It was almost one year ago that the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Russell Martin to a two-year deal. The move ended up being outstanding, although it wasn’t seen as an earth shattering move at the time. Some pointed to Martin’s .211 batting average the previous year. Some felt that a combination of Tony Sanchez and Michael McKenry could do the same as Martin for cheaper. Some worried about Martin’s numbers declining. I had my list of reasons why Martin shouldn’t have been signed, and they were all wrong, and the article is still online here if you want to look back.
Comparing any catcher to some of the guys that have come through in previous years is setting a low bar. But Martin was a massive upgrade over guys like Rod Barajas, Chris Snyder, and even Ryan Doumit. First, let’s look at the offense.
Russell Martin 2013: .226/.327/.377
Rod Barajas 2012: .206/.283/.343
Chris Snyder 2011: .271/.376/.396
Ryan Doumit Pirates Career: .271/.334/.442
Offensively, Martin was an upgrade over Barajas, but Snyder and Doumit were better. Snyder was slightly better, but just couldn’t stay healthy and his defense wasn’t as good as Martin’s defense. Doumit was clearly a better hitter, but his defense was about as far away from Martin’s defense as you can get.
As for that defense, there aren’t a lot of established stats for catcher value. A lot of the stats are new, and the values of some are unappreciated. Here is a look at a few of those stats.
FanGraphs uses a stat called RPP, which measures the number of runs above / below average a catcher is at blocking pitches. Here are the numbers for each catcher.
Russell Martin 2013: 4.5
Rod Barajas 2012: 2.2
Chris Snyder 2011: -1.6
Ryan Doumit 2011: -1.1
Martin was the best of the group. Barajas wasn’t that bad, while Snyder and Doumit were horrible. The difference between Martin and those two in 2011 is half a win in total value.
I feel like it’s a bit unfair to compare Martin to previous catchers, since the previous catchers had to deal with a “we don’t care what the runners do” attitude from the pitchers and the team. But Martin threw out 40% of runners this year, and that wasn’t all on the pitchers, just like the extremely poor numbers by Barajas weren’t all on the pitchers. Here is a measure of the defensive runs based on stolen bases (measured in rSB).
Russell Martin 2013: 9
Rod Barajas 2012: -10
Chris Snyder 2011: -1
Ryan Doumit 2011: -1
By going from Barajas to Martin, the Pirates saved 19 runs. Ten runs is a win, which means Martin’s arm was worth almost two wins more than Rod Barajas in a single season. That’s amazing. Note that this number not only looks at throwing out runners, but it also factors in the amount of steals, and how catchers can prevent steals in the first place.
Defensive Runs Saved
This looks at how many runs a player saved or hurt his team in the field compared to the average player at his position. For more on DRS, check out this write up by FanGraphs. This looks at total defensive value.
Russell Martin 2013: 16
Rod Barajas 2012: -12
Chris Snyder 2011: -1
Ryan Doumit 2011: -6
FanGraphs grades anything +15 or better on the DRS scale as “Gold Glove Caliber”. Martin was a finalist for the Gold Glove, but lost to Winner at Catcher by Default, Yadier Molina. FanGraphs grades zero as average, -5 as Below Average, -10 as Poor and -15 as Awful.
Once again, Martin was clearly ahead of everyone else. He was also the only catcher with positive value. And the upgrade from Barajas to Martin was staggering, adding almost three additional wins. Even if you look back at 2011, the combo of Snyder and Doumit had better offense, but the defense from Martin this year was about two extra wins better than that pair. The offense from the 2011 pair compared to Martin amounted to a little less than one win. So the total upgrade of Martin over that combo was a little more than one win, even though Snyder/Doumit had considerably better offensive numbers. This shows that Martin was amazing defensively, but it also shows how defense can be very unappreciated compared to offense.
Russell Martin is only under control through the 2014 season. If he has another season similar to his 2013 campaign, the Pirates won’t have as easy of a time signing him as they did last off-season. They might not need him back after next season.
Tony Sanchez got his first taste of Major League ball this season, after seeing his power return at the minor league level. It’s too early to tell if Sanchez will carry his hitting and power over to the majors. The odds of it happening are strong in PNC Park, due to the nature of Sanchez’s power revival. He started going to the opposite field more often at the end of the 2012 season, and made it a habit in 2013. That trend could make the Clemente Wall a huge target for Sanchez, allowing him to put up the offensive numbers to be a starter.
Defensively, Sanchez is strong. He’s excellent at blocking pitches, works great with the pitching staff, and he’s got a strong arm. The one downside to his game is that he is prone to having periods where he makes wild throws — either down to second, to first on a bunt, and over the third baseman’s head on a strike three call at one point this year. A lot of this snowballs after the initial error, with Sanchez doing too much in his following throws to try and make up for the bad throw. Spending an entire season in the same clubhouse with Martin might help Sanchez learn how to get past this for good, and let one mistake remain one mistake, rather than turning it into several mistakes.
As a starter, Sanchez could have the upside of Martin — strong defense, great advanced skills like blocking and pitch framing, and some power in his bat, even if he doesn’t hit for average.
The Pirates might only need Sanchez as a starter for a short time. They’ve got a lot of talented catchers in the lower levels, led by 2013 first round pick Reese McGuire. Like Sanchez and Martin, McGuire projects to be an excellent defensive catcher. He might end up being the best of the three, as he already shows some advanced skills, and a lot of tools that could work in the majors today. That’s not to say that McGuire can go on the fast track to the majors. Everything about his defense looked great in the minors this year, as I outlined in the GCL recap. However, as he moves up he’s going to have to deal with better base runners, and more difficult breaking pitches to block and catch. The bigger adjustment will come with his offense. When he was drafted, there was a split in opinion of whether McGuire could hit enough to be a starter. He showed good hitting skills this year, and that will be a huge focus as he moves up throughout the levels of the minors.
McGuire profiles as the long-term starter at catcher, and the Pirates could be in a nice situation with he and Sanchez on the same roster, giving them a great combo behind the plate. The Pirates have other interesting options in the lower levels, including Jin-De Jhang and Wyatt Mathisen. Both should fall behind McGuire when it comes to playing time behind the plate, and Mathisen could even be a candidate to eventually move to a different position due to his athleticism. That said, both have a chance to be a two-way catcher, though that chance is smaller than McGuire’s chance.
As far as depth in 2014, Michael McKenry will be a Super Two player, making him eligible for arbitration this off-season. I feel that he will return, and since he has an option remaining, he would be available as a third catcher out of Triple-A. The Pirates also have an interesting depth option in Carlos Paulino. He’s an all-defense option, and strictly a backup, but he features a laser arm which is the best in the system. I could see the Pirates adding a few catchers to the upper levels over the off-season, but most of those will be hard to predict and will come on minor league deals.
For once, the catching position isn’t an issue for the Pirates in the short-term, and with all of the minor league options they have, it might not be an issue in the long-term either.