Competition brings out best in Tigers’ Saltalamacchia

The Detroit News
Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Bradenton, Fla. – It’s not quite like being a first responder, but metaphorically speaking, there are certain baseball players who prefer to run into the fire.

Tigers’ catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia seems to be that kind of player – the hotter the competition, the more he thrives.

“It’s like, when you are facing Zack Greinke or, like today, Gerrit Cole – it’s a challenge and that’s what you want, a challenge,” he said before the game against the Pirates Sunday. “You don’t want to face the No. 5 guy, even though No. 5 guys are good, they are big-league pitchers.

“You want to face the big-name guys, the best of the best. That’s what you get fired up for.”

Saltalamacchia had very little to get fired up for the last couple of years. He signed a free-agent deal with the Marlins before the 2014 season and struggled playing on a team that was never really in contention. He was moved to Arizona early last season and again, found himself playing a backup role on a losing team.

“I am not using any excuses, but playing in Boston and being in the playoff race every year, so much is demanded of you,” he said. “Miami was a laid-back scene. We were fighting and trying to be in it, but it just wasn’t the culture with that organization.

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“But being back here, it feels back to where I am comfortable, where you are fighting for something from Day One and everybody on the team has the same goal.”

Saltalamacchia finds himself, somewhat surprisingly, in a heated battle for the backup catching spot in his first camp with the Tigers. Bryan Holaday has hit his way into the mix with a .643 spring average and 1.500 slugging percentage.

But, true to his nature, he’s embraced the battle -- met it head on, in fact. Entering the game Sunday, Saltalamacchia was hitting .500 with a 1.300 slugging percentage.

“I feel good,” he said. “Spring training is about getting an approach, getting at-bats, seeing pitches and feeling as comfortable as you can going into the season. Right now, I feel good, just not trying to do too much.”

His hot hitting early in spring, in some ways, is a continuation of how he finished last season with the Diamondbacks. After making a few mental and mechanical adjustments with hitting coach Turner Ward, Saltalamacchia hit .308 with five home runs and a 1.072 OPS in the final month.

He hit .273 with a .884 OPS after the All-Star break.

“Last year helped me out tremendously,” he said. “Just with my approach. I always had somewhat of an approach, but going to Arizona really helped me out, working with Turner, awesome.”

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Ward made a slight adjustment to Saltalamacchia’s bat angle.

“It was something simple and it made me have more contact somehow and get it through the zone better,” he said. “I had been more flat, so when I swung my bat would go in and out of the zone quickly. He just lifted my barrel up, which is how it was when I was in Boston, I had a high barrel, and it helped me stay in the zone longer.”

Ward also got Saltalamacchia to alter his mental approach.

“It was having the approach that, hey, you can’t try to hit a home run on every pitch,” he said. “You kind of have to take what is given you. That was real helpful and I’ve been able to carry that into spring training.”

The Tigers signed Saltalamacchia because he is a switch-hitter who has hit with a lot of power from the left side of the plate. He will help give some balance to the Tigers’ predominantly right-handed hitting lineup.

Meanwhile the Tigers have been playing Holaday at third base and left field, seeing how much value he would have in a utility role.

Nobody knows at this point how it will all shake out. Saltalamacchia, though, is enjoying the fight.

Twitter @cmccosky