JUPITER, Fla. — Miami’s first move this offseason involved the position with the most input in every game: catcher.
The Marlins signed Jarrod Saltalamacchia fresh off his World Series run with the Boston Red Sox. Saltalamacchia, a seven-year veteran, hit .273 with 14 home runs and 65 RBI in 121 games in 2013.
This wasn’t the first transition for the Royal Palm Beach, Fla., native. He had been traded from the Atlanta Braves to the Texas Rangers in 2007 and the Rangers to the Red Sox in 2010.
Last season, Rob Brantly started on Opening Day for the Marlins in what would’ve been his first full season in the big leagues. Jeff Mathis, who was supposed to be the veteran backup, broke his collarbone on the first day of spring and didn’t return until May.
Brantly struggled both at and behind the plate. With Mathis back and veteran Miguel Olivo around, the 24-year-old wound up in Triple-A New Orleans.
Mathis managed a young staff that set a club record for lowest ERA (3.71) in a season. Had he played in enough games, his catcher’s ERA (3.17) would’ve ranked third in the majors. Saltalamacchia was seventh with a 3.88 catcher’s ERA.
In 2014, the pair provides stability and experience.
"With those two guys coming into the season we couldn’t be in any better shape as a coaching staff and pitching staff," said bench coach Rob Leary, who instructs the catchers. "We’re in great shape with two good veteran guys that are ready to go out and make a difference.
"Those two guys are going to be running this pitching staff for now, and I think that they can learn from each other from their experiences, certainly Jeff being here last year with the bulk of these pitchers. He’s got a lot to offer because he went through all those games in a season with them. From Salty’s perspective he’s bringing in a new perspective of what he sees with these guys. They’re going to constantly match up and talk about it."
Here is Leary’s breakdown of the catchers in the upper levels of the organization:
2013: 119 G, 6 E, .994 FPCT, 21% CS
Career: 515 G, 39 E, .989 FPCT, 23% CS
Biggest adjustment: "Coming in and catching a whole new group of pitchers, and that’s something that takes time for anyone catching new guys. He’s adjusted really well. Being with two other organizations before he’s had to make transitions. It’s not new to him, but this group is. It starts before spring training even before he signed and watched our pitchers on video."
Strengths: "He’s solid. He has a good foundation as all the guys do, but when things do askew what are the keys? What does he have to tell himself in the middle of the inning? A lot of times he comes in and tells me he felt this or that or talks to (manager Mike Redmond). He has two good sources to come to here that have eyes on him all the time."
His personality: "These guys know right away that he cares, and that’s probably one of the biggest things. Getting to know the guys is pretty common, but you really have to care and show them you care. You can tell them, but let’s go out and do it. I’m going to show you by the way I work with you and during the bullpen or after the bullpen talking to them."
Quick take: "Whatever the case may be, those are the big things he’s come in and done. He’s proven it on the field, in the bullpen. He’s aced it without a doubt and come in like the professional he has been and come and fit right in and taken a good leadership role."
Last season’s impact: "Jeff did a tremendous job with all the staff. I consider him like an extension of (pitching coach) Chuck (Hernandez) and (bullpen coach) Reid (Cornelius) just the way he approaches his day every day whether he’s in the lineup or not. I don’t have words to say what he did other than he put you at ease. As he went through and worked with these guys he did a fantastic job with the individuals of the night and the group as a whole."
Proven track record: "He had a lot of great experience before he came here last year. He was a big part of the growth of our staff and the individuals. We couldn’t ask for anyone better from the physical side of what he did to prepare himself, the work he did when he wasn’t playing, when he was, the homework, the attention to detail when he wasn’t in the game the first 5-6 innings in the dugout. He was an extension of our pitchers and program."
Strengths: "That physical part of his game. He puts the work in the gym, flexibility and stretching and strength. All those things allow him to let those talents play and let them show. Everyone can catch the ball when it’s nice and easy, but in tough situations in the game, when a pitcher’s misfiring or not hitting the target he really handled those things well. He was ready for whatever was coming to him because of his preparation and work and experience."
