It’s been an interesting day. I count four trades, two signings and one rumored signing. While I was writing this, in fact, the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury away for $150 million and change, which I need some time to process. And the night’s still young. Of those transactions, two concern the Red Sox. First, chronologically speaking, Boston has signed the most hated player in baseball, who also happens to catch, to a one year deal worth $8.25M. Several hours later, it seems that the last place Marlins have poached the World Series-winning catcher, who became a starter with us after Texas gave up on him.
The question of how all of this came to be is one that Red Sox fans are beginning to ask themselves in earnest, particularly those that were fans of Saltalamacchia’s. To answer this, let’s examine it in two parts. First, Part I: how – and when – did the Red Sox fall out of love with Salty?
For Buster Olney, it was during the World Series:
There's no way to know for sure, but I think Red Sox perception of Salty was changed decisively by postseason: 32 ABs, 19 Ks, .188, benched.—
Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 03, 2013
And it’s certainly possible that he’s correct. Salty had a miserable postseason in general, putting up a .188/.257/.219 line over three series, but his 0-8 in the first two games plus a few game losing defensive gaffes put him on the bench for the duration. Which we’re told he was upset about, as if a starter angry about getting benched in the World Series counts as news. It seems exceptionally unlikely, however, that a club as progressive as the Red Sox would base any contract decisions off of a sample size of two games played. Regardless of how poorly he played. Or reacted.
One other possibility is that there is something in Salty’s medicals, as Olney had previously speculated – and his agent angrily denied. That seems at least plausible in light of the fact that the reported deal of 3/$21M is well south of the 4/$45M Fangraphs crowd-prediction, which are often surprisingly close.
In the end, however, the decision on Saltalamacchia – not to mention the hard pursuit of Ruiz – is best understood as a vote of confidence in their minor league talent. In an interview with WEEI in November, Assistant GM Mike Hazen discussed the possibility of going the minor league route as soon as this year should they not reach terms with a free agent catcher or trade for one:
I think we have three guys at the upper levels (Ryan Lavarnway, Dan Butler, Christian Vazquez) we feel pretty strongly about. To what degree they’re ready I think is more of a question. All three have options, which certainly provides you flexibility where if one guy gets off to a pretty good start or has a pretty good spring training, you go with that guy. He starts to tail off a little, league starts to catch up with him a little bit and he’s struggling for whatever reason, and another guy is doing well in Pawtucket, you can get that guy while he’s hot.
What this tells you is that the Red Sox feel that between Butler, Vazquez, Swihart – and to a lesser extent, Lavarnway, given the way he languished on the bench – they will have a major league catcher in the next two years. The $8M+ Pierzynski signing, meanwhile, indicates that they’re just not willing to bet on the internal route in year one. How all of this plays out will obviously be determined by the performances of the four catchers this year and moving forward, but it’s easy to understand why the club would prefer to have a minor leaguer with six years of control at low dollars to a multi-year free agent contract.
What it also tells you is that they feel that not only will they find a major league catcher, they’re betting that he’ll be better than Salty. There has been much confusion about how the Red Sox could show so little interest in a catcher with 20+ home run pop, but the bet here is that the Red Sox are valuing the player based on less obvious metrics. Salty doesn’t get on base, for example, but neither does virtually every other catcher in the league. No, I suspect the Red Sox have quantified issues with his defensive performance that limit their interest. If you’re skeptical, remember that the Yankees lived with a starting catcher who put up a .566 OPS last year in part because of his pitch framing skills.
Faith in their minor leaguers coupled with a lack of same in Saltalamacchia, then, can produce but one outcome. By all accounts Salty was a good teammate and I wish him well, but I won’t lose sleep over his departure. Which brings us to Part 2.
If we accept for the sake of argument that the Red Sox are valuing Salty properly and that their refusal to seriously engage or guarantee a third year is appropriate, the next logical question is what’s next? While that question has been hanging over the club since Uehara punched out Carpenter, we finally have our answer: A.J. Pierzynski is your new starting catcher.
