FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Here’s a lockdown guess for Opening Day catcher: newcomer David Ross. Why? Glad you asked. Because in reviewing the rotation of how Farrell used his catchers this spring, it appears that Ross may draw the assignment most often when Lester, who is on track to face the Yankees in the April 1 opener, is pitching.
Farrell said Friday the club is not planning to pair a specific pitcher and catcher.
“With David here, it's more of him getting used to the guys he's going to handle,'' Farrell said. "We haven't identified a tandem that will look to maintain through the rotation. He's not going to handle one guy every time out. So for that situation, it's more about him getting acclimated to all the pitchers.''
But there is reason to suspect otherwise.
Lester has had Jarrod Saltalamacchia behind the plate for just one of his five spring starts to date. That continues a pattern that began after the worst start of Lester’s career: a four-inning, 11-run beatdown by the Blue Jays in Fenway Park on July 22 that included four home runs, five walks and a wild pitch. Saltalamacchia was the catcher for that one.
Kelly Shoppach was behind the plate for Lester’s next start, and Saltalamacchia would catch just 2 of Lester’s 11 starts after the Toronto game. He caught Lester’s last two starts of 2012, but when the Sox plotted their offseason course, it’s evident why priority was given to signing a veteran backup like Ross: Clearly, there was a disconnect between Lester and Saltalamacchia, and part of the effort to put the team’s ostensible ace back on track was to pair him with a new backstop.
Lester had the security of Jason Varitek when he broke in with the Sox, and adjusted nicely when Victor Martinez took over the bulk of the team’s catching duties, posting a 1.62 ERA with Martinez in the five games they were matched together after the 2009 trade with Cleveland, and a 3.64 ERA with Martinez in 22 starts in 2010 (1.88 ERA with Varitek in six starts).
Saltalamacchia caught 23 of Lester’s 30 starts in 2011, and the pair appeared to have hit it off reasonably well, Lester posting a 3.77 ERA. He was better in the seven starts he made with Varitek that season, though, with a 2.48 ERA and other numbers sent up red flags. Opponents had an .810 OPS and hit 18 home runs in 145 2/3 innings off Lester when Saltalamacchia caught him, while their OPS was just .577 when Varitek caught, and they hit just 1 home run in 40 innings.
With Varitek retiring before the 2012 season, Saltalamacchia began the season splitting catching duties with Kelly Shoppach. He wound up catching 19 of Lester’s 33 starts, and Lester’s numbers in those starts were awful: a 5.62 ERA, an .869 OPS, and 17 home runs in just 107 1/3 innings. Shoppach caught him seven times (3.70 ERA, .638 OPS); so did Lavarnway (4.01 ERA, .674 OPS). Lester’s strikeout-to-walk ratio with Saltalamacchia was 2.28; with Shoppach it was 4.78, more than twice as good.
Enter Ross. In camp this spring, according to numbers accumulated by spring-training statman Brian Mullen, he has caught Lester, John Lackey and Ryan Dempster twice apiece, and Felix Doubront once. He has yet to catch Clay Buchholz.
Saltalamacchia has caught Doubront three times, Lackey and Buchholz twice, Dempster and Lester once apiece.
Lavarnway has caught Lester and Dempster twice, and Buchholz once. Buchholz also made one start with Daniel Butler behind the plate.
Lester challenged that analysis Friday afternoon.
"Salty's the starting catcher, isnt he?'' Lester said after Daniel Butler caught him in a minor league game, while Saltalamacchia was behind the plate for Daniel Bard. "I would imagine it’s Salty. I think that’s up to John Farrell when it comes down to that stuff. I would imagine if Salty's the guy we're going with, he’s the guy who will be catching me.''
What about last season?
"With Bobby [Valentine] last year, I think he kind of read into a lot of stuff, as far as Shopp and Buch got on a pretty good run together,'' Lester said. "It just matched up where Shopp was catching against a lefty and I had a good start, he'd try to match us back up.
"I don’t know how John is going to do it. I would imagine that if Salty's the No 1 guy, then that’ll be the guy.''
Lester has had a great camp this spring, posting an 0.90 ERA in 5 starts (2 earned runs in 20 innings). He has allowed just six hits (.092 opponents batting average) and 4 walks, which scores as a 0.50 WHIP. That includes the six perfect innings he threw last Sunday against the Tampa Bay Rays, and yes, Ross was behind the plate. Numerous scouts have said Lester resembles the dominating left-hander of old. “He’s back,’’ one scout said. “They’ve straightened out his mechanics.’’