Jarrod Saltalamacchia has come a long way behind the plate. “Salty” isn’t among the elite at his position, but he’s developed into a solid defensive catcher. He is certainly among the most cerebral. Once looked at as an offense-first backstop, he is playing a key role in the success of a Boston Red Sox pitching staff that is exceeding expectations.
Originally a first-round pick by the Atlanta Braves in 2003, the 28-year-old switch-hitter was acquired by the Red Sox from the Texas Rangers in 2010 and has been the team’s primary catcher for the past two seasons. He discussed the nuances of his craft — and several members of the Boston pitching staff — prior to a recent game at Fenway Park.
Saltalamacchia on setting the tone: “The first pitch of last night’s game was a fastball away. Nine times out of 10, that’s what it’s going to be. Most pitchers throw off their glove side, so for a righty, it’s away to a righty. But it depends on how that guy likes to pitch. With Jon Lester, there are times we’ll start hard in. We want that pitch to be a strike so his cutter becomes more effective. He can throw a four-seam in, for a strike, and that activates the hitter thinking, “‘OK, now I’ve got to be ready for that heater in.’ Then we can throw something that looks like a heater, but it moves and they foul it off. Now the count is 0-2.
“A first-pitch fastball sets the tone. “Every pitcher’s No. 1 pitch should be a fastball. He needs to trust himself enough to know it can play, that it can beat the hitter. There are guys like Ian Kinsler — who like to swing at that first pitch — but that doesn’t mean you go away from the fastball. You just throw it to the outside corner, as opposed to down the middle or middle in. When I was in Texas, Mike Maddux always used to stress what the batting average is when you throw a first-pitch strike and get ahead.
“We talk about how we want to pitch guys, but we also have to go by the situation. We want to establish the fastball — and there are guys who always want to throw a heater on their first pitch to a batter — but if there are runners on second and third, with less than two out, it changes. But for the most part, with nobody on — unless it’s a Miguel Cabrera, who can really do some damage — you’re mostly going fastball.”
On pitchers moving on the rubber: “You have to be able to throw to both sides of the plate. Last year, Clay Buchholz had some trouble throwing inside to lefties. He was on the third-base side of the rubber and had trouble throwing across his body to get to that side of the plate. This year he moved to the first-base side, which made it easier for him to do that.
“Jon Lester moved from the first-base side to the third-base side so he could throw his cutter to [the glove side] of the plate without throwing across his body and yanking it. He likes to throw his four-seam in there, and could still throw his sinker away. He’s since moved to the middle of the rubber, because he wasn’t completely comfortable on the third base side.
“For some pitchers it’s a big adjustment to move from one side to the other. It doesn’t sound like much, but it is. When Jonny moved to the third base side, he felt like he could get the inside part of the plate to a righty, but away to he was struggling a little bit — he was pushing it there. Moving to the middle kind of cut that gap.
“Some guys move around the rubber. Buchholz does. John Lackey has started doing it. He moves pitch-to-pitch sometimes.”
On pitch sequences: “Sequences are based on different things. Maybe our reports say ‘Pound this guy in,’ but we try working in and don’t have that pitch today. Then we have to try something else. A lot goes off of feel. You can’t really go off a guy’s bullpen, because he might be shitty out there and come in and start spotting.
“In one recent game, we had a power hitter up and wanted to establish the fastball with his first at bat. We started him heater away for strike one. Now we had him in a defensive position. We knew he wanted to swing the bat — he’s an aggressive hitter — so we were thinking something on the outside corner he probably couldn’t pull out of the park. We went with a cutter a little off the plate, trying to get him to chase and maybe hit it off the end of the bat and roll over.
“You always want to get as many outs as you can with the least amount of pitches, so right from the get go, I was thinking strike one. I wasn’t thinking strikeout. Once we got ahead, we were looking for weak contact. If he were to foul it off, we’d be in a position where we could do a ton of things. If he took the pitch, and it was a ball, the count was 1-1 on an aggressive hitter.
“How a hitter takes a pitch plays into it. We may go sinker in, because he just saw two pitches away, and his eyes and body are leaning that way. Maybe we can surprise him by coming in. We can also go back outside, seeing if we can get what we were trying to do on 1-1, because we know he’s an aggressive pull hitter.
