Jarrod Saltalamacchia #21 poses for a portrait during the Texas rangers Photo Day at Surprise on March 2, 2010 in Surprise, Arizona.
All that is keeping Jarrod Saltalamacchia from being a big leaguer again is a few seemingly simple throws.
Hitting hasn't been a problem. Catching 90 mph fastballs hasn't either. But the routine task of throwing the ball about 60 feet back to the pitcher has been enough to keep the catcher known as "Salty" from returning to the Texas Rangers this season.
Saltalamacchia seems to be making strides in tackling the problem, though. He developed a new routine to follow after he catches each pitch, and it did the trick in his first time testing it out.
Instead of his throws sailing wildly into the outfield, each one made it back to the mound without issue during his start with Triple-A Oklahoma City on Monday. He made more than 100 accurate throws, and the only one that could be considered off target was still fielded cleanly by pitcher Michael Kirkman on one bounce.
"I'm patting myself on the back -- a great game, but it's a long road," Saltalamacchia said. "It's not like I'm healed and fixed, not that there was anything major wrong. But it's something I've got to work on and continue to work on, just like behind the plate and hitting. It's just part of my routine."
If not for the throwing problem, Rangers manager Ron Washington says he'd "probably" be back in the majors. Texas has already replaced Matt Treanor, who is hitting .209, with the inexperienced Max Ramirez in the starting lineup. Saltalamacchia, who has a .251 career average in the majors, is hitting .329 with Oklahoma City this season but had a dozen wild throws intended for the pitcher in a single game last week.
"That's what's holding him back," Oklahoma City manager Bobby Jones said. "He's blocking balls, he's throwing runners out. He's just having some trouble throwing back to the pitcher. But today was an outstanding job, so we'll see what happens next time out. Hopefully he's ready to go."
If Saltalamacchia's struggles seem like they're straight out of the movies, that's because it is. In "Major League 2," catcher Rube Baker has the same issue -- and gets straightened out by reciting passages from "Playboy" magazine before he throws the ball back to the mound.
Saltalamacchia went his own way to get back on track. He changed his grip on the baseball -- moving his index and middle fingers closer together instead of splitting them apart -- and now taps the ball twice against his glove before tossing it back to the pitcher.
"I'm just trying to get in a rhythm and feel my hands separate instead of everything going back at once and then going forward," said Saltalamacchia, who was hitting .284 before being traded from Atlanta to Texas midway through his rookie year in 2007.
Monday's game was the first time Saltalamacchia tried out the tap-tap-throw system, after practicing with the routine for a few days.
Washington said sports psychologist Fran Pirozzolo has also been working with Saltalamacchia.
"He's talking to Salty every day," Washington said. "He's getting help. But you can get all the help in the world. It's something you have to do."
The problem isn't unique to Saltalamacchia. Mackey Sasser once developed the same issue while playing for the New York Mets, and second basemen Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch had similar struggles with routine throws to first. Even Rick Ankiel suddenly went wild off the mound and eventually had to be moved from pitcher to the outfield.
"We've had some guys occasionally who've had it," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "It's obviously a feel, a release point issue that he doesn't feel good about throwing short distances. I won't say it's very common, but it happens to some players.
"I've seen it, seen guys really battle with it. As a former catcher and catching instructor, there are things you can try to get a guy some concepts to try to relax that part, and sometimes it takes some time."
Saltalamacchia traces the problems back to last season, when he returned from surgery on his right shoulder and lost his release point because he didn't have feeling in his arm.
"I allowed it to go too far, and now I'm fighting back," he said.
Now, his coaches are trying to get him to use a higher arm angle instead of the lower release point he used before. He hasn't set a timetable for when he expects to have his delivery fully resolved -- and presumably be back in the majors.
"I've always felt good behind the plate. It's just doing these new things, it takes some time," Saltalamacchia said. "Hopefully this is step one. There's going to be good days. There's going to be bad days. I'm expecting that."
Jones said he hopes Saltalamacchia "got over the hump" with his uneventful outing but he still must prove he can do it on a consistent basis to get back to the majors.
"There's no doubt in my mind. I know I'm ready," Saltalamacchia said. "But it's one of those things. I've got to prove it right now."
"As soon as I can prove that I can do that," he added. "I don't see any reason why I shouldn't be there."