There have been 120 walk-off base hits in playoff history. Few may have garnered less notice than the one authored by Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia on Sunday night in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.
The oversight was perhaps understandable. The grand slam from David Ortiz was the game-changer, a signature moment in the game for a signature player of a postseason epoch. By the time Saltalamacchia ripped his single through the drawn-in infield (taking advantage of the extra lease on life afforded by Prince Fielder's inability to corral a foul pop-up next to the stands) to propel the Sox to a 6-5 victory over the Tigers, a sense of inevitability already prevailed in the park.
Still, the hit -- the third walk-off of Saltamacchia's career -- was the culmination of what had been a strong game for the 28-year-old catcher, in a contest where he was one of the only Red Sox players to put together consistently solid plate appearances. Indeed, he'd nearly made headlines earlier in the contest, when he crushed a Max Scherzer pitch deep to the right-field corner; the blast faded on the warning track, however, at the time leaving Scherzer's no-hitter intact.
In some ways, the game was a microcosm of Saltalamacchia's season: significant, critical contributions that typically remain obscured by the performances of others, whether the pitchers whom he's catching or the offensive work of more heralded lineup members.
Nonetheless, his significance this year has been undeniable. Manager John Farrell has referred several times in recent weeks to the idea that Saltalamacchia is a catcher who is "coming into his own," and it's a premise with which few could take issue.
In 121 games during the regular season, Saltalamacchia hit a career-high .273 with a .338 OBP (second best of his career), .466 slugging mark (best of his career), .804 OPS (best of his career), 14 homers, 40 doubles (most of his career; most by a catcher in Sox history) and 65 RBI (career best).
Those marks contributed to a year in which he was one of the best hitting catchers in the game. Of the 28 catchers with at least 300 plate appearances, Saltalamacchia ranked ninth in average, ninth in OBP, sixth in slugging and second in extra-base hits -- with more multi-base knocks than peers such as Buster Posey and Matt Wieters. The performance attests to an improved approach at the plate, a player who is reaching career maturity.
"I will say that this year, I've changed my view," Saltalamacchia said recently. "I'm not going up there trying to get the big hit or a home run. I've thought about, let's play the small game. There's an open hole, this guy's not going to give in to me, he's going to give me some pitches the other way that I can hit that way, I'm going to go with it. There are other times where a guy isn't going to give me a pitch to hit to second, he's going to try to pound me in so I roll over for a double play, so I've got to make sure I get a pitch to hit. I've gotten better at that."
Yet for Saltalamacchia, offense remains a secondary consideration. In his third year as the Sox' primary catcher, he's taken far greater pride in his work with his pitching staff, a collaboration that he views as the foundation of the team's 70-41 record (.631 winning percentage) in games where he's been the starting catcher.
He's emerged as a leader behind the plate, someone whose pitch-calling the staff now trusts. It required three seasons for him to reach that point, with some rocky points in the transition from Jason Varitek and Victor Martinez to Saltalamacchia, but he's reached a point of comfort.
"[The 2011 season] was my first full year. These guys didn't really know me and I didn't know them. We were kind of trying to get on the right page. Regardless of what I thought was the right pitch or what they thought was the right pitch, you've got to be on the same page. It took us a few years, but we're on that," said Saltalamacchia. "Them trusting me enough to work together is what I'm more proud of than anything."
It is telling that Saltalamacchia's greatest pride comes from a collaboration in which the primary statistical successes (wins, losses, ERA) are typically conferred upon pitchers rather than himself. Inside the Sox clubhouse, he is viewed as a leader due to the selflessness that often characterizes the best kinds of catchers. His attitude and outlook -- in tandem with a skill set that has shown considerable improvement on both sides of the ball -- have been a key part of the Sox' success this year and the fact that they are one of the last four teams standing.
That, in turn, makes his unresolved status beyond this season noteworthy. Saltalamacchia is eligible for free agency after this season. The Sox do not appear to have an in-house everyday successor.
David Ross was signed to be a good backup who plays chiefly against left-handers. The limited usage of Ryan Lavarnway this year underscores that he's not viewed by the team as ready to take over for Saltalamacchia. In Pawtucket, Dan Butler looks like a potentially solid backup but not an everyday option, while Christian Vazquez (who will open next year in Pawtucket) is at least a year away from the big leagues, and Blake Swihart is probably at least two years away.
