I hope this is worth your while. It took me 20 minutes just to spell the title correctly.
We all have our white whale. For some, it’s cracking the four-minute mile. For others, it’s the elusive hole-in-one. Jarrod Saltalamacchia just wants to have a game of catch.
The Texas Rangers’ starting catcher on opening day, Salty tweaked his back two games into his should’ve-been breakout campaign. Now he’s sequestered in Triple-A Oklahoma City, looking to regain his form. And his mind.
Funny how things work. The one-time can’t-miss prospect now can’t hit his pitcher on return throws to the mound to save his life. He’s got a laser lock for the 128-foot toss to second and hits first from home in his sleep. But 60-feet-6-inches is to Jarrod Saltalamacchia what “Saltalamacchia” is to a poor speller. Impossible.
Best case, he short-hops the other half of his battery or shoots a dribbler up the diamond. Worse case, he’ll lollipop a moonball into center field, poignantly reminding that all those wasted hours of Little League back-up drills weren’t wasted hours at all.
Indeed, the most simple of a catcher’s tasks has for Salty morphed into a cruel exercise in airmail and head games. With runners on base, he occasionally walks the ball to the mound, which would be laughable if it wasn’t so damn sad.
“I don’t know what else to do,” OKC manager Bobby Jones told MiLB.com. “It’s a shame.”
Coaches tirelessly tinker with arm angles and release points, but that Jones and company already speak of the recently afflicted backstop as a lost cause suggests that mechanics aren’t the issue. Instead, people close to the situation whisper that most dreaded of four-letter words: Salty has the yips.
It shouldn’t have happened like this for the 25-year-old potential has-been. Atlanta’s first round pick in the ’03 Amateur Draft, Saltalamacchia had the world wrapped around his hulking forearms and the clubhouse hype to match. John Smoltz and Chipper Jones would describe him as an original prototype, like the young catcher’s brief call-ups were glimpses into a game-changing future.
“Salty’s awesomeness cannot be contained by the confines of a regular-sized name,” reads his Baseball-Reference.com page.
By 20, he was a wunderkind destroying Class-A Myrtle Beach. His .314 average, .912 OPS, 35 doubles and 81 RBI in 129 games set the Braves’ front office abuzz and earned him a top-2o prospect ranking from Baseball America. He continued to rake at Double-A Mississippi and committed only three errors in 372.2 innings behind the plate during his first year in the Bigs.
This season the poor guy speaks to the press like a recovering addict, knowing full well that his “condition” is much like a NASCAR driver with an inability to turn left.
“It’s just an everyday battle that I’m working through,” he told NewsOK after a recent outing that included 5 errant throws in the first inning alone.
He insists that the shoulder numbness from last year is gone and might be inclined to use offseason rib-removal as an excuse if he wasn’t hitting .343 in the 18 games since his demotion.
Perhaps Saltalamacchia foregoes throwing altogether and transitions to DH. After all, it took former Cardinals pitcher Rick Ankiel a change of position to rid himself of Ricky Vaughn-like loss of control and confidence. Plus, the guys who gut it out at the same position usually do so at the risk of life-altering humiliation and permanent stigmatism.
Just look at Chuck Knoblauch or Steve Blass. The former is a four-time All-Star second baseman, rookie of the year, and multiple World Series champion who’s primarily remembered now for his flabbergasting inability to throw the ball to first.
The latter has a disease named after him.
While Knoblauch could at least blame the mind-effing pressures of the Big Apple, Blass’s fall from grace was at the time a unique case study in WTF? In 1971, the Pittsburgh pitcher goes 15-8 with a 2.85 ERA and finishes World Series MVP runner-up for the champion Pirates. In 1972, he improves to 19-8 with a 2.49 ERA and finishes runner-up for the Cy Young.
The following year, the ERA balloons to 9.85, he walks 84 guys in 88.2 innings, hits 12 men, throws 9 wild pitches. He’s out of the league by early ’74 at the age of 32.
As far as catchers go, the most obvious parallel is Mackey Sasser, the former Met who developed symptoms similar to Salty after a 1990 collision with Atlanta’s Jim Presley. Sasser is now a high school coach with years of psychotherapy under his belt and a tendency to uncork the occasional batting practice headhunter.
You can go down the line. Go to other sports. This kind of thing usually doesn’t end well. Eric Bristow still suffers “dartisis,” Charles Barkley still sucks at golf, Chuck Hayes still makes the free-throw line his own personal hell…
For now, Jerrod Saltalamacchia says he’s working on it. At this point, what else can he say?