HOUSTON -- Jarrod Saltalamacchia has appeared behind the plate in 87 of 115 games, with 80 starts. That puts him on pace to start 113 games, well ahead of his career-high of 96 in 2011 and last season’s total of 95.
When the Sox acquired David Ross as a free agent on a two-year, $6.2 million deal before the season, the plan was to have him behind the plate more than a normal back-up catcher might be, but without a specific number of games as a target. But, Ross’ two concussions this season have sidelined him for 53 games. The latest has had him on the disabled list since June 18. He’s scheduled to be examined Thursday in Pittsburgh by concussion specialist, Dr. Michael Collins. If he is cleared, he will begin a rehab assignment this weekend.
In Ross’ absence, Ryan Lavarnway, once the organization’s highly-prized catching prospect, has filled in. But his playing time has been limited.
Since June 18, Lavarnway has appeared in 13 games, with 11 starts, including Tuesday night, catching knuckleballer Steven Wright, when Lavarnway suffered the dubious distinction of tying a major-league record with four passed balls in an inning. In that span, Lavarnway, prized for his minor league offense, has hit .250, going 11-for-44 with five doubles, two walks, four RBI and 14 strikeouts. He went 1-for-5 Tuesday night, with a two-run double that put the Sox ahead on their way to a 15-10 win.
In that same time, Saltalamacchia, who turned 28 in May, has appeared in 35 games, with 33 starts, including both ends of a doubleheader that day. Since the All-Star break, he has caught 14 of the team’s 18 games, and 70 of 86 since May 3, second in the American League in that span.
That amount of work can be a grind for a catcher.
Overall, he is batting .261, with 10 home runs, 43 RBI, a .331 on-base percentage and .445 slugging percentage. But, sinceJune 18, he is hitting .246/.326/.377, going 30-for-122, with 15 RBI, two home runs and 41 strikeouts.
“Obviously, there's days where I feel better than others,” he said. “But I’ve always been taught from a kid 'til now, you always want to be in every game. You always want to be out there for every out. You never know what’s going to happen. You might feel like crap that day but you can go out there and help your team win instead of being on the bench where you can’t really help.
“So that’s the mentality I take every day, just going out there and giving my best to give my team a chance to win, and whatever’s going to happen is going to happen. But I feel good. I feel healthy. I feel probably not as good as Opening Day, but regardless, I’m happy where I’m at.”
He recently put together a seven-game hitting streak (snapped Monday night), in which he went 10-for-30, batting .333/.355/.600, with two doubles, two home runs, six RBI, a walk, and four strikeouts. He is batting .286, going 12-for-42 in his last 11 games with a plate appearance.
He is tied for first among American League catchers, with the Astros’ Jason Castro, with 27 doubles and 37 extra-base hits.
But, a catcher’s value isn’t only what he offers at the plate. The real value is what he brings behind the plate. Since being acquired at the trading deadline in 2010 from the Rangers, Saltalamacchia, who was 25 at the time, has gone from being a back-up to Jason Varitek to being the starting catcher who has earned the confidence of the pitching staff.
“Yeah, definitely improved unbelievably,” said John Lackey. “Just since the last year that I pitched (in 2011), taking the year off, I noticed (him) executing game plans and how in-depth (he is) in our meetings. He’s talking more, going over lineups. He’s come a long way. He’s been great behind the plate. He makes things easier on us because we don’t have to shake (off signals) a lot because he’s dialed into the game plan. And it’s been great to work with.
“When he first got here, there’s always a learning process with any new catcher, and he was pretty young, too, and some of us had been around a little longer. But now I can’t say enough about him. He’s been great. He takes control in the pitchers’ meetings, talks about the other lineups, and always has good conversations in between getting ready for the next inning. So, he’s been great to work with.”
That kind of praise from his pitchers is important to Saltalamacchia.
“It feels good,” he said. “It feels like I’ve put the work in and developed that relationship with the pitchers to where they believe in and trust me. So that means you’re doing something right. At the same time, I’ve developed that relationship where I trust them. I trust them in going out there and letting their ability play.
“It means a lot of hard work. I didn’t just come and have anything handed to me. But I was fortunate and honored to have the opportunity to be able to work with ‘Tek and (former Sox bullpen coach Gary) Tuck and this pitching staff, and a lot of the players here who have made me a better player. So a lot of hard work but I’ve had a lot of help with it, too.”
He’s happy with the progress he’s made since coming to the Sox.
“For me, just being more consistent. In the past I’ve tried to do everything at once,” he said. “I wanted to be the best at this and this and this. I think the biggest thing I learned is you don’t have to do that. You just have to come to the field every day with the same mentality, the same attitude, and same mind frame.”
But Saltalamacchia can be a free agent at the end of the season. He has not yet talked with the Sox about an extension, but would be open to it.
“I’d love to,” he said. “I’d love to play here and be here for a long time. But that’s out of my hands. That’s up to them. I’m just here to play right now.
“I haven’t really thought about it too much. I think as a player you always want a contract where you’re somewhere, you’re not going year to year and playing with that on your mind. But I haven’t really thought about it. My focus has been on trying to win and go out and play and that’ll kind of take care of it.”
Some players, though, look forward to free agency, especially their first foray into the process.
“Talking to different players, it’s one of those things where they enjoyed it,” Saltalamacchia said. “At the same time it is an unknown process. So in a sense, yeah, I’m looking forward to it because it’s an opportunity to maybe have something long-term where I’m not going year to year. But at the same time, I don’t want to leave here. I’d like to stay here and not have to make that decision. I’d like my decision to be made for me and stay here. But we’ll see what happens.”
The Sox have several catching prospects in the organization, but arguably their best prospect at the position is at least several years away. Blake Swihart was the Sox second pick in the first round (26th overall) out of high school in 2011. In 85 games with High-A Salem this season, the switch-hitter is batting .282 with two home runs and 33 RBI, catching 83 games. Christian Vazquez, who impressed with his strong and accurate arm in spring training, has appeared in 76 games for Double-A Portland this season, catching 74, hitting .277 with five home runs and 39 RBI.
The Sox could be considering other free-agents-to-be, such as Braves catcher Brian McCann or Phillies backstop Carlos Ruiz. While either of those could be good additions, Saltalamacchia is a known commodity.
“It depends,” Lackey said, when asked how long it takes to get comfortable working with a new catcher.
“It takes probably a good half a season. That’s 15 starts or so, I guess.”
That can be precious time for a team that wants to be perennial play-off contenders.
“I absolutely want him back, as a catcher, as a friend, a lot of different things,” Lackey said of Saltalamacchia. “He’s been everything we could ask for behind the plate, has swung the bat well, he’s had to play a ton the last few months with David not begin around. He’s really shown us all something. He’s been great.”
Saltalamacchia, though, knows he still has work to do. There’s always work to be done. For one, he and Lackey combined to allow six stolen bases to the Astros on Monday. The most the Sox have allowed since Sept. 16, 2011, against the Rays.
What’s the one area of his game that he’d like to improve?
“That’s a tough question,” he said. “There’s a lot. I think I’m happy with the process. I wouldn’t say I’d want to just snap my fingers and fix just one thing because I think it’s collective tangibles that make someone as good as they are and it’s not just one thing. So I wish I could just snap my fingers and become mediocre at all of them, instead of good at some and bad at some. Just be a good ballplayer at all of them.”
Where that will be in 2014 remains to be seen.