“One way you can get a hitter off balance is by changing velocity. Ryan Dempster is great at that. He can throw one 86 [mph], the next one 89, and the one after that 92. That surprises the hitter. You can also surprise a hitter by throwing a 2-1 changeup. That’s a good fastball count and he’s maybe looking out over the plate, so you throw something that looks like a fastball and he ends up too far out in front.”
On scouting reports versus reading hitters: “I go a lot off the hitter’s swing percentage. For instance, what does he do on 3-2 counts? If a guy is a 90 percent swinger on 3-2, I feel comfortable calling my pitcher’s second-best pitch, whether it‘s a slider, a changeup or whatever. If it’s something we can get the hitter to swing at — out of the zone — that’s better than giving in and throwing a fastball in the zone. You can go off a hitter’s tendencies.
“Elvis Andrus is a guy who is usually trying to hit the ball to center or to right field when he falls behind in the count. Sometimes he’ll do that early in the count. I’ll use that to my advantage. If he wants to go that way, I’ll let him sit out there, but maybe we’ll throw a slider that gets him a little off the barrel. Or I might call a heater in, to jam him.
“If one of my pitchers has had success against a hitter, and is comfortable with it, I’m going to stay with what he’s done until that hitter proves he can make the adjustment. I’m not going to have my pitcher make an adjustment for no reason.
“Before a series, the coaches give us a sheet filled with numbers: 0-0, 1-1, 1-0, etc. Then there’s a section that tells you what their approach has been. There’s a section with what they’ve done against lefties this season, and what they’ve done against righties — how many strikeouts they’ve got, how many walks. They go through that stuff and kind of simplify it for us, Then I simplify it even more on my own. ‘OK, this guy’s only walked twice in 150 at bats.’ That tells me he’s not seeing pitches; he’s trying to get you before you get him.
“I look into the off-speed data, like, ‘What’s his average against sliders?’ and ‘What’s his average against curveballs?’ He could be hitting .170, then all of a sudden, with two strikes he’s hitting .320. What does that tell you? It tells you that on 0-2, he’s looking soft. Or maybe he’s gone from a .300 hitter on fastballs to an .080 hitter on 0-2 fastballs.
“You have to look at what a hitter does on sliders, versus curveballs. On sliders, he might be a .300 hitter and on curveballs he’s a .150 hitter, so a slower break is better against this guy. When I was in Texas, Maddux would be, ‘Nick Swisher is hitting .130 on curveballs this year, so I’m like, ‘OK, curveballs.’ But Scott Feldman was on the mound for us, and when Scott threw his curveball, Swisher was crushing it. It was a different curveball than, for instance, Justin Verlander’s. That’s where I have to get on video and see what exactly he’s hitting. Or maybe someone has been hitting .200 on curveballs, but he’s been crushing them right at people.
“The data we use is usually from the last seven or eight games. Hitters can be making adjustments, because that’s what this game is about. That’s where a catcher’s feel behind the plate comes in. It might be, ‘He took a pretty good swing on that, so let’s try this.’ Playing against these guys more and more helps, because you get to know them. The first game of a series against Detroit, if you haven’t seen them in awhile, is tough.
“The biggest thing for me has been getting more comfortable with what my pitchers can do. I think I’ve always had a pretty good feel for what the right pitch is, but I can’t ask my pitcher to do something he’s not capable of doing. Knowledge and trust are important, so the more you know them, the better.”
On movement and receiving: “I don’t know if you can get late break on a breaking pitch, but you can get sharper break. Taz’s [Junichi Tazawa] curveball kind of tumbles in there, as opposed to Alex Wilson’s slider, which is sharper — he gets some good tilt. When Jonny Lester throws a good curveball, it’s got good tight spin and just kind of drops. It’s not late break so much as sharper break.
“Other guys, as soon as it comes out of their hand, it starts to move. Those are usually the guys who are pushing the ball a little bit, or are underneath it, and that’s what’s causing the ball to kind of run out of their hands. Those guys are easier to see. If you know someone is a sinker guy — and you see it sinking right out of his hand — he’s probably getting under it and pushing it.”
