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:
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:
Here’s the same image, for the 2012 season only:
And here’s the same image, for 2013 to date:
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.