Russell Martin Bringing New Element to Pirates Baseball

Russell Martin was a Yankee, and then Russell Martin became a free agent. Russell Martin is a catcher, and once he became a free agent, the Yankees were in need of a catcher. Russell Martin is pretty good, and he wasn’t looking to break the bank with a contract. Russell Martin is 29. Martin seemed like an excellent candidate to re-sign, and indeed, there were indications that the Yankees were making Martin a priority. Then Thursday, Martin signed a two-year deal with the Pirates. It’s worth just $17 million, but the Yankees reportedly weren’t interested in matching that price. While the Pirates had been mentioned as a serious suitor in recent days, it’s an undeniable surprise to see the Yankees essentially get priced out for something they could really use.

The Yankees, as has been mentioned several times over, are trying to avoid paying luxury-tax penalties in 2014, meaning they’ve placed a particular emphasis on one-year contracts. In that light, staying away from Martin makes some sense, but the Yankees still need a catcher, and guys like A.J. Pierzynski and Mike Napoli are unlikely to sign for one season. Surely the Yankees will figure something out, and this isn’t going to make or break their whole next year, but from the outside, this is a little perplexing.

In a way, this should be treated like the Dan Haren situation in Anaheim. The way the Angels just let Haren go throws up some red flags, and it isn’t irrelevant that the Yankees didn’t want to pay Russell Martin $17 million. That’s meaningful information, as you’d figure the Yankees know more about Martin than anyone else. If, as written, the Yankees are concerned that Martin is declining, maybe he’s really declining. Maybe this isn’t a good bet for the Pirates, based on what the Yankees know.

But we’re talking about $8.5 million a season, for two seasons, after which Martin will be 31. We don’t even have to get too analytical here. The last two years, Martin has posted a 100 wRC+, and a 95 wRC+. The league-average catcher has posted a 96 wRC+, and another 96 wRC+. Martin’s been durable. He’s thrown out an average rate of would-be base-stealers. He’s been more or less average at blocking pitches. In fairness, we can’t really evaluate Martin’s game-calling. What we can say is that, between 2011-2012, 304 players batted at least 500 times. Martin’s .238 BABIP ranks fourth-lowest. That could be a sign of decline, or that could be a sign of a guy who’s better than his raw results. Martin’s career BABIP is .286. Even at a woeful .222 last season, Martin still drew walks and hit for power.

Without getting too in-depth, the Martin contract seems perfectly fair. And we’re only now going to talk about catcher pitch-framing. After Mike Fast’s illuminating research, this part is basically obligatory whenever discussing a backstop. It’s amazing how quickly considering pitch-framing results became second nature. The linked Fast article was published late in 2011; Matthew Carruth ran similar research through 2012. Carruth’s findings match up well with Fast’s.

Jose Molina is the face of the pro-pitch-framing movement, if that’s a thing. Fast made it clear in 2011 that Jose Molina is amazing; subsequently, in 2012, dozens of articles were written about how Jose Molina is amazing (at catching pitches). Joe Maddon recently talked about Molina’s pitch-framing value in an interview. But while the numbers show that Molina is outstanding, other guys are great, and Russell Martin is among them. To the extent that you believe this research is capturing signal instead of just noise, Martin comes out as a hell of a pitch-framer.

Carruth provided for me numbers going back to 2007. If you believe them, Martin’s pitch-framing value has bottomed out at 11 runs above average, and maxed out at 31. Less important than the specific numbers is the general message — Martin seems to be a consistently, sustainably excellent pitch-framer. There’s little reason to believe that’ll erode considerably with age, and while it might not all be Martin, a lot of it is probably Martin, and that adds to his value. It adds kind of a lot to his value.

