May 30, 2012 Leave a comment
It’s not an easy thing to replace a captain of 7 years on a professional sports team. A guy like Jason Varitek, a rock for the organization and team leader from 1997-2011, is hard to replicate. In particular in this era in major league baseball versatile catchers who contain top notch leadership skills are hard to come by. It almost mirrors the old adage in the NFL that franchise quarterbacks are nearly impossible to find and you should savior them while you have one. Varitek’s career started to dwindle a few seasons ago and the Sox even brought in a big name, former Indians catcher Victor Martinez, to split time with him. When Martinez was allowed to walk in free agency a year and a half after he was acquired it was back to the drawing board for the Red Sox.
Enter Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Salty was acquired at the trade deadline during the 2010 season for spare parts and was placed in Pawtucket for the remainder of the year. Salty was a big prospect coming up with Atlanta but hit a wall in Texas after he was acquired in a trade that sent Mark Teixeira packing. Saltalamacchia was stuck in the minors and couldn’t even throw the ball to second base accurately when the Sox picked him up. At the end of the year when Martinez walked to Detroit the Red Sox gave Saltalamacchia the keys to the car to at least share with Varitek for a year. Many thought that a year playing with Jason Varitek would be vital. Although he wasn’t the same player physically that he once was he had not lost anything mentally and could be a wealth of knowledge for a young guy playing under him. It seems that those thoughts are coming to fruition.
Salty had a decent enough line last season splitting with Varitek. He tailed off at the end of the season but his .235/.288/.450 line wasn’t horrible for a part time catcher. He added a career high 16 home runs and 56 RBI. He had a 31% caught stealing rate which was excellent considering how poorly the Red Sox pitchers held runners on. People worried that when Varitek retired Salty would have trouble progressing without him but Salty is proving early in the season that one season may have been enough with Varitek. Saltalamacchia looks like a much more confident player out there on the field this year. He seems to have taken on Varitek’s role of team leader particularly with the young pitchers that he works with.
His offense has improved so far this year. His .274/.311/.573 line with 9 home runs and 22 RBI make him a prime candidate for the American League All-Star team. Only J.P. Arencibia of the Blue Jays has as many home runs as Saltalamacchia out of all American League catchers (not counting Mike Napoli who plays 3 different positions). Of catchers in the American League with at least 100 plate appearances only A.J. Pierzynski and Joe Mauer have a higher batting average. The improved play is contributed by his heightened confidence. He may well break down again before the end of the season but he should be more used to the long season after finally going through it for the first time in two seasons last year.
Saltalamacchia showed everyone how much of a leader he had become in a 10 day stretch that started a few weeks ago in Tampa. He was hit in the ear with a foul ball and suffered a gash that required 12 stitches. Salty convinced manager Bobby Valentine to start him the next day in Philly and proceeded to hit a home run in the game. He hit another one that weekend in Philly that was the 3rd longest home run of the season. The following weekend when Tampa Bay came to Boston a brawl nearly broke out in the 9th inning when Sox pitcher Franklin Morales hit Rays slugger/big mouth Luke Scott in the leg. When Scott started walking towards the mound Salty rudely cut him off with a bump of his chest guard. The next night Salty came in the to 9th inning as a pinch hitter with the Sox down a run and promptly hit a game-winning walk-off home run against Rays’ closer Fernando Rodney who had not blown a save all year long. It was reminiscent of Jason Varitek’s stand up to Alex Rodriguez and the subsequent game winning home run by Bill Mueller except this time Salty handled it all himself.
It’s rather amusing that for years Theo Epstein seemed to be trying to find a catcher to replace Jason Varitek. He finally did in a throwaway trade at the deadline in ’10. He took a shot in the dark with Saltalamacchia and Salty is looking to pay back the favor by becoming the player that the Red Sox didn’t seem to have. In a few years Saltalamacchia will likely be joined by prospect Ryan Lavarnway to create a formidable catching duo. Salty will have to quickly turn around the knowledge bestowed on him by Varitek to teach Lavarnway how to become a player and a leader. If the start of this year is any indication then Salty should have his Varitek impression down pat by then.