The Pittsburgh Pirates Have a Receiver

A.J. Burnett made some history Wednesday night when he recorded his 2,000th career regular-season strikeout. Of course, he also has 31 career postseason strikeouts, and I don’t know why those don’t matter — but they don’t matter, and this isn’t even the main point of this piece. Burnett nearly made some more impressive history Wednesday when he carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Cardinals. Carlos Beltran knocked a two-out double, and Burnett was removed before the eighth. But even without the history and the complete game, Burnett turned in a hell of an effort and the Pirates improved to .500. Now all the team needs to do is hold this for another five-and-a-half months.

But this post isn’t about Burnett. It’s about is Russell Martin. While that’s a bit of a stretch, Martin was at least catching Burnett on Wednesday, and I needed some sort of topical introduction. When the Pirates signed Martin as a free agent, they presumably considered both his defensive and his offensive skills. In the early going, his offense has been entirely absent, but at least a part of his skillset shows up in the numbers.

I still don’t understand why the Yankees allowed Martin to walk away, considering what he cost, considering what he would’ve accepted and considering the alternatives at his position. But the Yankees’ presumed loss was the Pirates’ presumed gain, and what looked clear at the time was that the Pirates might finally have a decent pitch-receiver. The early evidence is encouraging.

For background, I’ll let you know, or remind you, that the numbers have always liked Russell Martin as a receiver. Not as someone on Jonathan Lucroy‘s level, but maybe one level below. I could’ve cited Jose Molina instead of Lucroy, but I’ve made it my mission to get Lucroy more respect. Anyhow, I don’t know how many more times I’ll bother to explain this, but here’s another explanation of my simple Diff/1000 statistic. Diff/1000 refers to the difference between actual strikes and expected strikes per 1,000 called pitches. It’s derived using PITCHf/x plate-discipline data we have here at FanGraphs. The denominator isn’t very intuitive but it’s appealingly round, and what actually matters most is that we have a rate stat. So, let’s look at how the Pirates have done as a team, on the mound, in terms of Diff/1000.

The answer: not well. That’s what happens when you tool around with catchers like Ryan Doumit, Michael McKenry, Rod Barajas and Chris Snyder. In 2008, the Pirates had the worst Diff/1000 in baseball. In 2009, they were tied for the worst. They were better in 2010, but they were back in the bottom third in 2011, and they were tied for worst in 2012. Pirates catchers, over the years, have not taken good care of their pitchers. At least not in this particular department.

I examined changes between 2012 Diff/1000 and 2013 Diff/1000. It’s still very early in the season, of course, but simple studies have shown a strong correlation between month Diff/1000 and full-season Diff/1000. And those haven’t even accounted for changes in personnel. So this is something we can look at, provided we remember how early it still is. The team with the biggest gain so far is the Brewers, at +39, and I imagine that has a little something to do with Lucroy being healthy. Lucroy is outstanding, and last year he had to miss a lot of time. The team with the second-biggest gain so far is the Pirates, at +35. No one else has jumped more than +19. The big difference with the Pirates is that now they have Russell Martin behind the plate a lot of the time.

Last season, according to this stat, the Pirates were tied for the worst team in baseball. So far this season, they’ve been above-average, which is an eye-popping turnaround, even if it’s entirely explicable. Here’s the obligatory .gif of Martin doing a good frame job on a hitter, as Burnett struck out Beltran looking early in Wednesday’s action:

BurnettMartin.gif.opt

We can dive deeper by using a tool available at Baseball Heat Maps. Here’s the Pirates pitchers’ called strike zone over the entire 2008-2012 window:

pirates08_12

Here’s the same image, for the 2012 season only:

pirates12

And here’s the same image, for 2013 to date:

pirates13

It’s kind of hard to see when you lay the images out like that, but if it helps, open the images in separate tabs and then flip between them to get an idea of how things have changed. The Pirates, sure enough, have been pitching to a more favorable strike zone, especially, it appears, in the upper half. And while we don’t know enough about pitch-receiving to say how much credit should go to the catcher and how much credit should go to the pitcher for hitting his spot, look at the composition of the Pirates’ staff. Burnett. James McDonald. Jonathan Sanchez. As a team, the Pirates still have baseball’s highest walk rate, so it’s not like command is a particular strength. Martin probably deserves a lot of the credit here.