Leaving pitch-framing out, Martin’s contract seems perfectly reasonable. Including pitch-framing, it seems like a potential bargain. Martin might add a full win with his pitch-framing alone, and the Pirates aren’t paying him for a whole lot of wins. One wonders if this might not be an indication that baseball is reluctant to embrace the pitch-framing research. The Rays signed Jose Molina for dirt cheap, and now the Yankees have let a valuable catcher get away to Pittsburgh. Martin seems like he should’ve gotten a bigger commitment, unless teams don’t trust the framing numbers, or unless Martin is more broken down than I think. The research might be too new for many teams to act upon.

I don’t know if the Pirates acted upon it. I don’t know if the Pirates signed Martin in large part because of his pitch-framing. The Pirates really just needed a catcher. But this stands to be one hell of a change, deliberate or not. Russell Martin is unlike the Pirates’ recent catchers.

I don’t have full-team leaderboards, but for at least two years, the Pirates have been miserable at pitch-framing. Possibly the most miserable. By Carruth’s numbers, in 2012, the Pirates came out 198 strikes below average. In 2011, they came out 206 strikes below average. Ryan Doumit was bad, Rod Barajas was bad, and Michael McKenry was bad. In 2012, on his own, Russell Martin came out 179 strikes above average. In 2011, on his own, Martin came out 184 strikes above average. As bad as the Pirates’ backstops have been, Martin has been that good, and that makes a meaningful difference. Even a strike a game makes a meaningful difference, and we’re looking at more than one strike a game.

What I don’t want to do is take this too far. Carruth’s research is still in development, and there’s a lot we still don’t know about this player trait in terms of its value. I’d suggest not paying too much attention to specific numbers. But, generally, the numbers suggest the Pirates had some lousy pitch-framers. The numbers suggest the Pirates just acquired a really great pitch-framer. That should make the pitching staff look better, and that should make the team look better. Instead of being one of the league’s worst in this department, the Pirates might now become one of the league’s best, and all it took was one modest free-agent contract.

I’m open to the idea that Russell Martin is declining, that his BABIP is an indicator of something other than luck. I’m open to the idea that Russell Martin might not be so durable going forward. As a righty, he’s going to have a tough time hitting for power in Pittsburgh. That ballpark’s effect on hitters is underrated. But I’ve studied the pitch-framing data, and unless it’s completely wrong, Martin doesn’t have to be that good a hitter to be a valuable player. He helps himself by helping others — specifically, his pitchers, around the borders of the strike zone. Pittsburgh hasn’t had a guy like this. Pittsburgh might come to love a guy like this.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Bob Skinner
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Bob Skinner
3 years 6 months ago

It is totally amazing how pitch framing has in no time at all become almost standard!

Bob
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Bob
3 years 6 months ago

Pitch framing is one of the areas where sabermetricians actually changed their view to correlate with the old school baseball view. Since pitch framing is more about how the eye views balls and strikes, it passes the eye test, so to speak.

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
3 years 6 months ago

This is an important point.

For years, managers, pitchers, and assorted “baseball people” have touted the virtue of pitch-framing and game-calling, namely in the likes of Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter, and even more recently Mike Matheny.

Saberists scoffed at the idea because there wasn’t data to support it. They have taken the erroneous stance that no data = data against.

Sabermetrics is incredibly valuable, not so much in turning baseball wisdom upside down and proving that managers don;t know what they’re doing (although there are some case where sabermetrics has done that), but rather QUANTIFYING the skill/aspect.

I recall Whitey Herzog defending Ozzie Smith’s million dollar contract by saying that he takes away as many runs as the big boppers provide. In other words, his defensive runs above average were comparable to the batting runs above average of the “RBI Guys”. We all probably assumed that it was true to some degree, but sabermetrics allows us to quantify the comparison.

