Free agency is once again upon us, and with it comes the opportunity for the 30 major league general managers to improve their team. A persistent problem for the majority of teams is who do we put behind the plate? Yadier Molina's and Brian McCann's are not as common as JP Arenicibia's, and since there are 20 teams who would like to sign Brian McCann, and only one Brian McCann, what are rest to do? There's AJ Pierzynski, who is 37 and is coming off a year where he sported a .297 OBP with a 2.1 BB% and 90 wRC+. Not exactly a player you want to run out 100+ games a year. There's also Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has shockingly, in his walk year, put up the best numbers of his career.
It's an interesting case, really. As we all know by now, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the first round pick, is blocked by stars just about everywhere he goes. He puts up mediocre numbers all along the way, gets traded to the Boston Red Sox in 2011 and is given the chance to be the starting catcher. He seizes the opportunity, fulfills his potential, and stays in Boston forever, right? Not so much. "Salty", in 224 games spanning the 2011 and 2012 seasons, posted a .288 OBP with a 31.0 K%, posting 3.4 WAR in the two seasons combined. While these sound like pretty lacklustre numbers, if you look at the numbers for catchers in those years, they instantly seem a little better. While the OBP was still well below the league average of .316, his wOBA was actually 9 points higher at .319. That's league average for all players.His BABIP hovered around .280 and if you combine that with a fantastic .224 ISO and 41 dingers in 834 AB's you can start to see what the Braves saw when they drafted him 36th overall in 2003.
And then came 2013, Saltalamacchia hit .273/.338/.466 in the best season of his career. He is now a free agent, after the Red Sox did not make him a qualifying offer. Why wouldn't the world champs qualify their starting catcher, after the year he had? This is why advanced stats are so cool, because when you look at his numbers from this year and years prior you'll notice that there were two big changes that led to his improved season. First his BABIP skyrocketed, from around .280 to .372. That's about as unsustainable as it gets. It also explains the huge jump in batting average and makes that .339 OBP a little less impressive, especially considering his BB% rose by only .5%. Here's a look at his BABIP charts from 2011-2012 and then his 2013 season:
The second thing that stands out is his power in declined. While his SLG was a career best his massive BABIP increased his batting average and in turn his ISO dropped 40 points. He also only managed to knock out 14 home runs, with 9 of them coming at Fenway. His HR/FB dropped from 20% in 2012 to 12.6% in 2013.
With this knowledge, we can conclude that Jarrod Saltalamacchia was much the same player in 2013 as he was in 2011 and 2012, just much luckier and a little less powerful. At the catcher's position that isn't really a bad thing but it certainly was not worth $14.1M. With due respect to Salty, he still put up 3.6 WAR and a 117 wRC+ as a catcher and someone will pay him. ESPN's Keith Law thinks that waiting in the market is a four year, $10 million dollar AAV contract. I don't disagree with something along the lines of four years at $35 million dollars seems just about right.