Getting rid of Saltalamacchia is not only the best move the Red Sox can make, but it may also be key in helping the team improve next season.
Saltalamacchia has the misfortune of being a catcher who is neither a good hitter or defender. Fans may be drawn to his occasional power, but it’s a mirage that masks his other deficiencies.
Saltalamacchia hit 25 home runs last season, but there was little else he did of offensive value. His .222 batting average and .288 OBP were both well below the league averages of .255 and .320. His 1.8 oWAR was still below replacement level despite his homers.
Now six years into his major league career, Saltalamacchia has a proven track record when it comes to his offensive ineptness. He has career marks of a .239 batting average, .720 OPS and strikes out once every 3.4 at-bats.
Saltalamacchia’s failure to make contact is his major downfall at the plate. ESPN.com’s Tristan Cockroft explained how the average major league BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) usually is in the .290-.300 range. According to FanGraphs.com, Salty’s career BABIP is .309, meaning that when he puts the ball in play he is a little bit better than average. Unfortunately his all-or-nothing approach at the plate severely diminishes his effectiveness.
As a switch-hitter Saltalamacchia has another false sense of value. He is such a bad right-handed hitter (.203 batting average and .256 OBP for his career) that it’s a wonder he hasn't given it up as a lost cause by now. He has especially struggled from the right side during the last two seasons with Boston, evidenced by his .196 batting average.
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Never known for his defense, Saltalamacchia started receiving more plaudits for his play behind the plate in 2012 after finally wrestling the starting job away from Jason Varitek. MLB.com’s Ian Browne referred to Saltalamacchia in the New England Baseball Journal as a “defensive threat,” and cited his improved defensive work. Unfortunately the numbers simply don’t support such claims.
In 2011 Saltalamacchia threw out 30.8 percent of base runners and had a .992 fielding percentage. This past season he fell to 18.4 percent caught stealing and a .991 fielding percentage.
It also appears that Saltalamacchia struggles calling of games. In 2011 Red Sox pitchers had a combined 4.62 ERA when he caught them, as opposed to 3.61 with anyone else. Last season, pitchers had a 4.84 ERA with Salty, but that dropped to 4.51 with the other catchers.
Giving Saltalamacchia some at-bats as a first baseman has also been discussed as a way to maximize his power. That would be a big mistake. He has appeared in 40 games at first during his major league career and committed a staggering 11 errors. Granted, it’s a position he rarely plays, but if the Red Sox want to win, experimenting with a player of Saltalamacchia’s caliber at different positions isn't going to help.
Saltalamacchia made $2.5 million in 2012 and is arbitration-eligible, likely putting him in line for a raise next season. The Red Sox can’t afford to allocate that kind of money to a player with so many holes in his game.
Since Lavarnway is ready to play and they now have Ross, the Red Sox should see what they can do about trading Saltalamacchia. Lavarnway has a chance to be above average with his bat and Ross is already one of the best defensive catchers in the game. Boston shouldn't expect that they will get much in return for Salty, but the team may find that moving him would be addition by subtraction.
Many fans have grown fond of Saltalamacchia since he joined the Sox, but that isn't a reason for keeping him around. If the Red Sox want to return to their winning ways they need much better play out of the catcher position. The time has simply come for Salty to go.
Statistics via BaseballReference