BOSTON — Jarrod Saltalamacchia has come a very long from when he was a young Texas Rangers catcher who not only had issues throwing to second base but also had difficulty throwing the baseball back to the pitcher.
Flash forward three years. The 28-year-old Saltalamacchia’s offensive power and improved defense is one reason the Red Sox are where they are right now.
“He’s become the captain on the field,” Red Sox backup catcher David Ross said.
That certainly means a lot coming from Ross, a terrific defensive catcher (much better behind the plate than Saltalamacchia) who is not only one of the most respected players in the Red Sox clubhouse but also respected league-wide.
Saltalamacchia and the Boston Red Sox will play Game 1 of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park on Saturday. Boston finished off the rival Rays in a best-of-five ALDS with a 3-1 victory Tuesday.
Saltalamacchia, considered more of an offensive catcher, led all American League backstops with 40 doubles and 54 extra-base hits this regular season. His 40 doubles was a new Red Sox single-season record for a catcher. The previous record was shared by Carlton Fisk (39 in 1978) and Jason Varitek (39 in 1999).
“Salty,” as he is more commonly called, went 2 for 4 with a double, walk and run in Game 1 of the ALDS last Friday, his first ever postseason game. He became the third Red Sox ever to drive in at least three runs in a postseason debut. He went 3 for 10 in the series.
Saltalamacchia was traded to Boston at the 2010 non-waiver deadline. The Rangers had given up on the 2003 first-round draft pick whom they had acquired with four others exactly three years earlier from Atlanta in a trade that sent slugger Mark Teixeira to the Braves.
The catcher got in a minor car accident in June 2009 that resulted in debilitating symptoms. His top rib basically was pinching a nerve, resulting in a tingling numbness and sometimes no feeling in his throwing arm. His arm would feel fatigued after a couple of throws, but he continued to play through the symptoms until he couldn’t feel the baseball in his hand by mid-August.
He had suffered from thoracic outlet syndrome as a result of the car accident and had surgery to remove the top rib.
After the surgery, he then began to have trouble throwing the baseball back to the mound. He felt he was rushed back after surgery (the Rangers wanted him to play Winter Ball) and his throwing problems stemmed from not taking the full recovery time recommended.
The throwing issue also became a mental problem. Saltalamacchia ended up visiting with sports psychologists Harvey Dorfman and Tom Hanson.
Coming to Boston was the change of scenery the catcher greatly needed. And the Red Sox certainly have benefitted, too. They found their replacement for the aging Varitek, who worked a great deal with Saltalamacchia before retiring before the 2012 season.
“He’s done a great job as far as just handling the staff and really prepares as well as anybody I’ve been around,” Ross said about Saltalamacchia. “He knows the lineup (of opposing teams) in and out and has a great plan when he goes out there. He doesn’t take his catching into his at-bats or his at-bats into catching.”
Separating offense and defense certainly is important for any catcher. And Saltalamacchia always has said he places more importance on game-calling than he does his offense.
“He separates them really well,” Ross said. “I think he’s created a lot of trust with these (pitchers). I know it’s been fun to watch how he’s matured.”
Things haven’t always been all hunky-dory for Saltalamacchia in Boston. Although he displayed power last year (25 homers), he batted just .222 with a .288 on-base percentage. Meanwhile, the Red Sox clubhouse was in shambles and Boston finished last in the AL East with just 69 wins.
“I think in this clubhouse last year it was tough for anyone to have fun,” Saltalamacchia said. “I mean, we were losing. Nobody likes to lose.”
Saltalamacchia, who is eligible for free agency this offseason and prefers to remain in Boston, is having a much better year offensively here in ’13. To go along with his 40 doubles, he batted .273 with a .338 on-base percentage, .466 slugging percentage and .804 OPS.
He still is not the best receiver and defensive catcher overall, but several times this year manager John Farrell has lauded Saltalamacchia’s improved play behind the plate and his handling of the pitching staff.
Saltalamacchia definitely is having a great time catching a staff that really is clicking at the right time.
“The guys have been pitching great all year,” Saltalamacchia said. “I think these guys feed off each other and they’ve all got something they can take from each other.”
Follow Christopher Smith on Twitter @SmittyOnMLB