During the first few weeks of the season, Tigers catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was on a tear offensively. He hit .313/.405/.875 through April 20 and led the team in home runs, RBI and Fangraphs’ version of WAR during that stretch. His hits also came in big moments, with go-ahead home runs against the Marlins and Pirates.
And he was doing this without having enough playing time to qualify for the batting title. Any time you have more RBI (14) than games played (nine), things are going well.
Since then, Saltalamacchia has cooled off considerably, hitting .138/.194/.345 with one home run in his last 10 games. Was this early hot streak just a fluke? Have American League pitchers already figured him out? Or is he just in a slump that he can come out of?
First nine games
Throughout his career, Salty has done most of his damage against right-handed pitching. He has six home runs this season, with five coming from the left side of the plate (off righthanders). During his first nine games against right-handed pitching, the switch-hitting Saltalamacchia was batting .391/.481/1.043. Of the nine hits he had on that side of the plate, only two were not for extra base hits.
As a result, none of his batted balls were registered as hit "softly," while 52.6 percent of his batted balls were hit hard. The other 47.4 percent resulted in medium contact. A whopping 63.2 percent of his batted balls were pulled with only 10.5 percent of them were hit to the opposite field.
Looking at Brooks Baseball, pitchers are pitching inside to Saltalamacchia. As a result, he is simply pulling the ball, and with authority.
Only three of his nine hits were on pitches away from him, and two of them just so happened to be the two singles. The other hit not inside was a double.
You couldn't really blame the pitchers for this approach, as pulling the ball is something Saltalamacchia did not do all that well last year.
Saltalamacchia only had six hits against righthanders on the inner third of the plate in 2015, and that's in 159 at-bats! Additionally, only one of those six hits was a home run, compared to four hit already this year.
Last 10 games
Since his hot start, Saltalamacchia not pulled the ball as often, with only 33.3 percent of batted balls going to the right side. He has a meager .538 OPS during this stretch, or a 41 wRC+.
Not surprisingly, pitchers have already adjusted. Check out where he has gotten pitched over the past two weeks.
Of the 107 pitches thrown by righthanded pitchers, 67 of them have been away (62.6 percent) and only 15 (14 percent) have been inside. It's hard for Saltalamacchia, a relatively pull-happy hitter throughout his career, to continue to the pull the ball when pitchers won't pitch inside.
The good news is that Saltalamacchia is still hitting the ball very hard. He has made hard contact over 50 percent of the time in his last 10 games. Only 6.7 percent of the balls he has put in play during this 10-game stretch were soft despite a poor 13.3 percent line drive rate. The bad news is that he is hitting the ball in the air too much, with an 80.0 percent fly ball rate. Only one ball has been hit on the ground during this span. While this is a very small sample of at-bats, it seems apparent that he is trying too hard to keep his home run production up. Unfortunately, he can't because pitchers are not pitching him the same way as before.
The conclusion, unfortunately, is that the first couple of weeks was probably a fluke. However, so is the last two weeks. There are some positives to take from his early hot streak, such as hitting the ball harder than he has ever done before. While pitchers have already adjusted to him, Saltalamacchia has a long history as a good left-handed hitter against righty pitching, and he should be able to readjust soon.