SrMeowMeow
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SrMeowMeow
3 years 6 months ago

Some saberists maybe scoffed at pitch framing in some sort of anti-scouting reflex, but the general (and correct) attitude is not “no data = data against”, but “no data = we shouldn’t pretend we understand something we don’t.”

chuckb
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chuckb
3 years 6 months ago

I’m also pretty surprised by this development. When I heard Martin signed w/ the Pirates, I assumed it was because he got a 3 year deal and the Yankees didn’t want to do that. The fact that the Yankees couldn’t/wouldn’t beat a 2 year/$17 M deal for Martin’s a little surprising.

Maybe the negotiation process engendered some bad blood between Martin and the Yankees. It’s not like there is a plethora of catchers available on the market.

Preston
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Preston
3 years 6 months ago

If you trust rumors, which I don’t know that we should given that they had Martin getting 3/30, Martin only asked the Yankees to match the offer.

TKay
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TKay
3 years 6 months ago

Awesome article.

The contract, on its face, looks reasonable, but the Pirates are in no position to be paying free agents what they should be worth on the open market. They have to chase these market inefficiencies if they’re ever going to get more than their moneys worth. If valuing pitch framing is an inefficiency, good job Pirates. If not, it’s still not a terrible contract.

Ableem
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Ableem
3 years 6 months ago

Steinbrenner is gearing up to sell the team. Not re-signing Martin to such a fair deal makes no sense.

Sleight of Hand Pro
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Sleight of Hand Pro
3 years 6 months ago

i dont think the idea that theyd rather spend $17M elsewhere is that unfathomable. it looks curious, sure, but to proclaim ready to sell the team? because of RUSSELL MARTIN…?

Bob
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Bob
3 years 6 months ago

Try this. The Pirates came in hard and offered Martin a reasonable contract, before the non-tender market developed. The Yankees were still “negotiating,” as in exploring other options.

chuckb
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chuckb
3 years 6 months ago

This makes some sense — the Pirates placed a deadline on Martin or he decided he wanted to get this over with and the Yankees weren’t yet ready to commit. I’ll buy that.

I’m still finding it a little hard to understand, though, why the Yankees weren’t ready to commit. It’s not like the market is just littered with average to above average catchers and it’s not like the Yankees couldn’t afford him.

suicide squeeze
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suicide squeeze
3 years 6 months ago

From the headline, I thought that maybe Russell Martin was supplying the Pirates with Plutonium or something. Boy was I wrong.

suicide squeeze
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suicide squeeze
3 years 6 months ago

Or that he’s driving a Honda Element to Pittsburgh.

James Cameron
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James Cameron
3 years 6 months ago

He’s bringing…Unobtanium.

kiss my GO NATS
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kiss my GO NATS
3 years 6 months ago

Is this your new movie?

Mike Green
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Mike Green
3 years 6 months ago

Is there team research on pitch-framing out there? Home-park advantage for pitch-framers? Size of the home-park advantage? As Martin has caught for the Dodgers and Yankees, it wouldn’t come as a great shock to discover that he might have had a greater than usual home park advantage.

Baltar
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Baltar
3 years 6 months ago

The Rays have hinted at having their own pitch-framing data, though their public pronouncements have simply echoed the publicly available research. There are reasons why they might claim credit for something they haven’t got and reasons why they might not be more specific about what they have got, so form your own conclusions.
Since pitch framing is potentially the most important new (old) discovery for some time, I can’t believe that most, if not all, MLB teams are at least working on it.

Pirates Hurdles
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Pirates Hurdles
3 years 6 months ago

This could be heavily influenced by Dan Fox’s role in the front office. I think he had a lot to do with Clint Barmes last offseason.

Steve
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Steve
3 years 6 months ago

who is dan fox and what does he do?

Pirates Hurdles
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Pirates Hurdles
3 years 6 months ago

Dan Fox was a SABR heavy writer at Baseball Prospectus who joined the Pirate front office in 2008 as Director of Player Systems Development. He created the MITT “Managing, Information, Tools and Talent” system and who knows what else proprietary.

