The Obstruction of Potential: The Play That Derailed Two Careers

Even with unrivaled success this millennia, Boston fans do not often forget those times that did not go right for them. They never forget that which went horribly wrong, even if it was corrected in the end.

The 2013 World Series championship was unforgettable for Boston and the city’s baseballObstruction fans. When seemingly everything went right for the Red Sox that year, there was a moment in that World Series where it looked like it would all fall apart. There was one moment where Red Sox nation felt like Raiders fans after the Tuck Rule in 2001. That one moment did not necessarily damn the series, but it could have damned two once-promising MLB careers.

Late in Game Three, St. Louis’s Allen Craig came around third after an overthrow. After tripping over third baseman Will Middlebrooks, he came around to score the winning run via an obstruction call. If not for the call, Craig would have been out by five feet, but alas the Cardinals suddenly had a 2-1 series lead.  While the call had Bostonians up in arms, the Red Sox won the next three games to claim their eighth world championship. The obstruction could be seen; the downward spiral of the two players’ careers could not.

Allen Craig’s Downfall

At the 2014 trade deadline, these two teams were heading in opposite directions. With St. Louis making a playoff push, they traded Craig along with Joe Kelly to Boston in exchange for John Lackey. Craig was under team control for three and a half more years with a club option for 2018. He was definitely one of the hardest hitters in the Cardinals’ lineup. The only thing Craig hit in Boston (and Pawtucket) was a wall.

In 29 games with Boston in 2014, he hit a brutal .128 with a whopping two RBI, enough to send the biggest optimists into a fit of pure rage. 2015 was not much better. He hit .152 in 36 games, but surpassed his RBI total of 2014, churning out three. Since then, he’s gotten to know Pawtucket better than their own mayor. This past season, he appeared in 22 games for the Pawtucket Red Sox, raking to the tune of a .173 average and slugging .250 along with his one homer and six RBI.

In 2013, Craig had 97 RBI for the Cardinals. In the two and a half seasons since that he’s been with the Red Sox, he has 41 split between his time in Boston and Pawtucket. The Red Sox will undoubtedly not pick up his option after this year and will owe him 13 million dollars in 2018. To call Craig a disappointment would be an insult to all the disappointments who never got a hug from their dad. Craig was a catastrophic failure.

The Drop-Off of Will Middlebrooks

The road for Will Middlebrooks since earning a ring has not been much friendlier. He broke out in 2012 where he hit 15 homers in his first big league season. His average subsequently dipped from .288 to .227 in 2013. Middlebrooks made it through the 2014 season with Boston, hitting .191 with two homers in 63 games. In December of that year, he was traded to San Diego for Ryan Hanigan. As bad as Hanigan was the past two seasons, it is really tough to decipher who won that deal.

In 2015, Middlebrooks appeared in 83 games for the Padres when he hit .212 with a .224 OBP. That production on a last place team earned him a trip to Milwaukee in free agency. On a Brewers team that went 73-89, Middlebrooks only earned 27 at-bats in 10 games, hitting .111. This offseason, he signed a minor-league deal with the Texas Rangers, making him a member of four different organizations in the four years since the 2013 World Series title.

Postlude

As bad as those two guys have been since then, there are still people involved in this infamous play who have been nearly as disappointing. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who threw the ball away to allow Craig to score, has been with three teams since then. His highest batting average since has been .225. Jim Joyce, the umpire who made the call, is most famous for that and blowing Armando Galarraga’s perfect game. He retired unceremoniously this offseason.

Times like these remind us there is nothing promised in this game. Craig was the x-factor of the 2013 World Series and now he’s struggling for playing time in Pawtucket. Middlebrooks was a budding slugger who has been in and out of the minors. While the obstruction call ended up not having a huge impact on the series, it drastically altered not just a runner’s path to home plate, but also two once-promising MLB careers.

The Red Sox Weren’t Wrong Signing A.J. Pierzynski

A.J. Pierzynski

Yesterday A.J. Pierzynski’s brief tenure with the Boston Red Sox came to an abrupt end. Red Sox fans collectively rejoiced Wednesday morning when they received word Pierzynski had been designated for assignment.

The surprising, yet deserving demotion, had two massive benefits. One, “clubhouse cancer” A.J. Pierzynski was finally off the struggling Boston squad. Secondly, and almost as important, Christian Vazquez, the young and talented catching prospect, would get his first taste of big-league action.

