Slumping Salty

Evan Brunell explores the reasoning behind Jarrod Saltalamacchia's recent slump.

Saltalamacchia –’s Kelly O’Connor

Jarrod Saltalamacchia has been a pleasant surprise for the Red Sox and has emerged as a power threat, leading all catchers with 17 bombs — even though his last blast came on July 6. Even though Salty struggles with contact and doesn’t get on base enough to offset that contact, the power alone has made him one of the better backstops in the game.

Except that Salty’s been one of the worst in the game for just about a month now, hitting .134/.205/.313 from June 22 to July 17 in 73 plate appearances. A recent 0-for-12 outing with seven whiffs and just one walk (and it gets worse when you expand it to July 1: 4-for-37 with 20 punchouts since July 1) has sent Salty’s batting average tumbling under .230 with an OBP threatening to nose-dive under .280.

Keep in mind that most of these at-bats came with a right-hander on the mound, which is supposed to be Salty’s bread-and-butter as he often takes a seat against left-handers. There’s no question that Salty’s recent slump has really sucked the life out of the lower middle of the lineup, which is now significantly top-heavy.

Those that have been reading me lately have noticed that I’ve started delving into heat maps. We’ll continue that trend in this article. I put together a heat-map breakdown of Salty’s season, using June 21 as a divider to try to figure out what exactly has changed with Salty. There’s a lot of information in the below maps, but don’t worry — we’ll go through each one and figure out what we can learn. You can click the image below to enlargen.

A look at Saltalamacchia’s slump. Click to enlargen. ESPN/TruMedia

The top row has all data from Opening Day to June 21, 2012, where I’ve set the cut-off point. That’s the date where Salty started hitting the skids, and it’s only gotten worse from there. The bottom row is from June 22 to July 17 and I’ve put four distinct maps on there: pitch frequency, swing rate, contact rate and isolaTed Power. I’ve chosen to only look at Salty’s approach against right-handers, as there are big sample size issues against lefties, plus Salty isn’t exactly known for hitting lefties in the first place. It’s here I want to pause and mention that due to the All-Star Break, there isn’t as much data from June 22 to July 17 as I would otherwise like, so there are also sample size considerations to take into account here.

Pitch Frequency

When trying to figure out why a batter is slumping, one of the first things to find out is if pitchers have adjusted their plan of attack. After all, if a player is having success hitting a ball on the upper, inner half of the plate, pitchers are going to start veering away. We can see here that pitchers stayed mostly away from Salty the majority of the time early in the season and worked on changing the plane of the ball as there’s no clear distinction between high and low pitches — but the further inside you get, the lower the pitches go.

Since June 21, pitchers have attacked Salty differently. Gone are the pitches higher up in the zone, and there’s a clear trend toward burying pitches at Salty’s feet low and inside — but they’re taking care not to stray too far up in the zone when going inside. We can see here that pitchers have definitely stayed away from high and away from Salty all of a sudden. That’s had ramifications, which we’ll get to.

Swing rate

There’s nothing really out of the ordinary with Salty’s swing rate when things were going well. It would be nice to see it tightened up a bit, but that’s where his plate discipline issues come into play. Putting that aside, Salty mostly likes pitches middle and middle-in (who doesn’t?), but by and large swings at pretty much every ball that enters the zone. He leaks outside of the zone on middle-high, low-away and low-in pitches.

During his slump, his swing pattern hasn’t changed significantly except for one obvious switch: not only are pitchers throwing Salty more pitches low and in, but he’s offering at these pitches. Most of these pitches are going to be off-speed, just by virtue of logic, so it’s easy to deduct that Salty is chasing all the sliders, curves and changes that are hitting the dirt and he can’t lay off them.

(Interesting side note: During the slump, Salty has actually reduced the amount of pitches he swings at. As we’ll see, though, he just keeps swinging at the wrong ones.)

Contact rate

This is a bit of a different heat map here, as I’ve stripped out everything except Salty’s cold zones. Where exactly is he not making contact, is what I wanted to know. Where is he swinging and missing? Before his slump, there was nothing that stood out. He missed pretty frequently high and away, but there’s a catch that comes with that that we’ll talk about in a minute. But just keep in mind that the fact he was swinging and missing frequently high and away is also reliant on how often pitchers were throwing balls there, and before his slump, they were going after that very spot.

Now? Salty’s actually tightened up not making contact on high-and-away pitches, but he’s also struggling on l0w-and-away pitches and — there it is again — low and in, as he’s obviously not making contact on any of the pitches low and in.

