Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/18/14
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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