The Sox thus face the prospect of either re-signing Saltalamacchia or pursuing another catcher via free agency. At a time where catchers capable of making a two-way impact are scarce, Brian McCann of the Braves, coming off his seventh 20-homer season in the last eight years, represents the only prospective free agent whose age and recent performance would put him in Saltalamacchia's category this offseason.
"They're both young, power-hitting catchers. McCann's been doing it for so long and has so much hardware, it's hard to ignore that. But Salty's definitely come into his own this year, playing every day," said Ross, who played with McCann for four years before signing with the Sox last offseason. "It's hard to compare the two. They're both really good friends of mine, so I'd hate to choose one over the other. I think they both bring unique stuff to free agency. I don't think you can go wrong with either guy.
"If I'm a GM judging the two, what you're looking at is, is McCann really going to produce at the level he's always produced at, being in a new environment. And he's such a good hitter that you're probably going to take him to the DH role later in his contract. Salty has hit his stride now and is he going to keep going that way? That's for an evaluator. That's why it's nice to be a player. In evaluation, I feel like it's such a crapshoot -- who's going to best fit a team? I don't know how teams do that. But Ben [Cherington] did a great job with it this year.
"I know one thing for sure. No matter what those guys get in free agency, I feel like they're both undervalued. They're both really, really good catchers, and I feel like a good team starts with good pitching and good catching. It's such a key."
The Sox now recognize that they have a good catcher in Saltalamacchia. The team's view of him has evolved, particularly this year, when he's arrived as a trusted catcher who is likewise harnessing his offensive abilities.
Saltalamacchia likely will be looking for a three- or four-year contract this winter. With Vazquez and Swihart coming, a two-year deal (perhaps with a team option) would be perfect for the Sox, but given how hard it is to find a player with Saltalamacchia's skill set, particularly one in his prime, there's a good chance he won't settle for that.
So would the Sox go to three years? According to sources familiar with the team's thinking, that's entirely possible -- depending on the price tag.
Even in a best-case scenario for Vazquez or Swihart, the Sox would need an everyday catcher for another year, while preferring a model in which they let a younger catcher serve an understudy role in the big leagues for a year before assuming primary catching duties. And even if one of the players was then viewed as ready to emerge as a frontline catcher, the team would want a highly qualified backup who could smooth over any transitional struggles and protect the team in case a prospect wasn't ready for a starting job.
The Sox decided that they would not talk to any of their impending free agents during the season, feeling they couldn't address the future of one without creating questions for the others. Even so, the team's longer-term catching outlook would seem to suggest a distinct possibility of a return. So, too, does Saltalamacchia's unquestioned interest in coming back.
"I'm comfortable, real happy. I've worked hard to get to where I'm at. It's not just an overnight thing. Three good years with these guys, we've been through highs, lows, miserables," Saltalamacchia reflected. "We've always in the back of our minds wanted something to happen. But I've never wanted to go to them and say, 'Hey, what do you think?' I've always taken the approach of grind and let whatever's going to happen take care of itself, allow them to come to us if they want to do something. They know where I stand. They know I want to come back here. I can't make those decisions, obviously."
The issue looms. Yet for Saltalamacchia, at this stage, it is not difficult to push it aside for another time. Indeed, it is natural for a catcher to do so: To push aside personal statistics or fortunes in order to focus on collective success. And at a time when the Sox have plenty to play for, Saltalamacchia is playing for something far more significant, in his eyes, than a contract.
"It still hasn't hit me, it still hasn't registered that I have a chance of not being back here, a chance that I'm not going to be here for the rest of my career. It hasn't really hit me, but I need to focus on other things right now," he said. "We're in a good stage right now where our focus is on what's going to happen right now and each other, not the offseason and what's going to happen next year."
For now, there are more immediate accomplishments at hand -- with Saltalamacchia more than happy to be a piece of a championship puzzle, rather than a focus, and certainly not a distraction. Even at a time when he could enjoy a chance to bask in the glory of a playoff walk-off, such personal achievements are not what fuel Saltalamacchia.
"Right now, I like who I've become. I like what I am," he said. "I feel like what I do day-in, day-out is one speed. I don't have a slow down, let's take it easy setting. I have one speed. I'm going to play and I'm going to play hard, and I'm not worried about the outcome of me hitting and that kind of stuff. My job is behind the plate. My focus is catching."