Love or hate him —and you probably aren’t his biggest fan — the Red Sox made the right move signing the veteran backstop in the offseason. You may be bewildered by that last statement seeing how it miserably concluded, but let’s think logically and unbiased towards this.

The Red Sox needed a one-year bridge for Vazquez and Blake Swihart. Re-signing “beloved” catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia to a multi-year deal would block the two touted prospects for years. It’s also not as if “Salty” was great in his Red Sox career. He had one very good season, which, honestly, was highly BABIP-driven.

Other options on the market included Brian McCann and Carlos Ruiz. McCann signed a five-year, $85 million dollar deal with the New York Yankees in the winter. All that money invested has produced a paltry .230 batting average and .660 OPS. Ruiz, on the other hand has been decent with the Philadelphia Phillies this season. However, he, too, was seeking a long-term deal. If Boston signed him, Vazquez and Swihart would be blocked.

Another aspect that factored in to the decision was finding a platoon for David Ross. Given Ross is a right-handed hitter, Ben Cherington pursued a left-handed complement.

Dioner Navarro, some may argue, could have been the guy. The switch-hitter ended up signing with the division-adversary Toronto Blue Jays. Be cognizant, however, Navarro has churned just a .656 OPS off right-handed pitching in his career. It’s a substantial difference from his career .752 OPS against southpaws. So, a switch-hitter who doesn’t hit well against righties, would defeat the entire purpose of a platoon with Ross. He didn’t have the track record of Pierzynski, either. In 292 plate appearances this season, Navarro has compiled a .663 OPS.

Boston faced a unique situation regarding who’d be their catcher heading into the year, and Pierzynski was the only one to fit the criteria. He’s a left-handed bat, with a solid track record, and didn’t desire a long-term deal. They could have gone with Vazquez early, but Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. have shown it’s not always easy relying on rookies to succeed. Despite how it worked out, the Pierzynski-signing was sensible.

Not Re-Signing Jarrod Saltalamacchia Was A Mistake

Jarrod SaltalamacchiaAs everyone on the face of the earth must know by now, the Boston Red Sox won it all last year. They did so with their reliable catcher behind the the dish, Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Salty put up impressive numbers last year— Hitting .273, smacking 14 homeruns, boasting a .338 OBP, gunning down 21% of runners—making him a key asset to the championship team to say the least. To the surprise of many, the Red Sox let him walk after the year ended, not making him a reasonable offer. Salty then signed with the Miami Marlins on a three year deal totaling $21 million. Allowing Salty to walk and not resigning him came back to bite the Red Sox, making it easily their biggest mistake this off-season.
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So far this year, Jarrod Saltalamacchia continues to prove that Boston made a huge mistake. Posting a .333 OBP in 59 games while clobbering eight gopher balls, Salty is outperforming Red Sox catcher AJ Pierzynski by getting on base more while hitting more home runs, and Salty gets paid less than him! Of course, Salty is not gunning down many attempted base stealers, but hey what catchers on the Red Sox do these days? All around, it is clear the Marlins catcher, who is just 29-years-old, is better than 37-year-old AJ Pierzynski this year.

Some Red Sox fans might see why the club let Salty walk and did not offer him a long term deal. This is because they have confidence in catching prospects Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez. Wanting prospects to be successful Major League players is understandable, but the Red Sox easily could have had it both ways. Since David Ross is a free agent after this year, the team could have used Salty and Vazquez as their catching core in 2015. In 2016, they could have made a move if Swihart was ready to catch in the Bigs so that he could be on their roster as well. Had the Red Sox done this, they would be playing better this year than they are right now. In addition to saving money, the team would have got more production out of a much younger catcher. This scenario would have been the ultimate win-win situation for the club.
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Every GM makes mistakes in their reign, and for Ben Cherington this is one of them. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is a talented catcher and Boston made a huge mistake when they let him walk last off-season. Now, they are stuck with two sub-par catchers because they tried to avoid a long-term deal.

Saltalamacchia Not Much Better Than Pierzynski

A.j. Pierzynski vs Jarod Saltalamacchia

Sports fans always seek a scapegoat to explain failed expectations and mediocrity from their team. In 2012 for the Boston Red Sox, it was none other than Bobby Valentine. He was known for his lack of leadership and was rigorously scrutinized for every decision he made that did not pan out. A year removed from the “Bobby Valentine curse,” the Boston Red Sox won the World Series. There was no need for a scapegoat, but instead joyous celebration. However, this year there is no Bobby V. to hold accountable for the Red Sox’ inconsistency. No, and don’t even think about holding anybody culpable who helped Boston win a World Series last year. It has to be the new acquisitions. Namely, A.J. Pierzynski.

