Miguel Montero and the Victor Martinez Contract

Contract extension talks between catcher Miguel Montero and the Arizona Diamondbacks reportedly ended without a resolution this spring. Montero is said to be looking for something like the four-year, $50 million contract Victor Martinez received from the Tigers in free agency prior to the 2010 season. The Diamondbacks do have Montero under contract for 2012 (the last of his team-controlled arbitration seasons), but at the moment it looks like he will become a free agent after the World Series. Is Montero’s desire for such a contract reasonable?

Martinez’ own deal obviously looks bad now given that he is out with the injury, but even at the time it was questionable. It would have been decent if he was a starting catcher, but the Tigers did not even wait to see if he could start for a couple of seasons, making him a primary DH right away. Alex Avila‘s emergence aside, in itself Martinez’ contract looked problematic even before the injury. Martinez’ bat was excellent for a catcher, but is much less impressive for a designated hitter or first baseman. Did the Tigers think that Martinez’ past positional value would remain even as he DHed?

What would four years and $50 million dollars be buying? Assuming that the extension would begin after 2012, and taking into account a small annual increase in the price of a marginal win on the free agent market in addition to a half-win a year decline, four years and $50 million would be buying a player who would project as a three-win player. Montero has averaged almost three wins per year over the last three seasons, but we also know that we need to account for regression, aging, and other factors when projecting a player`s true talent in the future.

[Today I want to try something a bit different. I want to give "ranges" of expected performance for each general component discussed in order to get some crude "best" and "worst" case scenarios. Now, when I use straight-up numbers from projections, they are usually assumed to be in the "middle" of such a range, so this is not really a difference in the method used, simply the mode presentation. The idea is to be more explicit in acknowledging the uncertainty always implicit in such discussions, but perhaps it will add too much confusion. We'll see how it works for now.]

Montero bears a superficial similarity to Martinez in that he has an above-average bat compared to league average, which is very good for a catcher. But the resemblance between the two players does not go far beyond that.

Martinez is sometimes overrated as a hitter, but he is good. Montero has been a good hitter for the past four seasons, but even without taking his more hitter-friendly park and league, he is not quite on Martinez’ level. ZiPS, Steamer, Marcel and the Fans all have him hitting for a wOBA somewhere between .333 and .341 in 2012. After adjusting for the park, that is worth about six to 10 runs above average over 700 plate appearances.

The discussion of Martinez can probably end there, since Montero can probably catch a longer. For one, while Martinez was 32 going into the 2011 season, Montero will only be 29 at the end of this season. For another, Montero seems to be a better catcher in the field. Of course, the “defensive” contributions are tough to measure. Montero may also suffer a bit because it seems that when a catcher can hit a bit, his defensive contributions are almost automatically questioned. It is sort of a “reverse Gold Glove” effect. Until this past season, the Fans were a bit down on Montero’s fielding, seeing him as below average in 2009 and 2010, but slightly above average in 2011. Let’s call that “average” for a rough projection.

However, other methods of evaluating catcher defense are much more positive about Montero behind the plate. One crude metric saw him as the best defensive catcher in the National League 2011 with respect to a cumulative rating with respect to throwing out base stealers, blocking pitches, and avoiding errors — about eight runs above average overall. Perhaps even more intriging with respect to Montero is Mike Fast’s recent work on pitch framing. Fast found that since 2007, Montero has been one of the best pitch-framers in baseball, saving about 11 runs per 120 games.

It is tough to put this all together into a fielding projection for Montero, so let’s give a range. On the low side, let’s say at worst Montero is about average based on the Fans Scouting Report. On the high side, let’s take the metrics listed in the previous paragraph, also accounting for a bit of (very crudely eyeballed) regression, and say that Montero might also be 10 runs above average per full season as a catcher.

Projected playing time is also important when considering a long-term contract for any player, but especially with catchers since they typically need more rest than other position players and are also more subject to injuries. On one hand, Montero played 140 games in 2011. On the other, he had knee surgery (scary for a catcher) in 2010 and missed as big chunk of the season. Let’s say that his range of true talent for games played is 100 to 140.

Let’s wrap this up to compare the how the best and worst case scenarios listed above. Beginning with the low end of things: +6 runs for offense, +12.5 runs for the positional adjustment, average defense, and +20 runs to account for the National League replacement level, all adjusted for 100 games of playing time, totals just over +2.5 WAR per season. Adjusted for a year down the road, that is more like two wins per season. So at the low end of our suggested projection, Montero is not worth a “V-Mart deal.”

On the upper end: +10/+12.5/+10/+20, adjusted for 140 games, equals about 4.5 WAR. Adjusted for a year down the road, that is about four wins.