It gets tricky when you try to figure out just how much credit he does deserve. As mentioned, despite the better zone, the Pirates have the highest team walk rate. They have a low ERA, but it’s supported by an unsustainable BABIP, and they have a bottom-four strikeout-to-walk ratio. Martin hasn’t made McDonald not bad. Sanchez is still a disaster. When he caught Jeff Locke, Locke finished with four walks and no whiffs. Martin hasn’t made the staff incredible. But it’s reasonable to conclude that Martin has helped, that the Pirates would be worse off without him, at least in this regard. Good and bad pitch-receiving seldom makes a huge splash on a game-to-game basis. It just adds up over time, one of a million different things that goes into determining team wins and team losses.

We’ll monitor this as the season goes along, but this is what we expected of Martin, which means the early numbers aren’t a shock. And while Martin should probably try to hit dozens of points better than his current .103, at least he hasn’t been a total negative. While he hasn’t helped, he’s helped, and between his early offensive performance and defensive performance, one of those seems likely to keep up for the long haul.




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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.


45 Responses to “The Pittsburgh Pirates Have a Receiver”

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  1. Preston says:

    Every time I see something about how much pitch framing effects called strikes I lean towards wanting an computer system to call games.

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  2. Jason H says:

    It might be informative to also look at the way the Yankees have changed in Martin’s absence. The prediction is, of course, that the Yankees are getting fewer called strikes than they did the last few years. Is that the case?

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  3. TheOneWhoKnocks says:

    Martin caught Burnett in 2011 in NY and certainly didn’t bring the best out of him then.
    Burnett’s success has less to do with pitch framing and more to due with pitching in a weaker league and bigger park.
    Not to trivialize pitch framing, the Pirates are definitely going to reap real benefits of having a good defensive catcher behind the plate this year, I just think sometimes we go too far with it.
    Small sample size alert obviously, but Cervelli has been more valuable than Martin thus far.
    From 2010-2012 Martin had a .711 OPS and Cervelli had a .702 OPS. Given that Cervelli is younger and in his prime and playing for pennies, I think it’s one of the decisions the Yanks caught a lot of flack about but at the end of the season will be vindicated on it.

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    • Paul says:

      As a Yankee fan I hope your extrapolation of Cervelli’s OPS will come true as he plays as a regular. I’m not so sure. He has been more dynamic as a hitter thus far, though. I’d rather have the sure defensive value of Martin, but Cervelli is just a bridge to Sanchez anyway.

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      • ElToroStrikesAgain says:

        Yeah even as a Yankee fan I’m not buying into Cervelli just yet. SSS Cervelli > Martin. SSS Buck best catcher in baseball?

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  4. cass says:

    Any chance that FanGraphs will add a pitch-framing stat? It’d be really nice to have that.

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  5. stopher says:

    I’m not saying if Martin is or isn’t a good pitch framer, and indeed those heat maps hint that he may be. But to me that gif is an example of poor pitch framing; the pitch looked like a strike anyways and Martin’s hand jerk is pretty obvious. A good frame-job would involve catching the ball further in the tip of the mitt, and using a much more subtle glove turn towards the center of the plate.

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    • CabreraDeath says:

      This is incorrect. On PiratesProspects, James Santelli also played this gif, but he also freeze-framed where the ball came over the plate. It was inside, but Martin made it a strike.

      Great example of framing.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        It was inside, but Martin made it a strike.

        How do we know the ump would not have called it a strike regardless of Martin’s glove move?

        How far did martin move his glove? I ask because it looks to be 4-5 inches or so.

        If umpires can really be swayed by a catcher moving their mitt that far, then called strikes should be a plague of baseball.

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      • stopher says:

        Just because he got the call doesn’t mean it was a great example of framing; just like an off-balance, swinging bunt single, while a hit, isn’t an example of great hitting.

        Maybe I was and wrong and maybe it was inside, I can’t tell from that angle. But, in my unimportant opinion, he looks more like a little leaguer trying to buy a strike then he does an expert pitch framer.