Ken
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Ken
3 years 6 months ago

So is $8.5M the current going rate for an average catcher? I feel like there’s probably only 4-5 guys making more than that. Even bringing into the equation that free agents cost more, is a guy you’ve described as being very much average in all aspects worth that much?

GWILL
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GWILL
3 years 6 months ago

Not really Ken, especially for a team that isn’t going to have a large payroll at all. It seems like a curious allocation of resources, especially considering that Mike McKenry had a good enough season in part time duty that you could make a pretty reasonable argument that Martin isn’t a large upgrade from him. I’d be very surprised if the difference in production between the two is anywhere near eight million dollars worth.

Choo
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3 years 6 months ago

Does anyone have a working link to Carruth’s research?

Wayne Marshall
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Wayne Marshall
3 years 6 months ago

Come on Folks — The real reason the Yankees let Martin go is because they have their sights on signing Rod Barajas to be their everyday catcher.

ElToroStrikesAgain
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ElToroStrikesAgain
3 years 6 months ago

I’m a yankee/pirate fan… if you can believe that. The reason the yanks didn’t match… i’m going to assume, is their attempt to get under that luxury tax threshold for next season. With Tex, A-Rod, Jeter, CC, and Cano making shit-tons of money, you are talking about having around 80-90 million dollars to fill out the rest of the roster. Sure, Grandy will be coming off the books, but players like Gardner, Robertson, Logan, Nova, and i’m not sure about Pineda… will all be due raises. Hughes & Joba will be free agents as well. Filling out a pitching staff behind CC, Pineda, Nova… for cheap, will be a tough task barring any breakout performances by a Brett Marshall or David Phelps, for example.

As for the Bucs, I’d say McKenry fits the profile of a desirable-level backup catcher, in that, he provides offense, can hit lefties reasonably well, and is fairly decidedly below average as a game-caller and catch & throw guy. To go into a season with him as a clear-cut starter i think would be a bad idea. Martin at least will provide extra value in pitch framing (as dicussed above). I believe scouting reports give him above average grades on defense as well. I think however, being in the Yanks lineup, and playing his home games at the Stadium may have helped hide his decline as a hitter. I wouldn’t expect much more thans lighty below average production from him. With that said… good signing.

ElToroStrikesAgain
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ElToroStrikesAgain
3 years 6 months ago

I’d assume the Yanks will be targeting one of these guys via trade, as offff idk, yesterday. Suzuki quite possibly. Maybe Soto. It’s either that or head into the season praying for league average production from Stewart, Cervelli, Whiteside, or hoping this is the year Romine meets his potential.

2014 Free Agent Catchers (from MLB Trade Rumors)

John Buck (33)
Jesus Flores (29)
Ramon Hernandez (38)
Gerald Laird (34)
Brian McCann (30)
Jose Molina (38)
Dioner Navarro (30)
Wil Nieves (36)
Brayan Pena (32)
Humberto Quintero (34)
Carlos Ruiz (35)
Jarrod Saltalamacchia (29)
Geovany Soto (31)
Kurt Suzuki (30) – $8.5MM club option with a $650K buyout

AC of DC
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AC of DC
3 years 6 months ago

There was an article last April (from the Newark Star Ledger, though I don’t recall what other site sent me there) that indicated the Yankees signed Chris Stewart because of his pitch-framing abilities. The piece quoted Fast’s research, as well as Girardi, Molina, Martin, an anonymous insider, and Stewart, himself, weighing in on the art of framing, and quoted Cashman briefly on the value of defense behind the plate. The study remains an emerging field, and we don’t want to make too much of it, but this would at least suggest that the Yankee front office was not blind to the concept. http://www.nj.com/yankees/index.ssf/2012/04/yankees_following_new_philosop.html

Assuming they didn’t sour on the notion in the intervening season, we are left to assume that there was something else at play. I thought having Martin was great; it’s a shame to see him go, but hopefully he can provide Pittsburgh with something they’ve sorely missed.

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