthy backup catcher and right-handed bat off the bench.
Lavarnway has done just about everything to position himself as a big league option both offensively and defensively.
“I loved him in spring training and since he's continued to make improvements,” said Sox manager Bobby Valentine. “Offensively, [Pawtucket manager Arnie Beyeler] says he's definitely ready and will continue to improve and we hope he continues to improve. Defensively, is the same –– that he's ready, but he want him to continue to improve.”
In Triple-A this year, Lavarnway was hitting .295 with a .376 OBP, .439 slugging mark and .815 OPS along with eight homers in 83 games. Those numbers are down from the spectacular offensive display he had a year ago in Pawtucket, when he hit .295/.390/.612/1.002 with 18 homers in 61 days, but the circumstances have been drastically different.
Last year, Lavarnway was splitting time between catcher and DH, putting himself in position to be major league-ready as a hitter. This year, he’s already caught 80 games -- 14 more than his prior career high for a full season, set in 2009 in Single-A Greenville -- and it’s been a different undertaking as the Sox have tried to conclude Lavarnway’s defensive apprenticeship at the game’s most demanding position.
“This has been my first opportunity to catch on an everyday basis. I’ve got to tell you -- it’s a lot different than DH-ing half the time. It’s more of a physical grind,” said Lavarnway. “But I’ve got a great postgame routine. I’m staying in shape a lot better this year, working on my flexibility and my body feels great.
“This is the best my body has felt this deep into the year regardless of how many games I’ve caught. I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in in August,” he added. “There’s been the greater degree [of physical stress from catching], but I’ve focused a lot heavier on my diet than I have in past years. I haven’t put on the weight I have in past years. I’ve focused a lot more on flexibility with the long haul in mind.”
Ah, the long haul. That consideration further muddies the waters of how the Red Sox might handle the position for the rest of the year and into next.
Shoppach is signed just for this year to a one-year, $1.35 million bargain. But at a time when the Sox are desperate for wins, it was noteworthy to see Shoppach catch and Saltalamacchia DH on consecutive nights in the first two games of the Tigers series.
Saltalamacchia, who is making $2.5 million this year, will remain under team control in 2013. But his streakiness clearly has created some question in the minds of the Sox about the ideal workload he should assume.
And that, in turn, brings Lavarnway into the picture. Perhaps he is just a temporary call-up until David Ortiz returns. But whatever trial periods the Red Sox might have, they have to get a look at the big league level about where he stands both offensively and in terms of his game-calling and management of the big league pitching staff.
Like Saltalamacchia, Lavarnway slumped his way through July, hitting .233/.290/.326/.616 in the month. Still, the Sox have an opportunity to use this time to get a better read on Lavarnway’s readiness next year to a) take part in a time share or platoon with Saltalamacchia; b) assume everyday duties, in which case the team might deal Saltalamacchia in the offseason; or c) neither, in which case the team could keep Saltalamacchia and either make a run at retaining Shoppach for another year or finding another backup catcher for 2013.
How should the Sox handle the position with the goal of winning now and trying to crawl up in the playoff race? How should they proceed while determining the relative roles of Lavarnway and Saltalamacchia in 2013?
The answers to those questions may be similar, but they may not be. But the Sox have little time to wade through trial and error. They need to find answers to a catching position where they arguably have their greatest surplus of above-average talent but where they are currently struggling to find the right mix.