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        • Spit Ball says:

          Stopher is right on this one. Martin may be a great pitch framer (preliminary stats suggest he is) but that was not smooth or subtle. We need some more research on this whole pitch framing thing before we draw to strong of conclusions. The pitcher and his reputation will help. Most important is the type of pitch and it’s movement, location and momentum. Sinkers are particularly hard to frame due to gravity and pitcher intent. I think this is part of the reason Indians catchers have looked so bad. That being said Jose Molina, David Ross and Russell Martin seemed skilled at pitch framing. How much value they are garnering is still really hard to tell. Hence this article and further research. Five years from now we shall know more.

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        • Dukes says:

          Remember, you are watching it in slow motion so Martin’s movements are exaggerated.

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  6. Wally says:

    I know that there is no current stat for framing, but have catchers been rated somewhere according to framing, even if it is just someone’s guesstimate? I am curious where the Nats catchers come out (eyeballing it, I am guessing middle of the pack or slightly lower).

    Sorry if this is obvious and I missed it.

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  7. Slacker George says:

    Does anyone normalize pitch-framing stats by season? In a perfect world, the umps get better, pitch-framing becomes less valuable, so catcher pitch-framing performance should be evaluated in context of environment.

    What other parlor tricks can be quantified?
    - phantom 2nd base touch on DP
    - trapped liners
    - heading towards first on borderline ball four call

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    • atoms says:

      Not sure if heading towards first on a presumed ball four helps or hurts the batter. Some umps might feel disrespected by it. Though, I might just have Matt Kemp’s pinch hit appearance from last night fresh in my mind.

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  8. Jerry says:

    Is Cervelli significantly worse than Martin as a pitch framer? Given the limited pitch framing data that’s out there, I have no definitive answer to this question. Any thoughts?

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  9. CircleChange11 says:

    When the Pirates signed Martin as a free agent, they presumably considered both his defensive and his offensive skills.

    1. Wasn’t Russel Martin horrible with caught stealings? And stolen base attempts against?

    2. I was not aware that sabermetric aspects such as catcher framing and things of that nature were being used by MLB GM’s to make free agent decisions. I’m not saying that cynically or in a smart-aleck way.

    According to valuation metrics is just an average, or slightly below average, defensive catcher. His value has been [1] being a catcher, and [2] being a decent hitting catcher.

    I hope this framing valuation gains traction, because it obviously has the potential to be a VERY important aspect of catching, perhaps THE most important aspect of catching given how many total pitches we are talking about over a season/career.

    Martin’s 2013 season and how it affects the Pirates called strike zone may be one very interesting thing to watch.

    Since strikeouts are up across the board/league, the called strike zone may also be larger leaguewide, perhaps as a directive from the high-ups for umpires to start calling more borderline strikes to “get the game moving” or some other reason.

    Looking at Martin’s 2013 “heat map”, he’s doing better in some areas, but not in others, so how does it all “balance out” or “add up”?

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    • Steve says:

      I have to think some teams are using pitch framing data to make decisions about catchers, at least on the margins.

      The Rays are generally considered one of the smartest teams in baseball, right? And yet they currently start a catcher who can’t hit or run. There is probably a reason for that.

      And why do the Yankees give ABs to another offensive black hole in Chris Stewart? They must have some metric telling them he steals runs back.

      It’s the only reasonable conclusion because I don’t think “teams hate catchers who can hit” qualifies.

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      • Baltar says:

        The Yankees even traded Kontos, a pretty good pitching prospect, for Stewart as a backup. That certainly showed respect for pitch-framing.

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        • Spit Ball says:

          I also think the Red Sox made David Ross their first free agent signing because of pitch framing data and Jose Molina is definitely not back in Tampa Bay for another year because of his ahem…offensive offense.

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    • Ted Nelson says:

      Yes, I think it’s safe to assume that teams are all over pitch framing. If you look at the Yankees, for example, not only do they employ a stats department of 14, but they also have Pena and Girardi as two highly respected defensive Cs. In fact, Jose Molina (the god of p framing) has credited those two with teaching him about p framing while he was a Yankee. (MartIn, by the way, has credited Chris Stewart with teaching him a lot about D last year alone.)