IsolaTed Power

Here’s the last bit of heat maps we’ll look at, utilizing only the hot zones. Where are the pitches that Salty is hitting for doubles and extra bases? Before his slump, one section of the map jumps out: high-and-away. So that’s why pitchers have stopped pitching him high and away — look how well he was doing on these pitches. He was crushing them. He might be swinging and missing at them too, based on his swing and contact rates, but when he gets ahold of one, he did damage. The rest of Salty’s hot zones is not all that surprising. If you can’t do damage on middle- and middle-in pitches, you aren’t going to stick in the majors.

How about after the slump? Most of his hot zones have completely disappeared except the places where a major-leaguer better be able to drive these pitches. Doubling back to the pitch frequency map, where Salty is driving those inside pitches is also where pitchers are avoiding throwing them until they can elevate out of his wheelhouse.

So what are the major takeaways? It’s easy. Pitchers are throwing way more low-and-in pitches to Saltalamacchia over the last month than they have been, and he’s biting on all of them. Compounding the issues — he’s not doing anything with these pitches. Frankly, this is not surprising. The amount of times I’ve groaned audibly as Salty goes after a buried breaking pitch low and inside has increased significantly in the past several weeks.

But that’s not all. Let’s turn things over to manager Bobby Valentine, who knows exactly why Salty’s slumping, as he told Boston Herald after Tuesday’s game.

“He’s not laying off pitches soft and down.”

We know all about not laying off pitches down, but what about soft? Is Bobby V right?

Away to the heat maps!

Looking at Salty’s swings at hard and soft pitches. ESPN/TruMedia.

(I’ve included his offerings at fast pitches just for comparison. You can see the difference in how he was able to attack high-and-away pitches, and how that strength has now been taken away from him.)

Bobby nailed it. Look at the difference between the soft pitches (the first two vertical heat maps) before and after June 21. I’ve stripped out everything except Salty’s most frequent swings, so any red that you see above, he’s swinging at often. It’s not surprising to see that most of the soft pitches are low in the zone, and for the most part, he swung at many of them regardless of where they were horizontally.

Since June 22, Salty’s lowered his cut-off point and is going after more and more pitches with frequency lower in the zone, and you can see that bleed down to Salty’s feet that has really given him trouble during the slump. He just can’t lay off those breaking pitches buried low-in, and is paying for it.

Categories: Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Born on the 37th anniversary of the the day Babe Ruth died (1985) which later became the day Jimy Williams was fired in 2001 (a monumental event at the time), Evan was too young to experience the pain 1986 brought, but a deep wound was sowed in 2003. Since then, Fire Brand has become a blog that Red Sox “club officials read,” as per Peter Gammons. Evan enjoys working out, writing, reading, quality television, science fiction and history and being newly married. He is a professional baseball journalist as well as president of a state non-profit and member of the Board of Directors for a national profit. (Twitter.)

5 Responses to “Slumping Salty” Subscribe

  1. Walt in Maryland July 19, 2012 at 9:49 AM #

    Fortunately for Salty, the offensive bar for catchers is pretty low. But even when he's hitting well, Salty strikes out at an alarmingly high rate — especially for a switch-hitter who rarely bats from his weak side — and he doesn't walk nearly enough. This should raise concerns about his ability to be a starting catcher for this team over the long term.

  2. Coach July 21, 2012 at 9:37 AM #

    Graphs and heat maps are great is showing data, but not for showing mechanics. Leaning and being out of balance will hurt you most on pitches that are out of your natural swing plane (either higher or lower than your so called wheel-house) as well as with off-speed pitches. In other words, it is not so much that he swings at those slow, low pitches, but he is doing so without maintaining the balance that brought him success. Unfortunately sometimes batters who struggle press too much by leaning in a little more than usual. Watch his set and loaded center of gravity change, moving toward the plate as he begins to unload. That slight lean moves the trajectory of the bat head off the intended swing plane. What would be a hit, misses the sweet spot on the bat and becomes an out or a swing and miss. This is the case with Salty.

    • evanbrunell July 21, 2012 at 6:15 PM #

      I respectfully disagree. Look at the heat maps. He is going after pitches low and in he never di dbefore, and pitchers are amping up attacking him there.

  3. rlburnside July 21, 2012 at 1:22 PM #

    So my question would be: this isn't his first season through the majors so how did he do in the past against low and in or soft and down? I can't believe that pitchers are just now figuring this out.

    • evanbrunell July 21, 2012 at 6:14 PM #

      It's not so much that pitchers are figuring it out, it's that Salty is sufficiently out of his game enough to go after these pitches. I don't believe he ever did it to this extreme. But he's just slumping and biting at them now.