Averaging our projections together, we get about three wins for Montero in 2013 (remember that we should expect veterans like Montero to decline each year) — which would be worth a Victor Martinez deal. That may not be as positive a projection as Carson Cistulli gave a couple of months ago, but it is a very good player. The Diamondbacks seem to have decided that either Montero is not worth that or that they simply cannot afford it. Without an immediately obvious option to Montero after 2012 in either the majors or minors, it is a curious decision. Assuming Montero puts in a typical performance and stays relatively healthy, he is probably going to get paid by someone when and if he hits free agency.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

15 Responses to “Miguel Montero and the Victor Martinez Contract”

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  1. Matt C says:

    First off I’m fairly certain that the Tigers signed Martinez knowing full well that he wasn’t going to catch full time after the 1st or 2nd year at the latest considering Alex Avila’s Dad is 2nd in command for the Tigers. I don’t think he’d be okay with signing somebody that would specifically block his son. Also I think it’s pretty well known that Mike Illitch of the Tigers has no problem overpaying for players so using somebody the Tigers signed to a contract isn’t really a fair market comparison.

    One more thing, I don’t think it really makes a difference but is it just me or does their seemed to be alot more quality catchers now than there has been in recent memory? When Martinez signed there was basically him, Mauer, McCann and Molina. Since then guys like Weiters, Avila, Posey, Napoli(didn’t seem to get a fair shake until he got to Tex), Montero and Santana have broken through. Plus guys like Perez in KC and Arencibia in Toronto. Not to mention highly touted prospects like D’arnaud(SP?) and that guy from the Reds who’s name seems to have slipped me. So with the Catcher position seemingly becoming less scarce I wonder if that would effect the value for somebody like Montero.

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    • Baty says:

      Yeah… If you were hoping to secure Martinez at that time, you’re only going to attract him by paying a full time catching rate. I’m not sure he’d be willing to listen to arguments suggesting a decreased positional value/salary reflection. It had to be a calculated risk.

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  2. Jason says:

    Just a clarification, but the Tigers signed Victor Martinez after the 2010 season. 2011 was his first season as a Tiger.

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  3. R-factor says:

    If the writer knew anything about the tigers 2011 season his opinion would change. Without Victor the tigers would have been barely a .500 ballclub. He was signed as a part-time catcher but that knee of his bothered him all season. If Alex didn’t emerge as a solid full-time catcher the situation would have been much worse, Victor would have been forced into catching in pain therefore shortening his impressive season at the plate batting behind Miguel Cabrera. Victor was worth every penny he earned in 2011.

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    • Huss says:

      As a fellow Tigers fan, I always get a kick out of our fans justifying terrible contracts like Vmarts. But there’s no point in delving into that – let’s just share a good laugh about you suggesting VMart is worth something in the range of 20 WAR – now THAT’S value.

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      • Matt says:

        As a Tiger fan I agree that Tigers fans do tend to overrate him but I do think he was worth more to the Tigers than what WAR gave him credit for because of how good his situational hitting was last year. Now I know that that is something that generally isn’t sustainable and isn’t a true skill but the fact is that it did happen last year and he did bat over .400 with guys in scoring position which whether it was luck or not it helped the Tigers win alot of games.

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      • tbonemacd says:

        Agree with Matt. Apparently, though, his fine 2011 season didn’t actually happen.

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      • pft says:

        His contract was insured, so the lost 2011 was not that costly (I believe at least half of 2012 will be paid by the insurance company), and had the extra benefit of getting the Tigers to sign Prince Fielder. V-Mart should get all the credit or blame for how Prince does in Detroit.

        He probably gets traded next year since DH will be full.
        Yankees might be interested in a DH/backup catcher/IBman for 2 years.

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      • pft says:

        Oops, mean lost 2012

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      • Joebrady says:

        He’s a respectable hitter, and that’s about it. Stripping away all the emotion, which is what we’re supposed to do here, and he was a .850 OPS DH. Probably the 4th best DH. As a RS fan, I feel we overpaid, by a decent amount, for Papi. And even without the injury, there is no way I would trade Papi for VMart.

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      • wilsonm24 says:

        So lets strip away the emotion and look at the numbers. Martinez’s contract would be good for a player that provided just under 3 WAR per year. He produced… 2.9 WAR last year. Taking away hindsight (for the loss of 2012, slightly mitigated by insurance) he was on track to meet his contract obligations through WAR. It will probably be hard to meet though obligations at this point due to injury though.

        Factoring in age and decline that will ultimately come from that, it is a bit of an overpay, but not nearly as much as is being portrayed here. If his knees ever allow him to sit behind the plate for 30 games a year (doubtful) then he will probably out perform or perform exactly at his contract value. As it stands now, there is no reason not to think that in 2013 and 2014 he can produce between 2-3 WAR each year.

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  4. It happened, but unfortunately the contract didn’t end with it. There are three more years left on it, one of which is already lost.

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    • Ronin says:

      Agreed. I think I would have rather had Curtis Granderson and a backup catcher that could catch (so Avila wouldnt have been gassed in the playoffs and hit like crap) than Martinez and Inge.

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  5. Jay Levin says:

    Every Tigers contract is questionable, just like the Yankees.

    If I’m a GM, I’m telling this player: “The Tigers don’t set the market, they do crazy things. So the only way you get Victor Martinez money — now or ever — is if you’re playing for the TIgers, and that’s very unlikely to happen.”

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    • Nick says:

      Maybe not for the Tigers, but the Yankees are a real possibility, as are the Red Sox. Neither team has an entrenched long term answer at the position, and then there’s the Dodgers getting a giant new pile of cash and AJ Ellis at the position. The Tigers are hardly the only team willing to defy the WAR/dollar projection to lock up free agents.

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