Ever since James McCann went on the DL with a sprained ankle, Jarrod Saltalamacchia has been mashing taters like he works at a goddamn Old Country Buffet. Salty leads the team in HR, RBI, and jersey letters, and has made a compelling case for playing time in this opportunity. Whenever McCann comes back from his injury, the Tigers will have a decision to make. More likely than not, they will insert McCann back into the everyday lineup and leave Saltalamacchia on the bench with his curly guido haircut. But should they?
Obviously, Saltalamacchia is playing out of his mind right now. And truthfully, McCann wasn’t off to a great start offensively before he went down with the injury. But let’s look at some larger trends–at least, as large as we can considering McCann’s much smaller sample size.
Saltalamacchia is hitting .313 so far this year, well above his career .241 mark. That average is certainly the beneficiary of a stupid-high .357 BABIP, which makes sense considering his 38.5% (!!!) HR/FB ratio. In his best years with Boston and Miami, a four year stretch from 2011-2014, Salty averaged 16.5 HR per year and hit over .235 only once. If he were to play 120 games for the Tigers this year, this is a much more realistic expectation. He obviously has the potential to go on power streaks (he hit 21 HR one year in Boston) but is likely to top out around 17 HR in an every-day role. One thing worth mentioning, though, is the fact that it does seem Saltalamacchia has become more disciplined at the plate over the last few years. A career OBP of .312 is far from sensational, but when you consider that he has turned in marks of .338, .320, and .310 in each of the last three seasons and is off to a .405 mark this year, it shows that he is a different hitter today than he was five years ago. He still strikes out a fair number of times, but he also is swinging at pitches outside the zone only 22.2% of the time, matching a career low. Perhaps this patience could pay dividends in his power numbers over the course of a full season, but it’s more likely that we’ll see a regression toward his averages.
McCann, meanwhile, hit a measly .133 in his first four games this season, but that’s hardly worth mentioning because it was only four games. McCann is probably more of a threat to hit for average than Saltalamacchia over the course of a full year. He hit .264 last year in 114 games, and hit .295 in AAA in 2014 before joining the big league roster. He has yet to show any sort of real power — just 7 HR last season and never more than 8 in the minors — but he is also only 26, as compared to Saltalamacchia’s age of 31. McCann hits the ball to all fields while Saltalamacchia is a dead-pull hitter. Given the current trend of over-shifting in MLB, Saltalamacchia’s numbers would be much more affected by defensive alignment than McCann’s.
Considering all this, it’s hard to know for sure who is the better option. It is worth mentioning that Saltalamacchia is a switch hitter, while McCann bats righty. A true platoon behind the dish might not be a bad idea, as McCann has hit lefties at a .297 clip (.211 for Saltalamacchia), while Salty has the better split against righties (.253 with power to McCann’s .243 without).
This is a bit trickier. The first thing that seems obvious to compare is the number of times base runners are able to successfully steal against each catcher, but the reality is that there are lots of things catchers can’t control in this area — things like how good pitchers are at holding runners, how long it takes the pitcher to get the ball to the plate, and so on. Bearing all that in mind, it’s still worth at least mentioning. Saltalamacchia catches would-be base-stealers just over 22% of the time, while McCann throws them out at a 41% rate.
McCann has yet to make a throwing error in his short career. According to FanGraphs, McCann is slightly better at blocking pitches than Saltalamacchia has been over the years, and using the DRS metric for catchers, McCann is absolutely average, while Saltalamacchia has been about 33 runs below average over the course of his career. All told, it would appear that if McCann is at full strength, he is a better option defensively than Saltalamacchia. As mentioned before, youth certainly plays a factor here as well.
Complicating matters, though, is the fact that there is no real way to measure how good a catcher is at framing pitches, calling pitches, or game management in general. We can observe things to the best of our ability, but there isn’t really enough data out there on those facets of the game to draw any objective conclusions.
Who the hell knows. Seriously. Saltalamacchia is the sexy choice right now because he is bombing the ever-loving fuck out of the ball, and because he’s just a good looking dude. At the same time, McCann is also pretty handsome with that chiseled jawline of his, which makes him pretty sexy even though he probably won’t hit as many dingers as Salty would in an everyday role.
My prediction is this: McCann will come back from the DL and be re-inserted into the lineup. However, Saltalamacchia will see more ABs now than he might have otherwise gotten if McCann had never gotten injured. His production can’t be ignored, and neither can his ability to hit from both sides of the plate. If the Tigers are smart (and, I mean, you guys are smart right? Of course you are. Is that a new suit?), they’ll use McCann against lefties and against good base-running teams, and use Saltalamacchia more often against righties, as an occasional DH, or in NL ballparks when they need a little extra pop in the lineup with V-Mart’s absence. But what do I know? I’m just a guy with a a computer.