Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s major league career has not been one to remember. The backstop has hit a paltry .248/.315/.386 in his four-year career, though he has barely managed to stay on the field during that stretch due to ineffectiveness and injury. Boston, who has liked Salty for awhile, even attempting to trade for him well before they finally acquired him in 2010, is betting that he will be able to reverse this trend and produce at the levels expected of him when he was a major piece of the Rangers/Braves Mark Teixeira swap of 2007.
That optimism has paid off this spring, as Saltalamacchia has hit .355/.432/.645 this spring. Listen, I know what you’re thinking–”Spring stats, Marc? Seriously?”–but don’t close out this window just yet. Spring stats, as a general rule, are a useless entity. They often get too much attention because there just isn’t anything else to focus on until the actual season begins, and they are accumulated during the season of eternal optimism. Have I reeled you back in yet? I say as a “general” rule, because they sometimes can tell you something about how a player’s season is going to go. I wrote about this at Baseball Prospectus a few years ago, and then applied that reasoning to a few players we could expect to improve based on their springs:
John Dewan, formerly of STATS, Inc. and currently the owner of Baseball Info Solutions, has stated that if a player posted a pre-season slugging percentage 200 points above their career rate, you could expect the player to improve during that season. There have been studies to show that, yes, Dewan is on to something here, but the return rate on these instances is low. There are a few reasons why it’s difficult to accept this as a general truth. First of all, we’re working with a very small number of such players; even a full season’s worth of data often isn’t enough for a player’s numbers to even out, so a handful of at-bats just won’t do for research purposes. Secondly, those at-bats have even less meaning when you consider that many of them have come against career minor leaguers filling in holes on the B-squad, or against pitchers working out the kinks in their arsenal, trying out new pitches, and attempting to do things that they might not do in a regular-season game
Heading into 2009, Russell Branyan and Kendrys Morales–the latter a player who, to that point, had hit .249/.302/.408 in the majors–were two of my picks to break out based on their impressive springs. Branyan had just never had a full-time gig, but the Mariners gave him one in part due to his strong pre-season performance, and were rewarded for their faith with a .251/.347/.520 line with 31 homers in just 505 plate appearances. Morales broke out in a huge way as well, hitting .306/.355/.569 with 34 bombs for the Angels. Brett Gardner was another positive mentioned because of his spring, though it took him until 2010 to break into the Yankees’ lineup full-time and show that he wasn’t a fluke.
On the flip side, based on their springs, Jeff Francoeur and Brandon Wood both looked like good bets to break out as well. The lesson here is that this method is useful to a degree, but there will always be players who slip through the cracks due to the sample sizes involved.
Which group does Saltalamacchia’s 2010 belong in? He is heading into his age-26 campaign, and thus far in his career, as mentioned, he has been unable to deliver on the promises of his minor league production for multiple reasons. His slugging percentage from the Grapefruit League is .259 points higher than his career rate, putting him above the Dewan spring threshold. That makes it a little easier to buy into his play this spring–I’m not saying he has gone from “hopefully league average” to “watch out, Joe Mauer” as his small-sample figures indicate, but there is something to like here, especially if he can remain healthy.
That last point is an if as large as the hulking Saltalamacchia, though. CHIPPER, Baseball Prospectus’s injury forecasting system, sees the backstop as a high risk to miss 30-plus games in 2011, and why shouldn’t it? He has missed 33, 57, and 51 games in each of the last three years due to an assortment of maladies, after all.
Everything comes down to Saltalamacchia’s health. If he can stay on the field for 350-400 plate appearances, he could deliver offensively–at least, if his spring is any indication. If he is going to miss significant time and play through aches and pains as he has in the past, though, then the Red Sox will have to deal with the same player the Braves and Rangers have given up on already.