Friday marked a take-a-bow occasion for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the Red Sox catcher who, at 28, appears to be coming into his own. His seventh-inning grand slam to untie a 4-4 game, coupled with his continued leadership of his pitching staff, played central roles in the 8-4 win that conferred upon the Red Sox their 90th win of the year.
It's been a breakthrough campaign for the catcher. He's hitting .263 with a .334 OBP and .454 slugging percentage, marks that have been fueled by 13 homers and 35 doubles. Whereas in the past he's endured fairly dramatic pendulum swings at different stages of the year, in 2013, he's been a dramatically more consistent player than ever before. His offensive approach has seemingly evolved, with improved pitch selection at the plate resulting in a notable increase in batting average (up from .222 last year to .263 this year) and OBP (up from .288 to .334).
"Last year I tried to … I wasn't trying to hit home runs, but I was trying to drive the ball even with two strikes," said Saltalamacchia. "This year I'm taking what I get, learning the league a little better, learning how they're trying to throw to me, not swinging at so many bad pitches, knowing that's what they're trying to do, get some pitches up and hit singles or go the other way with it."
But even that description of an evolving approach fails to do justice to the catcher's progress. In order to appreciate what Saltalamacchia has become, it's worth taking a moment to reconsider what he had been.
It has now been three-plus years since the Red Sox acquired him as what seemed like a near-afterthought at the 2010 trade deadline. The Sox were characterized that year as standing pat at July 31, with the acquisition of Saltalamacchia (for three minor leagues -- one of whom (Chris McGuiness) has played in 10 big league games, one of whom (Roman Mendez) has yet to advance past Double-A, one of whom (Michael Thomas) is now out of pro baseball) representing something of a footnote to the team's relative inactivity.
Once a supplemental first-rounder with a ceiling that seemed as ginormous as his frame, at 25, questions had emerged about whether the catcher with huge power would be able to tap fully into his reservoir of talents. He'd suffered from thoracic outlet syndrome in 2009, a condition that required surgery after yielding pain in his right shoulder and elbow that led to numbness in his right hand. The health woes led to some painful struggles in his ability to throw a baseball, something that led to uncertainty about whether he ever could emerge as an everyday catcher.
Ultimately, the Rangers -- who had acquired Saltalamacchia in 2007 as the most prominent name in a trade that sent Mark Teixeira to the Braves -- did not see the still-young player as their future catcher. And while the Sox still glimpsed considerable possibility with him, it would be misleading to suggest that they felt any sense of certainty about what he might be able to achieve.
But for his part, Saltalamacchia insists that he had no questions about his ability to emerge as a starting catcher in the big leagues.
"Without a doubt," he said of whether, at the time of the trade, he knew he could be an everyday big league catcher. "It's just getting the opportunity. I wasn't really getting it in Texas. It wasn't the right fit, obviously. Since I got here, the front office -- obviously, when [former GM Theo Epstein] was here, and now with [current GM Ben Cherington] -- they did a great job of just letting me be me. Being around these guys in this clubhouse obviously helped a lot. Obviously being around [former catching instructor Gary Tuck] and [Jason Varitek], learning as much as I could, it was always there. I always worked hard. It wasn't a matter of that. It was just a matter of getting an opportunity."
He got that with the Sox -- though not immediately at the big league level. After he'd spent almost all of the 2010 season with the Rangers' Triple-A affiliate in Oklahoma City, Saltalamacchia reported to Triple-A Pawtucket after the Sox acquired him. He needed a brief period of time to get his equilibrium in his new organization.
"I remember him as a guy that was developing confidence," recalled current Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo, then the manager of Pawtucket, where Saltalamacchia spent two weeks prior to his callup to the big leagues, before returning on a rehab assignment later that month from a leg infection. "He was a young player who was loaded with talent. We all knew that. We'd all been understanding that he was flying through Texas' and Atlanta's system. We were glad to get him, glad that he was available. But when he came, he was just probably a little bit shellshocked -- new system, he was trying to get an understanding of what the Boston Red Sox were all about.
"By the finish [of his time in Pawtucket], he was a guy who was ready to compete and contribute in the major leagues -- there was no doubt in my mind -- from a confidence standpoint. I think when he got there, he was still trying to figure some things out."
Still, it took him little time to make a favorable impression. The tools -- huge power, technical proficiency behind the plate -- suggested someone with the chance to make an impact.
"At that point, he was a switch-hitter who could hit home runs to any part of the ballpark. He had a great compact stroke. Defensively, he was blocking balls well. He showed tremendous arm strength," said Lovullo. "For me, I hadn't seen him enough as far as his play-calling or pitch-calling, as far as those intangibles that go along with being a frontline everyday starter. But we certainly felt strongly that based on what we had seen, or what I had seen with the rest of the staff in Pawtucket for the 30 days or so that he was there, that he was easy to project as a guy who could go out and contribute as an everyday player."
