The Red Sox headed into the off season with all sorts of money to spend. Ben Cherington had shipped nearly every bad contract (I’m looking at you, John Lackey) on the books to the Dodgers, and now it was time to roll up our sleeves and dig in to the newly anointed crop of Free Agent players. Would the team make a big splash? It didn’t feel likely since the biggest hitter (Josh Hamilton) and pitcher (Zack Greinke) on the market both seemed to be terrible fits for Boston (a lesson previously learned that we should call the Carl Crawford Corollary).
So the front office decided they would blow the doors off the eager fan-base and sign journeyman catcher David Ross! For fans that were clamoring for a major addition it was an underwhelming move to say the least.
However, six weeks into the season, while the signing may have been underwhelming as a headline, it has thus far proven to be a very solid baseball move.
Through Wednesday night’s game against the Twins, starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia has appeared in 26 games, while accumulating 87 at bats. Ross has appeared in 13 games and seen 38 at bats. So, to this point in the season it is fair to say that Salty is seeing 50% more action than Ross. That is a problem. The issue is that Ross is nearly equal offensively to his catching counterpart, and significantly better behind the plate.
Take a look at their offensive numbers head-to-head:
The numbers are very comparable in several areas. Their batting averages, on base percentages, and oWAR numbers are all closely aligned. The notable differences are that Ross has put up his statistics in less than half of the at bats of Saltalamacchia, Ross’ slugging percentage is nearly 100 points higher, and Saltalamacchia’s K% is 9% higher. Overall though, it is very fair to say that these two players have fared similarly at the plate so far in 2013.
While any team, the Red Sox certainly included, would love to see significant offensive contribution from the catcher position, it is primarily a defensive position. If a catcher can handle the staff and routinely call great games, many people (myself included) are willing to take less offense to ensure the maximum total defensive contribution (I would also include CF and SS on that list). There are very few Buster Posey‘s in the world. The rest of us tend to get stuck with a catcher that can play the position well, or hit, but not both.
That is where the Salty train quickly derails. He is atrocious defensively, on many levels.
There are several statistics there that should be somewhat alarming, but for me the most telling is CERA (catcher’s ERA). When Ross is handling the staff they have a 2.78 ERA, which puts him second among all catchers in the American League. By contrast, when Saltalamacchia is behind the plate the pitchers carry a 4.71 ERA, slotting him as the 27th best catcher in the AL. Even in a relatively small sample size that is a very substantial difference. Too small of a sample size? Last year Ross’s CERA was 3.63, and Salty’s was 4.88. Ross calls and receives a better game than Saltalamacchia. That is pretty hard to debate.
Are the Wild Pitches Saltalamacchia’s fault? Well no, by definition they aren’t. But similarly to how a great 1B will save a SS a few errors during the course of the year, a solid catcher will block a ball in the dirt that spares his pitcher a WP every now and then. Ross, as with most major league catchers, is better than Salty at keeping the ball in front of him.
Then there is the minor issue of controlling the running game. Mercifully, Jarrod threw out his first would-be base stealer. At least now we can say there is a chance that a runner will get thrown out trying to steal a base on him. Ross has traditionally been one of the best in the game in this area. His 2012 Caught Stealing Percentage of 44% trailed only catching immortal Yadier Molina (48%). So far this year Ross has thrown out a respectable 25% of would-be base stealers.
The three to zero difference in errors may not appear to be that significant numerically, but each of these errors have felt like back-breakers from Salty. They have been airmailed throws to the outfield that were not remotely close to their intended targets and immediately cost the team runs.
While the most telling statistical difference may the disparity in CERA, the most shocking gap is found in Rtot/yr (Total Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Avg. per 1,200 Innings) and Rdrs/yr (Defensive Runs Saved Above Avg. per 1,200 Innings) two statistics that attempt to quantify the value of a player compared to an average player at that position over the course of an entire season. On those two metrics, Salty costs the Sox either 24 or 26 runs with his defense over the course of the year. By comparison, Ross saves Boston between 2 and 14 runs depending on which measure you analyze. No matter how you cut it, that is a huge separation. As compared to an average defensive catcher Ross saves runs, and Saltalamacchia costs the team runs.
Could you live with Salty’s offense if he was a defensive star? Absolutely.
Could you make due with his defense if he hit .320 with 30 HR? Possibly, but you wouldn’t do it. If he hit that well you could make him a 1B or DH, but let’s be clear that while his numbers at the plate are decent for a catcher, they would not suffice at any other position in the lineup. In short he’s not good enough offensively to play any position but catcher, but he’s also not a good enough catcher to be an every day starter behind the plate. That is the Saltalamacchia Conundrum.
So where does that leave us? Hunter Golden took a look at some of the options for Salty on Wednesday, and the Fire Brand Podcast “Fireside Chats” addressed this issue this week as well. I would definitely recommend both resources. The team has certainly looked at the option of moving Saltalamacchia in a trade, and there is always the lurking presence Ryan Lavarnway in AAA. In the meantime, however, you can very easily make the argument that Ross should be getting the lion’s share of innings at catcher, at the very least a 3/2 split in his favor. As long as the 36-year-old Ross can physically handle the wear and tear of being the primary catcher on the team, the fact is that he deserves to see his name in the lineup more frequently than Saltalamacchia.