      Because the saber movement started in fans’ basements a lot of fans seem to assume that they are still way ahead of clueless teams on stats… While some teams may choose to ignore statistical analysis, many employ departments of professional statisticians. My guess would be that most teams are ahead of fans at this point.

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  10. Rick says:

    How much does the count affect pitch framing gardes? We all know umpires have a smaller strike zone when the pitcher is ahead (and vice versa), so how does this affect a catcher’s pitch framing? Because a pitcher could throw a strike, and the catcher could do a masterful job of framing it; yet since the count is 0-2, the umpire decides to call it a ball.
    For example, Astros at A’s game on 4/17, top of the 4th, Colon pitching to Carter: Colon gets ahead 0-2, then 1-2, the next pitch goes right through the heart of the strike zone, and is well framed, but the umpire Clint Fagan for whatever reason calls it a ball.

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  11. Kirk says:

    On the whole topic of pitch framing… I have never seen an umpire’s comment on if they are affected by it or not. It would probably be impossible to get them to admit it if they did however.
    The bigger issue to me is that if you look at the sight angles of an umpire when set to call a pitch, he cannot see the catcher’s glove especially if the ump is looking at the area over the plate. I personally put pitch framing next to the file on UFO’s. Why all of a sudden is pitch framing getting to be the prime rating of a catcher when it has never been mentioned during the first 150 years of catcher’s receiving pitches?

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    • rotowizard says:

      Not sure if this helps or not but I used to umpire high school games and looking back I can definitely remember thinking to myself after the fact that I probably made the wrong call because of the way a pitch was recieved.

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      • rotowizard says:

        At least a few times, so it’s reasonable to think that even a major league umpire who sees 5k+ pitches a year has probably been effected by it occasionally even if they may the very best umps in the world.

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        • Dukes says:

          I think the fact that every catcher does it means somebody thinks it affects the calls. Gotta get the DH in national league, computerized strike zone, replay for check swings. Instant replay – ump gets one chance to view the replay and must make the call. None ofhte 10 minutes to look at it from 20 different angles crap.

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    • Ted Nelson says:

      It was definitely mentioned for the first 150 years, just not quantified.

      Heck, playing C in little league and HS I was taught to try to frame Ps and receive them with a quick wrist turn.

      Guys like Tony Pena and Joe Girardi are all about P framing from a technical standpoint.

      It was definitely mentioned for a long time.

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  12. Ted Nelson says:

    It really surprises me how many people felt the Yankees made the wrong move on Martin. They’ve gotten lucky with Cervelli’s offense early, but his offense in 2010-11 was right in line with Martin’s 2012 performance and not radically different from his 2011 performance. (Some are quick to question him as a part time player, but we’re looking at two separate samples and he had 317 PAs in 2010…. He played pretty regularly that year.) I didn’t know it was coming, but I’d bet they were aware of his defensive improvements (or getting back to where he was as a highly regarded defensive prospect) after sending him down to AAA to work on his D last year. Stewart, for his part, is at least as highly regarded defnesively as Martin, and probably more so.

    By this site’s own all encompassing metric Martin is a 2 win player (think ZIPs had him shy of 2 wins). Cervelli and Stewart were both expected to be about 1 win players in a full season. We’re talking under 1 win for $8 or 9 mill or whatever. And it may be less than a win if the Yankees had reason to expect Martin would decline going forward (back? He mostly struggled offensively last year before a strong finish) and Cervelli had gotten his D together in AAA.

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    • Ted Nelson says:

      And I was a big Martin supporter while he struggled last season, pointing out that he contributed on D and C is a weak offensive position league wide. A lot of media reactions, though, would make it seem like they lost 3 or 4 wins. I can see getting worked up over Swisher (who is a 4 win player replaced by a 1-2 win player) a lot more easily than Martin, yet C has gotten the most ink by far.

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  13. Josh says:

    Erm..they let Martin go because he’s garbage…as he’s showing quite plainly in Pittsburgh.

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    • matt says:

      thanks for your insight , douchebag
      you might want to run upstairs from your basement room your mom has lunch ready

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