Blue Jays prioritize defence in catcher shuffle

Nick Ashbourne
Luke Maile joins the Blue Jays roster with a reputation for being able to handle himself behind the dish. (Chris O’Meara)

When the Toronto Blue Jays signed Jarrod Saltalamacchia, they did so for his bat. The journeyman catcher brought with him a dubious reputation in framing and controlling the running game, but he was supposed to bring pop from both sides of the plate.

In just 26 trips to the plate, Saltamacchia showed the Blue Jays all that he might not be able to provide an offensive boost after all, leading the team to designate the 31-year-old for assignment.

“When we brought Salty in we were looking for some offence,” manager John Gibbons said prior to Friday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays. “We really weren’t getting much of that.”

Those words could be safely classified as quite the understatement. Saltalamacchia hit .040/.077/.040 during his Blue Jays tenure, striking out an astounding 61.5 percent of the time. Even in the midst of what looks to be an historic season for strikeouts, no other major leaguer with at least 20 plate appearances has been punched out more than half the time.

On the defensive side, the Blue Jays watched opponents run on the backup catcher at will, as he conceded nine stolen bases in just six starts without throwing anyone out. While pitchers are normally more culpable than catchers when it comes to stolen bases, it was clear that teams felt they could run on Saltalamacchia.

What the Blue Jays were left with was a player not performing on either side of the ball, and the team was forced to cut the cord.

“I love everything about him,” Gibbons said of Saltamacchia. “He showed up to play and played to win. It just didn’t work out.”

With the next man up, the Blue Jays have gone in a different direction with traditional catch-and-throw backup Luke Maile, a waiver claim from the Tampa Bay Rays.

“He’s a good defender and we’ll take what we can get offensively,” Gibbons said of the newest addition to his team.

Maile has 57 games of major-league experience, hitting .214/.234/.338 in 161 trips to the plate. He’s had more success with the bat at the minor-league level where he’s slashed .255/.332/.362 in 1645 plate appearances.

While the 26-year-old knows he’s been seen as “glove-first” in the past, he feels he has more to give at the dish than those numbers indicate.

“I try to stay away from the labels,” he said before his debut against his former team. “I’ve definitely had the label of being a defence-first guy, but I’m young enough and I feel like I’ve improved enough in the last couple years to change that and be a little more all-around.

“Certainly the defence comes first and the pitching staff comes first, but I’m not going to be shy about trying to drive some runs in.”

Despite those sentiments, it’s apparent that the Blue Jays are making a conscious effort to prioritize solid glovework behind the plate with Maile. If the club were looking for more of an offensive threat they would have promoted Mike Ohlman from Triple-A, as the 6-5, 240-pound slugging backstop is posting a .220/.361/.520 line with the Buffalo Bisons.

Maile has always posted outstanding framing numbers and has thrown out a very strong 40 percent of opposing runners in six minor-league seasons, and 31 percent during his time in the bigs. The Blue Jays got a taste of his throwing arm in spring training when he gunned down Kevin Pillar with a pinpoint throw.

Courtesy: Sportsnet

Most teams value defence above all else in their backup catchers. The Blue Jays went the other way with Saltalamacchia, in part because they have a defensive whiz in Russell Martin behind the plate most nights.

Now that the Saltalamacchia experiment has failed they are going back to a more traditional man for the job in Maile. Considering the former’s significant struggles, the club is likely to see an upgrade at the plate and behind it.