The Blue Jays Have A Problem Behind the Plate

Amanda Fewer - Canadian Baseball Network

One of the items on Ross Atkins’ checklist for the winter was to sign a backup catcher. The Blue Jays had Dioner Navarro and Josh Thole to back up Russell Martin for a few years, and the results were less than inspiring. It was not a surprise to see neither player was brought back this year, especially with R.A. Dickey pitching in Atlanta. That left the Jays with a hole, albeit one that was not quite as important as the corner outfield spots.

It seemed as though the Jays made a smart decision in signing veteran Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The switch hitter had a fair amount of success around the league, and had experienced the AL East. However, the results so far have been worse than anyone could have predicted. Even the Jays’ front office appears to have some buyers’ remorse on this front. While the backup catcher is not responsible for much of any team’s overall record, the Jays should be proactive, and look at a possible replacement.

Russell Needs A Break

For much of last season, the Jays’ only backup option was Thole. Of course, Thole’s job was to catch Dickey’s knuckleball. That meant that Martin had to catch the other four starters, and also that the Jays could not schedule when he would have days off. This issue was alleviated when Navarro was signed late in the season, but even so, Martin still appeared in 135 games. That was a lot of action for the then-33-year-old catcher.

One of the benefits of signing Saltalamacchia is that he can play whenever the Jays need him. Or, almost whenever the Jays need him. We don’t have enough statistical evidence yet, but I think that we’ll eventually see just how valuable Martin is for catching Francisco Liriano. I digress. With Saltalamacchia in the fold, the Jays can give Martin a rest whenever he needs a day off. That was a luxury that they went without for much of last season.

Of course, Martin hasn’t started the season on the right foot. To date, he is hitting .159/.315/.250 with a 72 wRC+. He has shown signs of improvement over the last week (a wRC+ of 145), but that doesn’t overshadow his broader struggles. Fortunately, Martin’s defence and game calling have met expectations. While he likely won’t live up to his $20M contract this season, he should eventually even out to be a valuable asset over the course of 162 games. It’s hard to tell where the Jays’ pitching staff would be without him.

Unlike in past seasons, Martin can now take a day off to rest, either physically or mentally. The hope is that this will give him time to get sorted at the plate. The only downside is that his replacement has been a black hole through the first few weeks.

Salty Is Struggling

Once again, I need to preface this by saying that a backup catcher will not make or break any team’s season. Their impact is just too small in the grander scheme of things. So while Saltalamacchia has had an awful start to the year, he is not the reason that the Jays are 4-13. Nor is he the reason that they have the worst offence in baseball. That said, he hasn’t exactly helped the cause.

Most teams look for strong defence from their backup catcher. If he can also swing a bat, then all the better. That’s why Saltalamacchia was something of an odd signing for the Jays. The switch hitter is known more for his bat than his glove. For his career, Saltalamacchia has posted a slash line of .233/307/.411. That’s more than what can usually be expected of a backup. The problem is that his defence, particularly his pitch framing and ability to control the run game, is severely lacking.

Saltalamacchia has not posted numbers anywhere near his career norms. So far this season, he is hitting a miserable .056/.056/.056 (though it has only been 18 plate appearances). The real concern is his strikeouts. Last night, Saltalamacchia set a new Blue Jays’ record, as he struck out in his 10th consecutive at bat. Known for his power, he has struggled to get the ball past the pitcher, let alone over the fence. It has been a stunningly disappointing start to his career in Toronto. Making matters worse is that Saltalamacchia has allowed seven stolen bases (and has caught nobody) in only 36.0 innings. His pitch framing has not been much better.

All of the concerns surrounding Saltalamacchia appear to have played out. He can’t make contact, and his defence has been below-average. The Jays’ front office does not seem to be blind to this. They have already shown indications of buyers’ remorse. For example, they reportedly offered Derek Norris more money than did the Rays in late-March. That doesn’t suggest much confidence in Saltalamacchia. Once Norris signed with the Rays, the Jays picked up Tampa’s former backup, Luke Maile, on a waiver claim. All of this suggests that the front office was not happy with Saltalamacchia during spring training, and that their evaluation hasn’t improved.

The Jays Have An Alternative

That early-April waiver claim might turn out to be a prudent decision. Maile is a defensive specialist, who has a career caught stealing rate of 42%. Throw in the ability to frame pitches, and he is a clear defensive improvement over Saltalamacchia. The issue for Maile is that he can’t hit. As bad as Saltalamacchia has been, his .056 slash line is unlikely to continue. Meanwhile, Maile’s career line is .214/.234/.338. Over the course of a season, Saltalamacchia should easily outhit him.

The question is whether the Jays believe that Saltalmacchia’s potential to contribute more than Maile on offence outweighs his current struggles, and his clear defensive deficiencies. At this point, I would be willing to give Maile a chance. I’m of the mind that a backup should focus on defence first, with any offence as a bonus. Saltalamacchia hasn’t given the Jays any of either. At worst, Maile can play strong defence, and might even be able to catch Liriano. That would give Martin more flexibility as well.

Again, Saltamacchia is not the reason that the Jays’ have struggled so far. But the Jays don’t have the ability to replace a slumping Devon Travis or Jose Bautista, because there is nobody else in the system. At least with the backup catcher, they do have another avenue to explore. It might soon be time to do so.

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