It's hard to believe Jarrod Saltalamacchia turned 20 years old in his second month in Myrtle Beach this season. You would think a young kid like that would have trouble in an older Carolina League.
But instead, this kid with the long name might just be the league MVP. And the switch-hitting catcher is definitely BravesCenter's 2005 Player of the Year in the Braves' minor league system.
Let's see. Salty Dog (forgive us if we're too lazy to type out the whole thing at times during this story) finished third in the league in batting average (.314), fourth in hits (144), sixth in on base percentage (.394) and slugging percentage (.519), seventh in RBI (81), and eighth in home runs (19), doubles (35), and total bases (238). That's eight categories where he finished eighth or higher in the league.
And again, this kid didn't turn 20 years old until the fifth week of the 2005 season.
When we talked with Salty in late July, he knew the Carolina League was a huge test and much more difficult than the Sally League he played in last season.
"Oh, ten times tougher," he said. "Lately I've seen more fastballs, but at the beginning of the year all I saw was offspeed stuff. I didn't think anybody had a fastball. It's tough."
There have never been many questions about Salty's bat. Last year he hit .272 in the South Atlantic League with the Rome Braves as a 19-year-old. But the natural right-handed hitter did find it tough at times earlier this season.
"At the beginning of the year I was struggling as a right-handed hitter," he admitted. "The left side was fine. I haven‘t felt comfortable as a right-handed hitter in a long time. Last year I didn‘t feel at all. As a lefty, it was smooth and easy. Then I started working with Stubby (Myrtle Beach hitting coach Franklin Stubbs), and he kind of fixed some things. He said, ‘just do what you feel is comfortable.' So I just started doing a Sheffield thing cause that felt comfortable for me."
Yes, the Sheffield thing is the same bat wiggle used by former Braves' outfielder Gary Sheffield.
"From then on, I just started crushing the ball. I just started the Sheffield thing this year - early July. Just on the right side. I tried it on the left side too, but it didn't feel comfortable. It just feels comfortable. Everybody says, ‘do your own thing.' But it feels comfortable. It gets my timing down, and it gets my hands back. I‘ve just been relaxed."
Chances are the bat wiggle will be around for a long time. Saltalamacchia did send some moon shots out of the historically tough Coastal Federal Field, just a mile from the Atlantic Ocean. He has now become one of the most feared power hitters in the minor leagues, but if you ask him, the thing he's most proud about this season is his work behind the plate.
"I feel a lot better at the plate," he said. "I have definitely done a lot better at the plate, but catching-wise, it's night and day from spring training to late in the season. I think I've been a little more patient at times with my defense. Blocking the ball - I've pretty much been blocking everything. In spring training I was having trouble getting down and getting in front of the ball. My receiving was a little shaky, but since then everything's just clicked. I just feel real comfortable back there. Everything's just clicked."
Salty knows how important pitchers are to the Braves' organization, so it's important for him to do his job well, especially handling a young pitching staff. As he develops as a catcher, he's also responsible for helping the pitchers develop into solid prospects. It's a responsibility he takes pride in.
"The most important thing is definitely handling a pitching staff. That's another thing that I've been a lot better at, especially since spring training of last year. I think the Carolina League really helped me out. There are a lot of great hitters in this league, so the pitching has got to be a lot better. If you can call a game, you're pretty much set. The blocking will come, but I feel if you can call a game, that can be your calling card."
But everyone knows that Jarrod's calling card might be blocked a bit. The Braves have a rookie catcher playing in the big leagues in 21-year-old Brian McCann. So fans have already started wondering what will happen when Salty is ready for the big leagues. But don't count Jarrod as one who dwells on the inevitable 'dilemma' too much.
"Honestly I haven't thought about it," Salty said. "I've thought about it in the sense that he's there and I'm happy for him. I talk with him a lot. I talk with him just to see what it's like. I'm kind of living through him. He's there. It would be nice to be there. But it's not my time. When it's my time, it'll be my time."
Salty's improvements behind the plate make it almost unfair to think that he could one day move from there, but if McCann continues to do well in the major leagues, it might be tough to unseat him. Saltalamacchia's bat is one you'd make room for, even if you move him to another position. But it's not like he's a liability behind the plate, which makes it tougher to think about moving from there.
"That's what I want to do," Salty admitted. "I want to catch. There's nobody that can change my mind on that. But if they say, ‘you know you're not going to make it with us as a catcher, and the only way to make it with us is at first base or third base or whatever,' then I'll do it. I just want to get there."
Even though he says he hasn't thought about it too much, the possibility of moving elsewhere in the future has had to cross his mind. While catching is his priority, he did play a little bit at first base and third base in high school.
"When you think about the outfield (for me), I'm slow as anything, so that's out of the question. First base, you've got Rochy there now and Julio will be there until he's about 80. Then you've got Chipper at third, so the only place for me right now is catcher unless they want to teach me something else. Right now I'm just having fun at what I'm doing."
And that's exactly what he'll do: continue catching. He'll be on his way to the Arizona Fall League in a few weeks, and he knows after watching all the rookie players get to Atlanta this season that a similar trip for him might not be too far away.
"There's always that chance. I could be in AA next year, and they could say, ‘hey we need you for a couple of games.' That would be an honor to just be up there. It's cool thinking I could be that close."
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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