Saltalamacchia's been thrown for a loss
Inconsistency getting ball back to pitcher keeps catcher from returning to Rangers
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia knows scaling the mental mountain of making an accurate throw 60 feet, 6 inches to the pitching mound won't be easy.
But he's definitely committed to the climb.
On Tuesday, Saltalamacchia was behind the plate for the Triple-A Oklahoma City RedHawks again trying to figure out how to get rid of the yips.
He uses a timing mechanism -- tapping the ball in his glove twice before throwing -- to help him. And for the most part, he made strong throws to the mound. But the struggles did creep in at various points during the game. He made some low throws, one-hopping one in the ninth. He threw one ball into center field and another to the second baseman, both with no one on base.
"I don't think the organization is going to call me back up until I prove this is over with, and rightfully so," Saltalamacchia said.
The 25-year-old is playing baseball about 200 miles north of where he thought he'd be this season. But his inability to throw the ball to the mound -- by all appearances the easiest part of a catcher's sometimes complicated job description -- makes it feel as if he's farther away from the Texas Rangers' home in Arlington than a 3½-hour drive.
"I know I can do it, so I don't mind talking about it," Saltalamacchia said early Tuesday afternoon after arriving at AT&T Bricktown Ballpark, well before his teammates, for treatment on his back. "At first I was like, 'Just leave me alone.' But it's out there and I have to deal with it. What's frustrating me the most is this is the only thing keeping me from being back in the big leagues. I'm hitting. I'm catching. The only one thing is a simple throw back to the pitcher."
Last week, Saltalamacchia made it look anything but simple. By one account, he had 12 bad throws to the mound. And they went in many directions. Some bounced halfway there; others were wide or into center field.
"He didn't know where they were going," Oklahoma City manager Bobby Jones said. "It was hard to watch. I felt sorry for him. But we're in the business of developing players. So no one will hide from this. If he's healthy to catch, he'll catch and get it worked out."
Saltalamacchia was certainly better with this throws this week. But the problem is magnified because the Rangers could certainly use his bat at the major league level (.339 with three homers and nine RBIs in 19 games in Triple-A before Tuesday). Going into Tuesday's game, Rangers catchers had a .194 batting average for the season.
"I think it's a mechanical and mental issue," Saltalamacchia said. "Once your mechanics change and you don't have success, you think about it."
This isn't the first time Saltalamacchia has dealt with inconsistent throws to the mound -- he won't call it the yips. With the Rangers last season, he threw wide of starter Tommy Hunter after a pitch in Oakland. The ball landed near the shortstop as a runner scored from third. He had trouble throwing the ball to Kevin Millwood when the Rangers played Boston later in the season and left the game.
"I couldn't feel my arm for six weeks up there," Saltalamacchia said.
He was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome late last season, and he believes his throwing difficulties are the result of poor mechanics developed after he had surgery to repair the disorder.
"I rushed back, and I shouldn't have," Saltalamacchia said. "In my mind, I knew not to do it. I wanted to play. I hate sitting around watching people play. I've never been known to be patient. All I had to hear was one person say to speed it up and I was ready."
He felt soreness in his arm, shoulder and back as he tried to play winter ball in the Dominican League, so he was shut down for more than a month. He worked to be ready for spring training and started Opening Day behind the plate for the Rangers. He was also the hero, hitting a walk-off single for a comeback victory over Toronto. But the pain wasn't gone, and he quickly ended up back on the disabled list.
The pain is gone now, but that's not enough to get him back to the major leagues.
So he remains in Oklahoma City, working on a throwing program put together by Scott Servais, the Rangers' director of player personnel. Servais has Saltalamacchia making about 40 throws before each game from various positions behind the plate. On Tuesday, he did it with Jones, who added a twist. He told Saltalamacchia to fire a ball at one of the chairs in the first row of the stands by the dugout. He hit it with no problem and smiled.
"I don't know when, but he'll get through it," Servais said. "He has the right attitude and he's not giving up. He'll get there."
Saltalamacchia has also altered his grip on the ball. He used to throw with his index and middle fingers wide apart, almost like a splitter. He now has those fingers closer together. Saltalamacchia said he's trying to keep all of it in mind without overthinking things.
"It's like you're on a cliff and you tell yourself not to look down or don't look at that pink elephant in the corner of the room," Saltalamacchia said. "No one understands until they go through it themselves."
Perhaps no one knows better than former catcher Mackey Sasser, who is best known for his time with the New York Mets.
Sasser's inability to consistently throw the ball back to the mound forced him to move to the outfield later in his career, and eventually into retirement.
"It was a mental nightmare," said Sasser, now the baseball coach at Wallace College in Dothan, Ala. "I thought about it when I woke up and when I went to bed. When I went back there, it was like I was in a hole. I had 500 pounds on my shoulders."
When it comes to catchers and the yips, Sasser is the real-life image that comes to mind. Of course, the more famous image is that of the character Rube Baker from "Major League II," whose throwing issues were based on Sasser's.
Sasser said he had "probably 150 people" try to help him work through the problem, which he believes started when a shoulder injury threw off his mechanics.
"I felt like a little rat in a science building," Sasser said. "Everyone was trying to get a piece of me. Everyone was magnifying and it and it got worse and worse in my head."
When Sasser was hired to coach college kids, he couldn't even throw batting practice. But work with sports psychologists and psychotherapists helped. Sasser still has random bouts with it, but for the most part it isn't much of an issue anymore.
Sasser has made it his mission to help anyone experiencing the problem and has given Saltalamacchia his phone number in case he wants to talk about it.
Saltalamacchia said he's sought out the help of sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, someone he started talking to this offseason after some of his struggles returning from surgery.
"I talk to him about everything," Saltalamacchia said. "We talk about my family and stuff too, not just baseball. He's there when I need him. He's been good for me the last few months."
Saltalamacchia certainly has the support of his teammates. Rangers reliever Darren Oliver texts him every once in a while, bugging him to get healthy and get back to the majors. First baseman Chris Davis, who played with Saltalamacchia in the majors and now plays with him in the minors, said he believes the catcher will return to Arlington soon.
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"His work ethic has never been questioned," Davis said. "He's the first one to the field and the last one to leave every day. He's constantly working on throwing. He's swinging the bat really well down here and I think he's throwing the ball better. It's just one of those things where his arm doesn't feel right. People have gone through it. It's a helpless feeling, but I expect him to work through it. I think it's a very minor obstacle."
Saltalamacchia just wants to make progress. He feels as if he has a better idea of what he needs to do to get more consistent.
"Do I think I'm not going to make a bad throw? No. Everyone makes a bad throw," Saltalamacchia said. "It's how you recover. Do I know there's a magnifying glass on me? Yeah. Does that add more pressure? Yes, but that's something I've been dealing with and something I've taken steps to get stronger with. I know I'm going to be fine."