Posted December 03, 2013

A.J. Pierzynski signing more about frugality than upgrade for Red Sox

A.J. Pierzynski, Boston Red Sox, Jarrod Saltalamacchia
A.J. Pierzynski

Pierzynski hit a career-high 27 homers for the White Sox in 2012 and 17 for the Rangers in ’13, his third-highest total. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

The Red Sox came to terms with catcher A.J. Pierzynski on a one-year deal worth $8.25 million on Tuesday morning, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney. The signing marks the unofficial end of fellow free agent Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s three-year run as Boston’s starting catcher. Pierzynski doesn’t necessarily represent an upgrade over Saltalamacchia on the field, but his contract represents a significant savings for the Red Sox without a significant change in projected value at the position.

In his three years as Boston’s primary catcher, Saltalamacchia hit .244/.306/.457 and was worth an average of 1.8 wins above replacement per Baseball-Reference’s WAR statistic. Over those same three seasons, Pierzynski hit .279/.315/.444 and averaged 1.7 bWAR for the White Sox and Rangers. Both spent all three seasons in hitter-friendly home ballparks. Both are unexceptional defenders who refuse to draw walks at the plate.

There are subtle differences between the two. Despite Pierzynski’s career-high 27 home runs in 2012, Saltalamacchia has more power and, believe it or not, draws more walks (Pierzynski has never accumulated more than 23 unintentional walks in his 13 full major league season). Pierzynski, a career .283 hitter, hits for higher averages and is a more consistent presence in the lineup (Saltalamacchia set a career high with 119 games caught in 2013; Pierzynski has caught as many or more games every year since 2005, averaging 127 over that nine-year span).

The primary difference, however, is age. Saltalamacchia won’t be 29 until May, while Pierzynski will be 37 before the end of December. Despite his age and all of the games he has caught (1,631 over the last 13 seasons), the lefthanded-hitting Pierzynski has retained a great deal of his value in recent seasons, and the presence of righty-hitting backup catcher David Ross, who will also be 37 next year, will allow him to reduce his workload a bit. That said, Pierzynski has held his own against lefthanded pitching in recent seasons — .275/.313/.411 over the three seasons mentioned above — so a full-blown platoon won’t be necessary.

There would seem to be less risk in this signing than for your typical 37-year-old catcher. In fact, Pierzynski’s age may prove beneficial for the Red Sox.

In early October, MLB Trade Rumors’ Tim Dierkes projected Saltalamacchia to receive a four-year, $36 million contract on the open market, that coming before he proved to be the starting catcher on a World Series champion (granted he didn’t hit much in the postseason, and started just two of the six World Series games, but there’s still some added cachet there). ESPN’s Keith Law (cited by Dierkes) wrote in late September that Saltalamacchia could land a four-year deal with an average annual value closer to $10 million. Here’s where the age difference matters most. Because Pierzynski is eight years older than Saltalamacchia, the Red Sox were able to avoid making an expensive four-year investment in a player with limited skills and instead sign a very similar player of nearly identical value for a single year at a lower salary.

That’s a nifty trick. It will be even niftier if, a year from now, Boston can swing an actual upgrade at the position. That could come via the belated emergence of Ryan Lavarnway, who will be 27 by then, the unlikely arrival of top catching prospect Blake Swihart, who will make his Double-A debut in 2014 and may not be ready take over the bulk of the major league job until 2016, or outside help. Given that, this might be the time for the Pirates to offer Russell Martin, who is entering his walk year, an extension.

10 comments
JohnStevens
JohnStevens

AJ brings some fire and competitiveness to every team he plays for.  I think he's probably liked better in his own clubhouse that in the oppoent's and that's not a bad thing.

ineedataxi
ineedataxi

What ? No stats geek WAR nonsense fer A J ?

KeysSteven
KeysSteven

Beyond sabermetrics & Jr.-GM, your read, Cliff, on "difference(s)" Pierzynski presents in pitcher / clubhouse rapport, calling games, leadership, injury issue?  An “upgrade” or no?

I can’t speak to “upgrade” (Saltalamacchia), but if AJ doesn’t hit the wall anytime soon (37), he’ll be a nice rosteree for Boston.  He’s a gamer, a savvy player w/ good bat control.

Michael10
Michael10

Salty only got $7MM a year (over a reasonably short three year contract). I their production is expected to be a wash, how is Pierzynski's signing about "frugality"?

HF4th
HF4th

Getting an aging vet not known as a clubhouse nice guy looks like the move of a desperate .500 club and not a team that just won it all. I'm still scratching my head after this one. Did the Yanks let go of half their roster before they first became a dynasty? Why dump half your starting lineup a year after you win the WS? Next year chemistry will be gone and BoSox will have to start from scratch. Why is Boston so cheap with Salty after having spent 10 years paying juicers the big bucks? I don't get it.

jbc123
jbc123

It's basically a money saving move until one of the kids can take over, and the other one can be traded. Nice position to be in. A good young (very) catcher can bring a lot in the marketplace.

Robert27
Robert27

Not an upgrade? Beg to differ. Watching Saltalamacchia wildly flailing away (with no real hitting approach) from both sides of the plate had become painful. I mean, they benched him for the backup catcher after three World Series games (0-6 with 4 K's and a game-costing error). And I'll certainly take a one-year deal (while Vasquez and Swihart develop) over the 3 years it would've taken to sign Salty. 

Bottom line, if Salty was good at just one thing, defense, batting or throwing out base runners, I'd likely feel differently. But he wasn't....and had 3 season in Boston to prove himself. Great guy and wish him nothing but the best in MIA but this will be an upgrade.

Ray1950
Ray1950

You left this out... 

2013 Pierzynski  (503 AB) 76 strikeouts ... Salty(425 AB) 139 strikeouts

2012 Pierzynski (479 AB)  78 strikeouts ... Salty (446 AB) 139 strikeouts 

2011 Pierzynski (433 AB)  33 strikeouts ... Salty (358 AB) 119 strikeouts

CommAve
CommAve

It's a downgrade.   Saltalamacchia strikes out more but also walks more and hits for more power.  He was well above league average with the bat in 2013, and near league average over his career.      

AJP strikes out less, but not because he has plate discipline.    He swung at 50% of the pitches thrown out of the zone to him in 2013, with a 2.1% walk rate and a .297 OBP.   He's not a good defender, and he doesn't frame pitches well.   

This is a very clear downgrade , and the primary purpose is to avoid blocking Vazquez and Swihart. 

EnashWaca
EnashWaca

Hey look who's back....Mr. Stat Freak!  I remember you from the Red Sox blog on ESPN Boston.  So you decided to reappear.  That's too bad.