2013: 65 G, 5 E, .990 FPCT
Career: 93 G, 7 E, .990 FPCT, 18 % CS
Spring signs of improvement: "I saw it behind the plate. He just looked a lot more comfortable and at ease with everything he did whether it was drill work, in the cages (or) out in the six pack. A major part of that is experience. He went through a season, had to reset, go down to (Triple-A) New Orleans, reset and come back. You can teach someone and give them the whole book, but until they experience things… and he did."
Importance of experience: "It might have been a difficult year at times, but it was invaluable getting that experience. Being up at the major-league level for most of the season I think really benefited him coming into this spring. He did a fantastic job catching this spring. He really did well with everything from receiving to blocking balls, throwing. He took big steps in a lot of ways from spring to the season that he brought right back into spring training with a year of experience."
Work in progress: "As far as the physical stuff — all the guys are always trying to be more and more consistent, so that’s the biggest thing. Last year we saw good improvement from receiving, blocks in the dirt, throwing footwork to exchange to actual arm. Saw really good steps."
Handle a staff: "Actually running those games and gaining that knowledge and experience — doesn’t matter what level you’re at. The minor leagues are still developing. Even though he developed last year at this level to go back down there and continue to become more aware of situations and the best way to set up and put away a hitter. How do I talk to this guy or that one?’ All that is handling a staff, more than just putting the right pitches down. That’s the biggest thing that he really needs to continue in his development as a professional baseball player."
Level: Triple-A (limited major-league experience)
2013: 68 G, 9 E, .983 FPCT
Career: 441 G, 50 E, .986 FPCT, 30% CS
Point of emphasis: "I heard how much he’d come along as a catcher, and we certainly saw that. The biggest thing is with his receiving getting comfortable in his stance and then sticking the pitches and being able to react well to the misfire. Being in a good catcher’s stance with a good target and able to move all over the place to catch a ball that’s not right to the glove."
Fine-tune: "Like all of them, the throwing. It’s never perfect. You might rip off a few really good ones, but there’s always something you can do. His transfers are getting a lot better. It’s a little bit of that overall game. His skills are fine — they play — it’s just being more consistent with the overall game."
2013: 100 G, 8 E, .990 FPCT
Career: 276 G, 37 E, .984 FPCT, 38% CS
Infield-to-catcher: "Saw a real big improvement from him from one year to the next. Two-and-a-half years removed from playing infield. He’s really done a nice job. He’s gaining more and more feel for running the staff and game and the handling of pitchers. You’re in every pitch. That’s the thing. If a catcher’s really doing his job right and putting in what you hope he will they’re as tired mentally as physically, which is tough to say because it’s physically demanding. You should be spent mentally by the end of the game. You have a great gameplan, but the pitcher may not have this pitch or locate and opposing teams make adjustments, so we constantly have to keep that motor running."
Biggest adjustment: "Physically we had to change his stance a little bit, the foundation that enables you to catch the ball well, block, receive. Good solid stance enables you to move freely all over the place. We made some adjustments with him on that and he really did a nice job catching. He’s got a real strong arm and his feet and arms work well together."
Level: Double-A Jacksonville
2013: (between Single A and Double AA): 75 G, 6 E, .994 FPCT,
Career: 122 G, 13 E, .986 FPCT, 35% CS
Utility man: "I think that’s a testament to his skill set. The athleticism he brings from that middle infield. We’re doing so many of the same things but out of the squat. He looks like he’s really at ease because he’s physically in a good spot and is able to move freely to the ball. Good feet. He’s really learning how to call a game and those things. Catch 22 is, ‘We need you to play at second, but we also need you to catch.’ He’s a utility guy that moves all over the place. Catching is such a different animal."
Huge step forward: "We had him in a few times last year, came to games. He mostly played infield with catching, but he was more of an infielder. He came in and did a great job. He’s real sound fundamentally with his stance. Shows good hands receiving. He does it easy. It’ll be a good year for him wherever he starts out and goes throughout the season to constantly learn pitchers, learn opposing hitters. Big year for him. He definitely has the skills and tools to be a catcher."