Saltalamacchia, Martin working together with Blue Jays pitchers in mind

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons doesn't mince words when discussing how Jarrod Saltalamacchia will fit in great with his club.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – When Jarrod Saltalamacchia started behind the plate for the Toronto Blue Jays Thursday, at least one observer was taking in his every move: Russell Martin.

Martin had the day off, part of a spring-long attempt to ensure he’s strong all season. But he was intrigued by his new teammate, so he stationed himself in the first base dugout and watched.

“I just want him to know that I’m there for him,” Martin told Mike Wilner and me on the Blue Jays’ radio broadcast once Saltalamacchia left the game. “If he ever has a question about something, about a pitcher in the game, if he wants to bounce something off of me.”

“I guess I’m there just in case,” Martin continued. “I’m not necessarily there for a reason, I’m just watching the game, watching him do his thing, and if he needs me, I’m there for him.”

Saltalamacchia faces a considerable challenge this spring: he must familiarize himself with the entire pitching staff—power arms, soft-tossers and prospects alike—and earn their trust, all while making sure to get his bat ready for opening day. That’s where Martin comes in. The two veteran catchers are working closely with the hope of helping the pitching staff in imperceptible but meaningful ways.

Saltalamacchia describes his early spring discussions with Martin as “enlightening.”

“Playing against him, I respect the hell out of Russ,” he said. “Now being in the clubhouse with him, I respect him even more. You don’t see the things he does in the clubhouse when you’re on the other side. You just see what the on-field result is.”

For example, extra video review, bullpen sessions and conversations with coaches might take time and energy away from other tasks, but Martin doesn’t shy away from overtime work with pitchers.

“I respect that. I love that,” Saltalamacchia said. “I feel like some catchers don’t really care about that side of it anymore, they just want to go out and hit.”

“We understand that we’re more valuable behind the plate in how we manage our pitching staff,” Martin said. “We live and die with that pitcher on the mound. Salty’s one of those guys.”

While Martin has earned a reputation as an above-average defensive catcher, Saltalamacchia’s typically viewed as a bat-first player, especially when compared to your typical catch-and-throw backup. The 31-year-old has prevented 22 per cent of stolen base attempts at the MLB level, compared to the league-wide rate of 27 per cent.

Some say he’s closer to MLB average defensively. One rival team assesses the 31-year-old as a 45 defender on the 20-80 scale—slightly below average, in other words—but decent. A scout from a second rival team suggests that by and large he’s “just fine.”

“If a pitching staff will pay a little extra attention to runners on the bases or if he’s playing against teams that just refuse to steal then he’s a 45 for sure,” the evaluator said. “But teams that will run or a sloppy pitching staff will expose him.”

Still, catcher defence can’t be reduced to pitch framing, stolen base prevention or passed ball totals. There’s game calling and the even-tougher-to-quantify challenge of building pitchers’ trust. Martin has it, and Saltalamacchia wants it.

“Ultimately we’re human, so we have to trust,” Saltalamacchia said. “You can’t earn their trust or earn their respect on Day 1. It takes time… the more they talk to me and tell me what their thought process was, it helps me trust them and vice versa.”

Martin has a similar approach to earning the confidence of Blue Jays pitchers.

“A pitcher’s going to pitch better when he has trust with the person that he’s working with behind the plate,” Martin said. “That’s established in spring training.”

Saltalamacchia’s preparing for his 11th MLB season while Martin’s entering his 12th. With that kind of experience behind the plate, pitchers have a tendency to defer, yet they’re encouraged not to.

“We’ve been around,” Saltalamacchia said. “What I want is for (pitchers) to throw what they want to throw. Shake me. Throw what you want to throw just so I know your thought process. I don’t want to just call something to call it.”

As of now, the Blue Jays don’t have a firm plan for how much they’re going to use Saltalamacchia, their new backup. R.A. Dickey’s presence on last year’s roster mandated an off day every five games for Martin, but the team has more flexibility now.

“I don’t think you go into it and say, ‘he’s going to play this much,’” manager John Gibbons said. “I think we’ll gauge things—how Russ is doing, how he looks. It doesn’t mean you run him for too much without any break, because that’d be counterproductive, but we’ll pick our spots.”

While Josh Thole was an offensive zero when he played, Saltalamacchia has legitimate power, particularly from the left side. He has 110 career home runs, 12 of which he hit last season, when he batted .171/.284/.346 with the Detroit Tigers.

“He’s going to hit some home runs, strike out,” Gibbons said. “He’ll fit in good around here.”

A longtime regular for the Red Sox and Marlins, Saltalamacchia might start 40 games or so behind the plate this year if Martin stays healthy. In recent years, he’s become accustomed to playing part-time.

“The adjustment period I think’s over,” he said. “When I was doing that for the first time, my routine was a little different, because you’re not seeing pitches every day, so your at-bats are going to be a little different. You’re not catching the guys every day, so you’re going to catch their bullpens just to stay sharp.”

In that respect he’ll have some help.

“Being able to work beside Russ is something that can better me for my career,” Saltalamacchia said. “I’m 31, so I’ve got plenty of time left. That could help me further on, but ultimately we want to win now. I’m at a point in my career where I want to go places where there’s a really good chance we could win.”

If Saltalamacchia’s spring work with Martin goes according to plan, he’ll be considerably closer to helping Blue Jays pitchers achieve that goal.

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