The con’s to this deal are many. He’ll start next season at 37. Never a patient hitter, he appears to be getting even less disciplined as he ages. Here are the percentage of pitches out of the strike zone he’s swung at the last five seasons: 2009 (38.1), 2010 (41.7), 2011 (42.5), 2012 (43.5), 2013 (49.6). Is he cheating because his bat’s slowing down? Who knows. In any event, it’s not good. His OBP last year was an abysmal .297, and he walked unintentionally nine times last season. Nine times.
Then there’s the mileage: while many are listing his durability as a plus, with 12 straight seasons of 120+ games caught, it’s worth asking whether what’s left in the tank for a 37 year old.
So what gives? Was there simply nothing else on the market? As it happens there was. Ryan Hanigan of the Cincinatti Reds was traded to the Rays in a three team deal, as part of which Tampa inked the catcher to a 3 year, $10.75M deal. Hanigan is coming off of a miserable 2013 campaign in which he put up a .198/.306/.261 line, so why all the fuss? It’s called buying low.
Hanigan’s no Buster Posey, but he is gifted at one thing offensively: getting on base. Lifetime, he’s at .262/.359/.343. So while he’s relatively punchless at the plate, he does have a reasonable eye. Some argue this is simply an artifact of his batting in the eight spot in National League lineups, but his lifetime .382 OBP in the minor leagues suggests otherwise. Defensively, he’s the ninth best catcher in the major leagues at pitch framing according to Baseball Prospectus, and he even outlined his techniques for Grantland this past spring.
In short then, Hanigan is five years younger than Pierzynski, has 30 points of on base advantage lifetime and is better defensively. How did we end up with Pierzynski, then?
My bet is power. While Hanigan does many things well, hitting for power doesn’t happen to be one of those things. He’s giving up almost a hundred points of slugging percentage to Pierzynski, and sixty some odd points of Isolated Power (ISO). All things being equal, you’d probably still take Hanigan’s defense and on base skills, but all things aren’t equal. First, there’s the prospect cost. The named player, lefty Justin Choate doesn’t look like much with a 7.7 K/9 in low A as a 22 year old reliever. But Kevin Towers is also getting the Proverbial Player to be Named Later, which sounds more interesting than the typical PTBNL:
“Someone we value a lot as a prospect,” Towers said. “That’s not to take anything away from Mr. Choate, but I would say that probably is the key player in the deal.”
Even if the player cost ends up being neglible, however, my bet is that the Red Sox are concerned about the power up and down their roster. Ellsbury, as mentioned, is leaving for New York. ZIPS sees him slugging .425 next season. His likely replacement, Jackie Bradley Jr? He’s only forecast to put up a .375 SLG. And while Stephen Drew and his .443 number SLG may yet return given tweets like this, the Sox can’t bet on that. Instead they have to consider Xander Bogaerts their shortstop, who has considerable raw power but will also be taking his lumps as a 22 year old. ZIPS sees him putting up a .429, and that seems optimistic – though not as optimistic as his top comp, Troy Tulowitzki. Should Mike Napoli take Seattle’s money, meanwhile, or Miami’s, he and his ZIPS forecast .466 mark are most likely to be replaced by some combination of Daniel Nava (.384) and Mike Carp (.442). Even the players who are staying are expected to see some regression: Ortiz (.564 down to .552), Victorino (.451 to .420) and so on.
True, Pedroia’s expected to rebound from .415 to a more characteristic .425, but up and down the lineup the Red Sox can be expected to display less power. He’s no Ortiz, but the average major league catcher slugged .388 last year; Pierzynski has bettered that mark in 15 of 18 major league seasons, and owns a .428 mark for his career. Power isn’t everything, but with projected deficits from multiple spots versus last year’s roster, it has to be made up somewhere.
Throw in the fact that Pierzynski is left handed, and thus a better complement to the right handed Ross than right handed Hanigan, and you have a new starting catcher.
Is it the right move? Tough to say, but after last year I’m willing to go on a little faith here.