Everyday I witness countless Red Sox fans on Twitter attack Pierzynski like piranhas. They feed on every misplay, strikeout, and early swing, while simultaneously venting their frustration towards Ben Cherington for not re-signing the “beloved” catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Ironically, they would do the same thing to poor Salty when he was in a Red Sox uniform.

To rub salt in the wound, Saltalamacchia got off to a torrid start with Miami. That said, he’s significantly cooled off since, and against what a vast majority of fans believe, he’s not doing much better than Pierzynski. In fact, there is a viable argument to be made that Pierzynski is having a better season than Saltalamacchia. And that is exactly what we’re going to delve into.

First, let’s comparatively examine their basic offensive statistics.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia: .237/.335/.404 slash with a .326 BABIP, 1.0 fWAR, and 106 wRC+

A.J. Pierzynski: .277/.309/.401 slash with a .308 BABIP, 0.8 fWAR, and 91 wRC+.

Obviously looking at the above you can see Saltalamacchia is the better of the two based on those numbers. It’s worth noting he is playing half of his games in a much tougher hitter’s ballpark than Pierzynski, too. Nevertheless, this doesn’t paint the full picture.

Situational hitting is snubbed in the world of sabermetrics. I, for one, believe it is a vital part of the game, and it can’t be ignored. So, below is a table comparing Pierzynski and Saltalamacchia in clutch situations.

Saltalamacchia:

Runners on: .186/.280/.271 — .551 OPS

Runners in scoring position: .156/.231/.200 — .431 OPS

Scoring position with two out: .053/.182/.105 — .287 OPS

Pierzynski:

Runners on: .284/.330/.432 — .762 OPS

Runners in scoring position: .333/.382/.500 — .882 OPS

Scoring position with two out: .360/.448/.520 — .968 OPS

Okay, that’s a substantial difference that has substance to it. The ability to drive in runs and hit in clutch situations is crucial in the game of baseball, and that is exactly what Pierzynski does and Saltalamacchia doesn’t.

Further, Pierzynski has thrown out 28.1% of runners this season, compared to Saltalamacchia, who has thrown out 16.7%.

Give A.J. Pierzynski a break. He’s just as good as Saltalamacchia — if not, a tad worse this season.

With a team that has the worst outfield in Major League Baseball, an inconsistent rotation, struggling veterans, and injuries, it’s ludicrous to blame Pierzynski. And there are plenty of other sensible players to blame for a pedestrian season to this point.

Rumor Has It

rumor

Who wants a free-agent-to-be catcher that doesn’t hit or field well?
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport

From tuning into all of the games and watching Jarrod Saltalamacchia at bat so far this season, I have only been impressed. Only maybe I don’t know the game as good as I should, or maybe I am blind to see the writing between the lines when it comes to what to look for in a star player. In any case, rumor has it, Jarrod is not playing the way the organization would like him to.  This leaves room for debate on whether he should be traded after the 2013 season or not. After all, he is a free agent when the 2013 season ends and his performance at present isn’t cutting it with the 4.5 million dollar contract he has signed on to.  Ben Cherington, before the offseason even began, emphasized (rumor has it) he wanted Salty out, but who would replace him? Ryan Lavarnway? The 25 year old up and coming star athlete has a lot to improve, but with a .172 BA who has thrown out 13% of runners on base in his 63 MLB game career, in the past two years, is a candidate for the Boston Red Sox in 2014.  There is also David Ross, but his age may catch up with his performance. At 36 how much more can Ross put out behind the plate?  Although he has an .818 OPS and has thrown out 30% of runners on base in the past nine games, would he be a good candidate to replace Salty full time? Again, this is just a rumor as of right now, but one worth investigating.

It would be a hard hit for me if Salty left the Boston Red Sox.  I know his stats prove otherwise – in twenty games he is hitting .232 with three homeruns, eight RBI’s, and twenty seven strike outs, in only sixty-nine at bats. As a catcher, defensively, he struggles too, with or without the umpire being in the way. So far he has allowed twelve stolen bases without throwing out any of the runners.

The game was a grave disappointment Saturday night as the Sox took on the Texas Rangers, and Salty was of no assistance offensively.  In his three at-bats he fanned twice, once leaving two men on base, and hit a double line drive to right field.

The question stands, is this truly a rumor or will we be seeing a new starting catcher as 2014 draws near?