On deception, timing, and being on the same page: “Guys who are deceptive often have a funky windup, or they hide the ball well and it just kind of pops out of nowhere. C.C. Sabathia is like that. Felix Doubront, in his last few outings, has been doing something to be a little more deceptive. We’ve worked on kind of getting a little… it’s almost like a Felix Hernandez turn. It’s not as drastic — it’s just a little bit — but it keeps him loading on his backside and not jumping.
“A lot of times, it’s just a guy who has a quicker motion and keeps the timing off the hitter. That acts as deception, because the hitter is thinking, ‘Okay, when do I get ready,’ as opposed to having a comfortable at bat where you’re just trying to see the ball.
“If you look at Mike Trout, his average and OPS are down with men on base. A big reason for that, we feel, is timing. When a pitcher is in the windup, he can time that — he can stay back, lift his leg, and be on time. A pitcher in the stretch can slide step or lift his leg. That’s a reason some guys maybe aren’t as good with runners in scoring position.
“I think one reason Tampa was so good last year is that, not only are their pitchers good, they’re on the mound, ready to go, before the ball is even back to them. As a hitter, that can be frustrating. They want to go quick, and as a hitter you want things slow. You want to take your time. You can’t time a guy who is getting the ball and going. That’s tempo. You want your pitchers to go fast, but at the same time, they have to make their pitch. I don’t want to ask Koji [Uehara] or Taz, who are kind of high leg-kick guys, to slide step or quick-pitch. They’re not necessarily capable of that, so you have to meet them in the middle.
“Koji is really deceptive. He hides the ball well, for one thing. Two, he throws strikes. Hitters know he’s not going to miss over the plate, so they kind of have to look in one spot. He’s also got that good split. We try to mix back and forth with location. He’s shaken me off maybe twice this whole year, so I think it’s a matter of him feeling he can throw any pitch, at any time, where he wants. That’s a good feeling, because in my mind I can call what I want and have a good feel for it. He’s not going to shake; he’s just going to throw it.
“Some guys — especially younger pitchers — aren’t going to shake, regardless. They’re just going to go off of what the catcher calls. Some guys — especially veteran guys — you just get a feel for. With Jonny, it’s taken a few years, but we’ve pretty much gotten close to the same page. We know what we’re capable of doing and what’s working that day. But a lot of it — as a catcher — is that a pitcher is going to throw what he wants to throw. He needs to have conviction to throw that pitch, so I’m not going to get upset and complain if he shakes. At the same time, I need him to execute. If he’s throwing a pitch I don’t think is the right pitch, he better execute.”
On raw stuff and heavy fastballs: “Allen Webster’s stuff is as good as anyone in the league. When he puts it together and learns how to pitch, he’s going to be good. He throws 97 [mph], with a 95 sinker. We’ve had to go to his sinker a lot, because that’s what he’s had more command with. He’s got a changeup, which is his best off-speed pitch. His changeup is good. He’ll throw his fastball 97 and then his changeup 87. It comes out with good four-seam rotation, so it’s very deceptive.
“Some guy throw a heavier ball; it’s literally heavier. For whatever reason — I don’t know if it’s better backspin, more of a downward angle, or what it is — the ball is heavier. You can actually feel that when it hits your glove. Alex Wilson throws a heavy ball, as opposed to someone like Taz. For some reason it’s just different. I’ve never been able to explain it, but some guys just throw a heavier ball.”
On developing into a good defensive catcher: “Catcher is the toughest position to evolve. You can be a great catch-and-throw guy, but calling a game is going to take some time. And when you’re a taller guy, it takes time to get under your body and learn the throwing and blocking. I’m not satisfied with where I’m at — I always feel I can do better — but I feel I have a good base now. The past few years have been a little tough, but I’ve gotten better.
“Coaches play a big role in what we do. Knowing your pitching staff, and what they’re capable of doing, also plays a big role. Two or three years ago, I didn’t know these guys, so I didn’t always feel comfortable calling for a 3-1 changeup, or a 3-2 changeup. I wasn’t sure if they could do it. Now I know if a guy can execute or not, so I’m not afraid to call certain pitches in certain situations. Knowledge is a big part of calling a game.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.