It wasn't long ago that Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was getting skewered by fans and media alike. The switch-hitting backstop, given the starting position to begin the season, started the year in a major funk.
It got so bad, in fact, that backup and fan favorite Jason Varitek had worked himself into a platoon role, and the two were practically splitting starts.
That seems like a long time ago.
While the interleague designated hitter saga, Josh Beckett's intestinal turmoil and the delight that has been the first season in Boston for Adrian Gonzalez dominate the headlines, it is Saltalamacchia who is flying under the radar in the middle of a strong June.
As the Red Sox have started to get hot, Saltalamacchia has as well, as the beneficiary of consistent playing time.
He's played in 14 of the 22 games this month for the Red Sox, and the team is 9-5 in those games. The main reason that Saltamacchia has earned the majority of the starts back is the way he's swinging the bat. He showed signs of coming around in late May, a trend punctuated by his walk-off winner on May 18.
Once the calendar flipped to June, Saltalamacchia took things to another level, at least in terms of the production the Sox had been getting from behind the plate. In those 14 games this month, Saltalamacchia is hitting .347. He's seen his average shoot up 40 points over the course of the month, and he's still showing the ability to drive the ball, something that hasn't translated into numbers just yet, as he's had only one homer this month.
Still, for as long as Varitek is wearing a Red Sox uniform, there will be fans who believe the starting position belongs to the captain. While no one can argue Varitek's worth to the club, even in a limited role, it's important not to sell Saltalamacchia short.
He's a much bigger offensive threat than Varitek is, and he may be coming along in terms of calling a game. The Varitek apologists will say that is the veteran backstop's biggest skill, and that's fair.
However, if you put any stock into the connection between improved pitching performance and the "game-calling skills" of a catcher, you have to at least look at what Boston pitching has done this month. In the 14 games that Saltalamacchia has appeared, the Sox have given up 59 runs.
However, that doesn't take into account two things. First, nine of those runs stem from the June 4 game in which Varitek started. He was ejected in the ninth in the midst of a Jonathan Papelbon meltdown. Second, you have to consider that four of Saltalamacchia's starts this month have come with Tim Wakefield on the mound. There are few things tougher in baseball than catching a knuckleball, but it's not necessarily difficult to call a game with a knuckleballer on the mound.
Take out those five instances, and the Sox gave up 39 runs in nine games with Saltalmacchia behind the plate. Small sample size, sure, but it should provide encouragement at the very least.
Not only that, he's shown in the past week that he can indeed throw out would-be base stealers. He's thrown out three of the last nine runners who have attempted to steal against him. If that part of the game comes around, Saltalamacchia could be evolving into the catcher Sox fans were sold on when he came to Boston.
All of this is based on an admittedly small sample size, and catchers often hit some bumps in the road down the stretch. However, if Saltalamacchia can continue to give the Sox some valuable work just a month or two after the catching position was arguably the team's biggest weakness, it will make life a lot easier for the team down the stretch.
If he keeps getting the at-bats and the playing time, it doesn't look like there's any reason to expect any less.
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