Still, even Saltalamacchia acknowledges that there was work to be done at that point. It wasn't a matter of unwillingness -- he's always been a tireless worker, someone who is in the Red Sox clubhouse well before dawn on a daily basis in spring training to engage in the maintenance work needed on his swing from both sides of the plate while preparing for and learning to work with his pitching staff.
But he had yet to emerge as someone who could process easily all of the available data -- whether the advanced scouting reports catchers are asked to digest or the visual cues of how a pitcher is throwing and how a batter is approaching him -- to put down the right fingers for the right pitch at the right time. He was, in short, young -- one of the foremost qualities and limitations he faced at that time.
"The biggest thing, for a catcher being young -- calling pitches, being a catcher in the big leagues, that's tough for a young player. You need time to grow, time to be up there," said Saltalamacchia, who made his big league debut on his 22nd birthday with the Braves in 2007. "Maybe I came up too early. I don't know. In Atlanta I was doing well. It might have just been something about being in Texas."
Saltalamacchia took a crash course in catching theory and praxis under the tutelage of both Red Sox catching instructor Tuck and Varitek. He was an eager learner, embracing the opportunity to have Tuck work with him during the offseason of 2010-11, as he prepared to assume the job of primary Red Sox catcher after the team let Victor Martinez walk in free agency.
But when the season started in 2011, Saltalamacchia was not then what he is now. He got off to a horrific start to the year, looking overwhelmed offensively and defensively for much of April that year.
Yet he worked his way back over the next few months to earn his job as the Sox' primary catcher. Despite a year-ending slump (which coincided with his team's tailspin), he'd shown enough to have a foundation going forward.
In 2012, he showed even more, performing at a level that thrust him into the conversation of All-Star candidacy in June. But he faded after that, and struggled down the stretch, at a time when he was being used largely as a designated hitter in deference to the fact that the Sox wanted to give Ryan Lavarnway an opportunity to get everyday playing time at catcher.
"I was DHing the last two months of the season last year. That's not who I am, that's not what I'm used to," said Saltalamacchia. "I feel like when I catch I'm a better hitter and a better contributor to the team. Being able to catch and staying lose and being involved in the games helps me."
This year, however, Saltalamacchia has been a rock on the team that owns the best record in the American League. He's become a player capable of making a consistent two-way impact. And he's become, increasingly, the leader of the pitching staff, a calming presence in whom his pitchers willingly place their trust.
"I think he's got maybe a little better plate discipline this year, the average is up a little bit. But as far as him affecting us as pitchers, he's been great," said John Lackey. "He takes control in the pitcher's meetings. We'll go over scouting reports, and he really is great at putting those in play once we get out on the field. He's got a good feel for it. As pitchers we have a lot of confidence in him."
Perhaps it's a matter of the shadows of Varitek (who retired after the 2011 season) and Tuck (who retired just before the start of spring training) no longer looming over him. But perhaps the answer is less about who is not there than who is.
Perhaps those many, many early mornings in Fort Myers have brought the 28-year-old Saltalamacchia to the point where the game has slowed down, permitting him to process all of the different pieces of information -- breaking down opposing hitters and opposing pitchers -- and applying them in a fashion that permits him to make a steady impact, and sometimes -- as with the colossal grand slam to right on Friday -- something more than that.
"I've worked hard. I've worked hard because I appreciate that this game is not easy," said Saltalamacchia. "I know it's not. I don't ever take it for granted. I don't ever try to be above the game, because this game can be humbling."
Yet it can also offer the potential for triumph. And Saltalamacchia is now in a place where he is achieving a measure of just that.
"A guy that's really gravitated to being the leader of the pitching staff. I think he understands first and foremost that he wants to catch a winner. He wants to go out, catch a pitcher through the ballgame and win his outing, and set his offense aside and say today I'm out here for this guy and his productivity," said Lovullo. "I really like the way his personality meshes with each individual pitcher. He's shown great leadership skills in that area. He's comfortable in any surrounding. He's comfortable with the staff. He's comfortable getting feedback. He's comfortable going out there and working on some of his limitations to get to the point that he's at today.
"For me, he's a championship style of catcher. As he's developed that through the course of this year, we could see him as a guy who's a mainstay and a guy who's a true backstop for a championship-caliber ball club," continued Lovullo. "I think based on what he had gone through -- we're well aware of that -- but based on what he had gone through, fast-forwarding to where he is today, it's a pretty amazing accomplishment and it shows a lot of mental strength and mental toughness. I think that's one of the intangibles that all of those championship catchers do have."