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In defense of Jarrod Saltalamacchia

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Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Two days ago we got news that the Rays are among six teams interested in Jarrod Saltalamacchia. This makes sense, as the backup catcher in Tampa Bay is a journeyman veteran unlikely to last the season on the 25-man roster. But after a cursory look at Saltalamacchia, I didn't see a resounding reason to pick him up.

Several in the comments suggested letting him be released, as opposed to giving up value for Salty, but if the Marlins pick up the money it might be worth a PTBNL. Let's look at why.

Way back in 2012, catcher Bobby Wilson caught 4,606 pitches and was worth 8.4 RAA through framing, according to StatCorner. We use those statistics now to say Bobby Wilson should at least be average with the glove.

You know who also did well in framing in 2012? Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

Where Wilson was 13th by StatCorner's evaluation, Salty was 15th at 7.3 RAA over 7,664 pitches. It's not as efficient, but it certainly doesn't feel like that same player should have been the worst in baseball, as Salty was in 2014. But why stop at 2012.

Going back to 2011, Statcorner's framing numbers have Salty as being worth 17.4 runs in 7729 pitches, while Bobby Wilson was worth -1.4 runs in 2700. For those interested, the Baseball Prospectus numbers broadly agree, saying that Saltalamachhia was good at framing in 2012, and better back in 2011.

Why was last season any different?

Perhaps it's a bad idea to look at one exceptional year of poor performance and take that as a true-talent level. But even if you accept the narrative that Salty was horrible behind the plate last year, maybe it was moving to the Marlins that threw him off his groove.

There's a strong possibility that changing pitching staffs causes a dip in framing as the catcher is taking on so many new hurlers. Jeff Sullivan made that observation when trying to interpret Saltalamacchia's very-bad 2014:

After more than three years with the Red Sox, Saltalamacchia left and had to learn a whole new staff in a whole new league. Good receivers will tell you it helps an awful lot to be familiar with the tendencies and movement of the guys on the mound, and maybe it's just taking Saltalamacchia a while. Being a starting catcher is mighty hard work.

Yet even if that's true, it's also worth noting that several Marlins pitchers improved in framing stats under Saltalamacchia last year, as noted by Mike Petriello last January.

But even if Salty has lost the framing touch and succumbed to poor technique, like reaching across the body when he receives, or stabbing at the ball as it reaches the plate, R.J. Anderson recently hypothesized to me that it's easier to teach a bad framer to be average than a bad hitter to be average, and Salty has already been average in the past (2013) and above average in the years before that.

It seems that the old dog need only remember an old trick, not learn several new ones.

Photo credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

We should also consider what he'd bring to the side of the plate, as opposed to behind it.

Salty had a 32.9% strike out rate last season. That's bad, like worst in the league bad, but he also has a strong predilection to take a walk, and has averaged 18 home runs over the last three seasons. Even though those longball totals are declining (from 25 to 14 to 11), that's a strong showing for less than 500 PA each season, and dude kills the fastball. Striking out often doesn't necessarily make you an easy out.

And even if you think that his 91 wRC+ in 2014 was bad, the 2014 average for catchers was only slightly higher than that at 93 wRC+, and that's including players like John Jaso, who count toward the FanGraphs catcher stats but actually spent little time there.

Now consider his splits. Against lefties he's hit for a Molina-esque 56 wRC+ in 745 plate appearances. Against righties, he's hit for a 107 wRC+ in 1723 plate appearances. You don't need to regress those splits to see how Saltalamachhia should and shouldn't be used.

So take his switch-hitting out of the equation by limiting him to back-up duty. A great compliment to Rivera is likely someone who lets the right-handed Rivera take all the at bats against southpaw starters anyway. In that case the Rays would have a league-average-expectation bat with some possible thump, and a veteran catcher who's proved himself at a major league level for eight seasons. Pitch framing is not the only way to find value.

A backup catcher is rarely worth more than the league minimum, but if it takes a minor deal to get the Marlins to eat the money and guarantee Salty's impossible name be crammed onto a Rays jersey, it may be worth it.