Alex Skillin summarized the transactions in the catching market quite nicely; now that some of the dust has settled on the catching market, it’s time to analyze the value that teams have acquired. An interesting part of looking at free agent transactions is seeing what writers and analysts believe a free agent will receive and comparing that to what the player actually got. Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s contract presents an interesting comparison.
FanGraphs performed a fun exercise of asking its readers to estimate the contracts of many of the free agents; readers were asked what they thought the player would get in the real world, and what they would offer if they were GMs in a fake world. Readers thought Salty would get 4 years, $44.5M in the real world, and they would offer him 3 years, $30.9M in the fake world. Tim Dierkes at MLB Trade Rumors estimated that Salty’s floor was 3 years, $24M but that he would get 4 years, $36M. Keith Law estimated somewhere around 4 years, $40M. Salty signed for 3 years, $21M, which is lower than any of the estimates above. There are several reasons, both defensive and offensive, that the difference occurred.
The defensive value of a catcher is difficult to quantify, but the sabermetric world is making advances, particularly in the pitch framing space. For those who don’t know, pitch framing is the idea that the positioning and movement of the catcher when receiving a pitch can influence the call of a ball or strike. Matthew Carruth at StatCorner keeps track of pitch framing. Salty was not seen as a skilled framer in 2013, but his previous two years were good. DRS from the Fielding Bible and Defense from FanGraphs both have negative values for each of the past 3 years. Salty’s caught stealing rate is below league average for both his career and 2013. Although defense for a catcher is difficult to quantify, several sources agree that Salty’s defense is not particularly good.
The majority of Salty’s value comes from his power on offense. His 2013 ISO of .193 was far above the .143 ISO that catchers averaged in 2013. However, this power comes at the expense of contact, which was below average for a catcher in 2013-Salty walks more than league average for catchers, but he also strikes out at a very high rate. As Alex Skillin noted, Salty’s .372 BABIP was the main reason for his 117 wRC+. Regressing his BABIP to closer to normal rates brings his offensive value down, as he is likely to post a sub-.300 OBP with a normal BABIP. His power has stayed relatively stable, so he is likely to bring that to the Marlins. His power will keep him somewhere around slightly below league average offensively, but still about average for a catcher.
Overall, Salty brings average catcher offense with perhaps below average to average defense, but he was seen as a leader of Boston’s pitching staff and an intellectual at the position. An OK bat at catcher is the reason he was more mid-tier than low-tier on the free agent totem pole, but mid-tier free agents seem to get more than $7M AAV these days. It is likely that those estimates above assumed that some MLB clubs would not take his inflated BABIP into account when looking at his 2013 production. It also appears that perhaps estimators were inflating the value of framing skills relative to MLB clubs. Everyone is expecting inflation due to the influx of TV money, but not all clubs are spending the new money on players. Salty is a Florida native, so perhaps he took a discount to live in Florida and reap the benefits of no income taxes. Finally, the estimators may have overvalued his power, though the free agent market usually does covet power as evidenced by the interest shown in Nelson Cruz and his rumored 4 year/$75M asking price. The demand for catchers also didn’t quite line up with Salty’s market; the Yankees signed the top tier guy, the Phillies re-signed their guy, and other clubs preferred low cost/potentially good value options like Dioner Navarro. These factors allowed the Marlins to land Salty at a lower than estimated cost.
All stats not cited in body courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.