The 2014 Boston Red Sox will attempt to defend their World Series crown with a new leader behind home plate. According to Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe, the Red Sox have agreed to a one-year, $8.25 million deal to bring catcher A.J. Pierzynski aboard for the 2014 season.
By acquiring the veteran backstop, Boston is signaling the end of the Jarrod Saltalamacchia era in the Red Sox lineup. While the Boston front office will undoubtedly cite Pierzynski's leadership skills, durability and home run power, it's impossible to believe the Red Sox are a better team now than the 97-win outfit that dominated the AL East in 2013.
This deal, assuming Saltalamacchia's free agency leads him to a two- or three-year deal on the open market, wasn't about improving in the short term or keeping the status quo for a run at a 2014 World Series. Instead, as Alex Speier of WEEI.com points out, it's about financial flexibility and keeping the catching seat warm for prospects like Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart.
If the objective in Boston were to bring back the best catcher available for 2014, regardless of years or dollars, Saltalamacchia would be donning a Red Sox uniform next season.
In 2013, on the path to leading Major League Baseball in runs scored, Red Sox catchers combined to produce a .787 OPS and 70 extra-base hits. Those figures were good for third and first, respectively, among all major league catching groups, per ESPN.
Most of that production came off the bat of the the switch-hitting Saltalamacchia. After six years of below-average offensive production, the 28-year-old gave Boston a breakout campaign in 2013. Of the 70 extra-base hits to come from Red Sox catching, 54 came off the the bat of Saltalamacchia. Replacing those impact hits will be a difficult task in 2014.
The gap in on-base percentage between the two backstops may be even more of an issue for Boston than the extra-base hits. In 2013, Saltalamacchia posted a .338 OBP, good for sixth among starting catchers, per MLB.com. The ability to generate extra-base hits and walks, buoyed by a 9.1 percent walk rate for Saltalamacchia, helped Boston sit atop the MLB ranks in team on-base percentage.
I know lots of Twins fans wanted a Pierzynski reunion, but he had a .297 on-base percentage and terrible pitch-framing numbers this year.— Aaron Gleeman (@AaronGleeman) December 3, 2013
While Pierzynski has posted a .322 career on-base percentage, including a .360 mark in 2003, the ability to draw walks has never been a major part of his game. In 2013, it became a liability. Due in part to a minuscule 2.1 percent walk rate, Pierzynski's OBP was a paltry .297 last season. That represented the first season in his career with an on-base percentage under .300.
Pierzynski had a 2.1% walk rate and saw 3.27 pitches per PA in 2013, both lowest in MLB. Pretty much the anti-Red Sox player, offensively.— Mike Axisa (@mikeaxisa) December 3, 2013
If we view the Saltalamacchia-for-Pierzynski swap in the landscape of the present, it's a clear loss for Boston. Yet if we look at what the signing does for Boston's future, while dissecting the past accolades for the new Red Sox catcher, the swap becomes a bit more palatable.
During the entirety of their respective careers, choosing Pierzynski over Saltalamacchia wouldn't have been a difficult decision for most general managers in the sport. Due to consistency, longevity, power and leadership, the 36-year-old Pierzynski has been one of the best catchers in baseball for over a decade.
In fact, no catcher comes close to matching the durability of Pierzynski since the 2001 season. Over the last 13 years, the left-handed-hitting catcher has played 1,714 games, leaving every other starting catcher in the dust over that period. The most telling aspect of the names featured behind Pierzynski on that list: Many are retired or are no longer starting catchers.
If Boston wants to delay the big league debuts of their top catching prospects, Pierzynski is the perfect option behind home plate. Barring an unforeseen long-term injury, the combination of Pierzynski and David Ross should give manager John Farrell 150-plus games behind home plate, power at the dish and leadership in the clubhouse.
That, while valuable, isn't going to help Boston win baseball games in 2014; at the very least, it won't help them win as many games as they could have with Saltalamacchia in the lineup. Along with the superior offensive numbers, Saltalamacchia's game produced 2.9 bWAR (Baseball-Reference), compared to 1.6 for Pierzynski.
Who is the better catcher right now?
One year after a perfectly executed offseason plan, doubting Ben Cherington and the Red Sox front office shouldn't be in vogue this winter. If the signing of Pierzynski is presented as an upgrade, eyebrows will be raised. Of course, it's possible that Boston has information and scouting on Saltalamacchia that will make the difference in 2014 production between the two backstops far less than it was this past season.
Regardless, the Red Sox saved long-term money, gained a durable veteran stopgap behind the plate and didn't go above and beyond for a player heading into free agency at peak value.
This move doesn't make the Red Sox better equipped to win a World Series in 2014, but it's consistent with the organizational approach that made a championship run possible in 2013.
Are the Red Sox a better team with Pierzynski behind the plate?