There’s a lot to like about Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
His 24 home runs are tied for third among major league catchers. He also ranks among the leaders with 42 extra-base hits and 56 RBIs.
Saltalamacchia has been durable, too. He has played in a career-best 115 games, 99 of them behind the plate, and shown toughness on a team that so often seems to lack it.
In May, Saltalamacchia had to get his left ear stitched up when he was knocked askew by a foul ball in Philadelphia. He came out of the hospital and played the next day.
Saltalamacchia and Mike Aviles are the only position players with the team all season who have not gone on the disabled list.
“I’ve said he’s underappreciated. That’s for sure,” manager Bobby Valentine said.
But there’s also plenty to question about Saltalamacchia.
His .292 on-base percentage is one of the 10 lowest in the American League and Saltalamacchia has struck out in 131 of his 386 at-bats.
Saltalamacchia has thrown out only 18 percent of base stealers (17 of 94), well off from the 31 percent he caught last season.
Red Sox pitchers praised Saltalamacchia’s work behind the plate, but statistics indicate that performances were sharper when backup Kelly Shoppach caught prior to his being traded to the Mets.
Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, in particular, have been better with other catchers.
Lester has a 5.98 ERA in 17 starts with Saltalamacchia, 3.86 in 14 starts with Shoppach or rookie Ryan Lavarnway. Buchholz has a 5.47 ERA in 12 starts with Saltalamacchia, a 3.26 in 15 starts with the other catchers.
The disparity is significant. But earned run average can be skewed by dozens of factors over a relatively small number of games, most notably the quality of the opposition.
At 27, is Saltalamacchia a player the Sox can build around or a placeholder until Lavarnway is deemed ready?
“This is really my second full year of playing,” Saltalamacchia said. “I feel like I’m going to get better. I think I can hit for a better average, especially in RBI situations.
“With everything that has gone on, I’ve been more worried about the pitching and catching aspect of it than the hitting. I really had to focus on the catching.”
Saltalamacchia started 32 more games behind the plate than Jason Varitek in 2011. But Varitek’s retirement before this season changed the dynamics of how the Red Sox prepared their pitchers for games.
Varitek kept detailed records of opposing hitters and had a big influence on strategy. With Varitek gone, Saltalamacchia and the starting pitchers had to take a more active role in developing game plans.
At the same time, the Sox were getting adjusted to their third pitching coach in three years in Bob McClure, who took a largely hands-off approach. When McClure was fired in August, Randy Niemann took over.
The Sox have gone through 25 pitchers this season and used nine starters.
“Strenuous, to say the least,” Valentine said. “He’s put in all the extra work pregame. He works trying to get to know the idiosyncrasies of the pitchers. It’s a challenge. But I think he’s met the challenge more often than not.”
Said Saltalamacchia: “It has been tough. You have guys who are struggling and you try and figure it out for them and you want to keep the guys who are going well on track. There are a lot of nights I lay my head down and I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about it. It’s always something different.”
The challenge lately has been getting used to decreased playing time. With the Sox out of contention, the front office took the opportunity to see more of Lavarnway, a 25-year-old organizational favorite. He has started 33 of the last 49 games including 10 of the last 15.
“It’s not hard to get used to it,” Saltalamacchia said. “I understand it. It’s more difficult to get on the field and perform. Going back to catching once or twice a week is hard and I’m not a big fan of being the DH. But at least they want my bat in the lineup.”
Saltalamacchia is arbitration eligible for a second year. After making $2.5 million this season, he remains economical and provides better production than most catchers.
“I think his defense is fine. On par with the league, he’s fine,” Valentine said. “There are a lot of stolen bases on this team that Johnny Bench isn’t doing anything about.”
Saltalamacchia could return as the primary catcher, split time with Lavarnway, or be used as a trade chip. His hope is to return.
“Obviously some changes have to be made. It’s going to be a busy offseason, I think,” he said. “This is not the situation we ever thought we would be in. But it’s the situation we are in. We have to see how we move forward. The owners want to do what it takes to get us going again.
“There are going to be some moves, I’m sure. We’ll focus on improving the pitching and with the pitching comes catching. I feel like I can be a big part of it. I didn’t sign up here just to play. I signed up here to win.”