The Tigers have found a backup catcher option in Jarrod Saltalamacchia, which means that a record number of Tigers journalists just added "Saltalamacchia" to their auto-correct dictionary. The good news is that 2016 won't see a dynamic duo of James McCann and Bryan Holaday behind the plate. The bad news is that Jarrod Saltalamacchia is the backup catcher. Ok, maybe that's a bit harsh. In reality, there are both pros and cons to this signing, as the following sub-headers prove.
Pro: Veteran presence
File this one under "baseball intangibles that don't show up on a spreadsheet, but somehow still matter." James McCann is the primary starting catcher for the Tigers, and he did a decent enough job in that role in 2015, but there's still room for growth there. McCann, who might be old enough to get a driver's license next year, could probably benefit from having another catcher in the clubhouse who's got some big league experience, and Saltalamacchia has been in the game for nine years.
Now, granted, with a manager in Brad Ausmus who is a former catcher himself, perhaps McCann would have found adequate mentorship in the clubhouse, at least in theory. On the other hand, Ausmus lost track of his starting pitcher at one point last year, and seemed unaware at another point that his starting left fielder was taking a mid-game Cespedump, so it may be that he's only dimly aware that he has a catcher named James McCann.
Either way, Saltalamacchia's presence means something.
Con: He's not a great defender
It's true, at least as far as our clunky and crudely fashioned tools that measure catcher defense can tell us. When it comes to pitch framing and getting a few extra called strikes, Baseball Prospectus has Saltalamacchia at an average -12 Framing Runs Above Average over the past four years. He was, however, worth an average 0.12 Blocking Runs, and 0.03 Stealing Runs Above Average.
By comparison, though, James McCann posted -17.9 Framing Runs Above Average, 0.2 Blocking Runs, and -0.03 Stealing Runs Above Average last season. We can only conclude that these numbers are absolutely full of sh*t, because DID YOU SEE THE MCCANNON LAST YEAR?! There's no way he's below average in saving stealing runs!
Saltalamacchia got more than 400 plate appearances in each of his 2012, 2013, and 2014 seasons. In those seasons, he posted an OPS of .742, .804, and .681, with 25, 14, and 11 home runs, respectively. His batting average in the past five seasons has frequently struggled to top .240 (2013 was the exception, when he hit .273), but it would appear that when he does hit, he hits for some power.
What? Don't look at me like that, I'll use batting average and home runs as evaluation tools if I want! Ok, fine, here's his ISO for 2013 to 2014: .232, .193, and .142 -- so he's not Babe Ruth. He's also not Kurt Suzuki.
Con: Whiff city
A big reason why "Salty" has struggled with low batting averages is because he strikes out a lot. And by "a lot" I mean "at the top of the list on certain Baseball Reference searches." Of all the catchers in the past five years with at least 300 at-bats per season, Saltalamacchia has the dubious honor of leading the Twenty-One Man Whiff Brigade with a strikeout in every 2.9 at-bats.
For comparison's sake, Alex Avila is next on the list at 3.1 at-bats, and Yadier Molina is at the bottom of that list with a strikeout every 8.7 at-bats. Get ready for some serious all-or-nothing action in 2016.
Pro: He's hell on righties
For his career, Saltalamacchia -- a switch-hitter -- has fairly severe platoon splits, posting a 71 OPS+ against left-handed pitchers, and a 111 OPS+ against right-handed pitchers. On a list of active switch-hitters over the past five seasons with 300 plate appearances per season, Saltalamacchia leads the pack with a 111 OPS+, beating both Neil Walker (108 OPS+) and Kendrys Morales (106 OPS+).
In contrast, James McCann struggled against righties in 2015, posting a 79 OPS+ that pales in comparison to his 165 OPS+ against lefties.
The difficulty, of course, is that American League batters saw right-handed pitching in 70 percent of all plate appearances, and presumably Saltalamacchia will not be starting the majority of games behind the plate for the Tigers. But the Tigers can still maximize the platoon possibilities by making sure to start McCann whenever possible against left-handed pitching, and limiting Saltalamacchia's starts to occasions when right-handers will be on the mound.
Bonus Pro: added run production
The Tigers need to gets runs added to their projected 2016 total, and if they're going to leave left field to be patrolled by a combination of Tyler Collins and Cameron Maybin, they're going to need all the help they can get in the Runs Created department.
James McCann projects to a 162-game average of 55 Runs Created, while Saltalamacchia projects to a 162-game average of 70 Runs Created. If the two of them split their time 50/50, their combined Runs Created comes out to 63, and even if McCann starts 60 percent of the games, they still end up with 61 combined Runs Created -- which is better than what McCann could do on his own, much less with Bryan Holaday as a platoon partner.
(Bryan Holaday projects to 39 Runs Created over 162 games, so pairing him with McCann actually brings the combined total below McCann's already limited production.)
For the major league minimum salary they'll be paying him, the Tigers could certainly do a lot worse.