DUNEDIN, Fla. – Catching for six different teams over 10 big-league seasons has provided Jarrod Saltalamacchia with a pretty diverse set of experiences to draw from when it comes to handling a starting rotation. Still, developing a rapport with news pitchers, especially over course of a single spring training, isn’t always easy as sometimes personalities, philosophies or approaches can clash.
“Getting on the same page, that’s half the battle,” the 31-year-old says one quiet morning.
Yet for Saltalamacchia, there’s been little to no battle in building relationships with the Toronto Blue Jays rotation during his first spring with the club. In fact, he’s found it easy working with a group that led the American League in ERA last year at 3.64, although the reasons he’s been so impressed with J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman and Francisco Liriano extend well beyond that.
“You look at the teams that are good and they’ve got starting pitching that competes with each other. They’re not out there just going through the motions, just trying to be selfish – they’re all there for each other, they’re all competing, making each other better, talking about things,” says Saltalamacchia. “This is probably one the smarter pitching staffs I’ve been a part of, and what I mean by that is they’re pretty good at reading hitters. They have an idea what a hitter did, they see something move on the front hip and they know, ‘OK, I can go down and away now.’ They think like a catcher in that sense, which is nice, it helps us be on the same page, we don’t have to talk about it all day long.”
All the elements he mentioned and the starters’ seemingly seamless acclimation to Saltalamacchia, who will likely see more action this season than previous backups to Russell Martin, bodes well for a Blue Jays team that will need its rotation to lead the way in another run at the post-season.
Expecting them to lead the league in ERA again may be unfair, but barring injuries, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t remain among the American League’s elite.
Happ, like Saltalamacchia, also has parts of 10 big-league seasons, spread across five teams, under his belt, and at 34, is the rotation’s elder statesman, a year up on Estrada and Liriano. He believes the relationship between the five of them plays a role in the success.
“It is pretty unique, actually, just in how different we all are but how we want to push each other, help each other out there, ask each other questions,” says Happ. “There are times when we all wish we had each other’s stuff to play with for a day, to see how it was. That’s a cool thing, an interesting thing with us, and we have a good combination of pushing and giving each other a hard time, but also pulling for each other. That’s what makes it fun.”
The lefty, who’ll pitch the second game of the season in Baltimore behind Estrada, went 20-4 with a 3.18 ERA over a career-best 32 starts and 195 innings, riding improved fastball command and a more effective two-seamer.
As for which of his rotation-mates’ pitches he’d most like to take for a spin, “you could pick any of them,” he says.
“Liri’s slider, Sanchie’s heater, Stroman’s sinker or Marco’s changeup – it would be nice to have all of them,” Happ continues. “If you could put a pitcher together and have all of them, that would be something. It’s amazing just watching how every pitcher, not just on our team, does stuff so differently. We’re all trying to do the same thing but we go about it in such random ways.”
The different approaches each one of them employs helps make the rotation “dynamic” in the eyes of Sanchez.
“From the left side, power sinker, from the right side, power sinker, you’ve got Marco who’s a changeup guy, so it’s not the same look every night,” says Sanchez. “Liriano throws the sinker from the left side and everything moves. You turn around and throw Stro, then you turn around and throw J.A., then you’ve got a guy to even them out like Marco, then you’ve got another power guy. It’s unique.”
So too is the balance from front to back.
For many teams, naming an opening day starter is an easy or obvious task, but for the Blue Jays, Game 1 pick Estrada wasn’t simply throwing out clichés when he joked that “they basically had a hat and they just pulled my name out – it just happened to be my turn.”
“It could’ve been any one of the other guys. That’s how deep we are,” he continues. “There’s no one, there’s no two, there’s no three. We’re all about the same and it just goes to show you how good this staff is.”
Perhaps that’s why some are reluctant to buy in.
“I think we have the best rotation in baseball, hands down,” Stroman told reporters at the beginning of this spring. “I’ll argue that day-in, day-out. We weren’t valued at all coming into spring training (last year), everyone had a bunch of question marks. But we knew what we were capable of, one-through-five, we were extremely strong, each and every guy I consider pretty much an ace and can get us a win every day. That’s the mentality we have.”
While confidence in their abilities may be a mentality they share, their personalities are as different as their pitching styles.
“Stroman is very lively, boisterous, he’s letting you know, and Liri and I, we’re on the opposite ends of that spectrum and Marco and Sanchie are somewhere in between,” says Happ. “It’s good to have the different personalities, we probably keep each other in check. Stroman is probably saying loosen up and I’m probably saying calm it down now and then.”
The mix worked well last season in every way that mattered for the Blue Jays, who will be counting on their starters to do it again in 2017.