Over the offseason the Red Sox and the Yankees both pursued Russell Martin. The Yankees were all-in, promising Martin the ability to catch as a starter and offering him $4M. The Sox were far more tentative. Fearful of his injury history, the Sox medical staff declared Martin unsignable (h/t JamalGr) and the Sox never offered him more than a minor league deal. Martin chose New York and now plays Call of Duty with pal A.J. Burnett, gets his nails done in Westchester nail salons, and hits a healthy .256/.356/.510 with seven home runs. The Red Sox, on the other hand, are stuck with Salty and Tek.
Salty and Tek have been terrible in 2011, there’s just no way around it. Varitek is currently hitting a robust .154/.241/.212 in 59 plate appearances this year, while Saltalamacchia stands at .203/.250/.266 in 84 plate appearances. The two have combined for zero home runs. Better (or worse) yet, neither of them are a Yadier Molina or a Matt Wieters behind the plate. They both have trouble with preventing the run game. This is something the Yankees took advantage of last night, and it’s something they should continue to exploit this weekend and throughout the rest of the season.
According to Matt Klaassen’s catcher defense rankings, Jason Varitek’s catcher defense has been -0.3 runs below average. Varitek actually grades out fairly well across the board this year, registering positive value in fielding errors, throwing errors and passed balls and wild pitches. However, he received a low mark in the Caught Stealing category. In other words, Klaassen’s system grades Varitek well except when it comes to throwing out would-be base-stealers. Overall, Jarrod Saltalamacchia is far worse, coming in at -1.4 runs below average. Unlike Varitek, Salty scores poorly in the passed ball and wild pitches category. Like Varitek, though, he grades out poorly in the Caught Stealing category, scoring -1.2 runs below average. It’s not as bad as A.J. Pierzynski or Ryan Hanigan, but it’s close. Salty is easy to run on, and this says nothing of his frequent cases of the yips.
Catcher defense is notoriously difficult to quantify and rank. For this reason it’s often wise to listen to personal observation and anecdotal information. A perfect example of this came with Varitek earlier this week against the Blue Jays. Varitek was brought in as a defensive replacement for Salty, and with the game tied in the 10th inning Rajai Davis singled off Matt Albers. At that point the Red Sox correctly anticipated a steal and guessed right with a pitch out. Varitek received the pitchout and was poised to nail Davis, but couldn’t get the ball to Iglesias on the fly, bouncing it well short of the bag and allowing Davis to slide in safely. Davis subsequently swiped third base, David Cooper brought him home with a walk-off sacrifice fly shortly thereafter, and there was great rejoicing. You can read more about the sequence over at Red Sox Beacon, complete with plenty of screencaps showing that a good throw would have nailed Davis and ended the threat.
Saltalamacchia’s arm was on display last night in the eighth inning. The Yankees down 5-3 with one out and Daniel Bard on the mound, and Rodriguez and Cano executed a perfectly timed double steal, putting themselves in scoring position for Swisher and Posada. Swisher and Posada, of course, couldn’t take advantage, but it was clear that the Yankees recognized a tactical advantage and decided to take it.
And that’s really what this is all about. Spending a lot of money, as the Red Sox have, doesn’t guarantee you a weakness-free roster. It’s very difficult to build quality depth. It’s very difficult to acquire great players. Theo Epstein built a really good baseball club this offseason, maybe the best of his entire tenure as Red Sox GM. Sure, he may have whiffed on Russell Martin, but no GM has a perfect track record and Epstein at least has the cover of deferring to the medical staff. All of that aside: weakness is weakness. One area in which the Red Sox are weak is in preventing the running game. The Yankees aren’t built for speed, but they have plenty of guys who can swipe a bag against a weak arm. If last night was any indication, they may try to exploit this weakness whenever advantageous.