The Four Hidden Wins the Pirates Are Getting From Their Catchers

There has been a lot of talk the last few years about pitch framing for catchers, along with the importance of blocking skills. In the last year this has become a big topic for the Pirates, due to the signing of Russell Martin, who is rated one of the best pitch framers in the game. Despite the realization of the value of pitch framing and blocking, we haven’t really had an accurate way of calculating the actual value of a good defensive catcher in terms of wins. That could be changing, thanks to an outstanding article on Baseball Prospectus by Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks.

Pavlidis and Brooks developed an advanced method to calculate the value of pitch framing and blocking in terms of runs, which could then be translated to wins using the 10 runs per win scale. The article does a much better job of explaining the methodology than I could do, so I’ll let you read it. The line I thought was interesting was that teams with good pitch framing catchers “have received essentially ‘free’ MVP-caliber seasons from framing alone.”

The new catching metrics are available on all BP player cards, and upon finishing the article I wanted to see the value for Russell Martin and Chris Stewart, who are both lauded for their defense.

In 2013, Martin had a WARP of 3.0, meaning he was three wins above a replacement level player. That’s between average (2.0) and Great (5.2) on BP’s scale. But that doesn’t factor in the framing and blocking. BP said that Martin was worth 24.2 receiving runs in 2013, which adds an extra 2.4 wins (based off his framing and blocking, or RPM). That makes Martin a 5.4 win player overall. To put that in perspective, there were only 21 players in the majors last year with a WARP of 5.4 or better.

As for Stewart, he got a lot of time as the backup in New York, but was primarily a defense-only catcher. The lack of offense made him a -0.2 WARP player in 2013. His value comes from his defense, where he had a 1.9 RPM behind the plate. So Stewart’s overall value was 1.7 wins above replacement. Putting that in perspective, Prince Fielder was worth 1.78 WARP in 2013. So according to this study, Stewart was just as valuable as Fielder in 2013, all thanks to his defensive value behind the plate.

Granted, that was a down year for Fielder, and he’s usually at about a 3.5 WARP or better (projected for 3.5 WARP in 2014). So I have no doubt that Fielder is the better player going forward. But a down year for Fielder was an .819 OPS with 25 home runs. Even with the poor defensive and base running values, those types of numbers are going to fetch a lot on the open market, or demand a lot via trade. The Pirates got Stewart in exchange for minor league fringe prospect Kyle Haynes, and they’re only paying him $1 M. Even in previous years, with reduced playing time, he’s been worth a little over one win. A win on the open market is worth at least $5 M, and that cost seems to be going up. That makes someone like Stewart a massive value.

As for Martin, this kind of study could impact his value going into the 2015 season, especially if he has another strong year in 2014. This off-season saw Brian McCann get $17 M per year over five years. BP also rates McCann with a good RPM, so his value isn’t just on the offensive side. He was worth a combined 4.6 wins last year, but has been as high as a seven win player as recently as 2011, when you factor in the framing and blocking. Even if it’s just the 4.6 wins, and you use $5 M per win, that makes McCann worth $23 M per year. That’s 74% of his value in 2013, and much less if he bounces back to his pre-2012 numbers.

Martin’s 5.4 wins would be worth $27 M per year at $5 M per win. If he got the same 74% value, that would make him about a $20 M per year player. I don’t think Martin will receive $20 M per year, or anything close to it. It’s also key to point out that he was worth about 3.3 wins in his previous two years with the Yankees. His WARP went from 1.6 each year with New York to 3.0 with the Pirates. He also got a lot of extra defensive value due to more blocking chances with the Pirates, which is probably going to repeat in 2014 (that’s just thinking about Gerrit Cole’s sliders in the dirt, or Charlie Morton’s sinkers when thrown low). You could go conservative and say Martin would be worth four wins, which would be $20 M per year. Giving that the 74% scale makes him just under a $15 M a year player. Again, I’d be surprised if he gets that, since I don’t think the market will quickly adjust to the value of framing and blocking.

What this means is that Martin could get a deal that traditionally looks huge based on our previous perceptions of a catcher with his defense and lack of overall offense. I’m not predicting anything, but just for fun, let’s say that deal is five years and $60 M. That would be the second highest free agent catcher deal since 2006 (the last year ESPN’s free agent tracker shows), behind only McCann. By traditional thinking, that amount probably would be seen as an overpay for Martin. But when factoring the values of framing and blocking, that would actually be a huge value.

That’s more of a topic for next off-season, and it should provide an interesting debate, especially since Tony Sanchez could take over as the starter in 2015, and also excels at blocking and pitch framing. For now, the Pirates are set to go into the 2014 season with Martin and Stewart. Those two could combined for about four wins behind the plate with their blocking and framing skills alone. Four wins would be worth $20 M on the open market. The Pirates are paying those two a combined $9.5 M. That means that just on framing and blocking alone, the Pirates are getting a projected $10.5 M in value from their catchers.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • https://profiles.google.com/101510909979106143098 David Lewis

    #NewMarketInefficiency

  • buster09

    Fascinating really, but a concept that you will never convince the average fan is plausible….plus some retired sportswriters in the Pittsburgh area I might add. They would rather spend money on a Corey Hart or Marlin Byrd.

    • https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=5315860 ndbrian

      I try to explain the value of catching defense to “average fans” and “retired sportswriters” using terms that they understand.
      First, the more simple argument. Pitch framing undoubtedly reduces the number of pitches that pitchers throw to some degree (what that degree is, I’m not sure and don’t have the time to figure out) as it makes balls into strikes and not vice versa. Pirates pitchers threw the second fewest total pitches and second fewest pitches per inning (these numbers are closer) in MLB last year (both to the Braves, who have McCann, another strong pitch framer). That’s not a perfect way of deciding the impact, as I know some pitchers just throw more balls regardless and the more hits a team gives up, the more pitches they’ll generally throw and fewer strikeouts a team has, the fewer pitches they’ll generally throw, but it does the trick for now. Average fans love pitch counts and keeping them low.
      As for the blocking/throwing out runners/other part of catching defense, I would explain it like this. It generally takes between 2-3 hits to generate a run, depending on what sort of hits those are. When you control the running game via throwing out runners or blocking balls, that number moves more towards 3. That makes sense to anyone, even old school guys given that everyone understands that singles are the most likely type of hit to occur and most runners score from 2nd on a single, not 1st. Therefore allowing a runner to get to 2nd on a single moves the number of hits/run closer to 2.
      When you’re a team that gives up ground balls (Pirates 1st in MLB at that), which are more likley to result as singles, than line drives or fly balls, and other types of singles (Pirates 8th lowest in ISO* against..a stat I calculated), keeping that number as close to 3 as possible is even more important. Put another way, if you give up a lot of extra base hits, it’s less critical to keep runners on 1b.
      I find it interesting that the teams that have the lowest ISO against are generally teams that many of the same that are thought to have strong defensive catchers and/or strong sabermetric minds in the front office (1. TB; 2. LAD; 3. STL; 4. Oak; 5. Atl; 8. Pit) It seems front offices may also understand that limiting teams to singles only works if you control the running game too. Just an observation.

  • http://hiddenvigorish.com Twitter@piratesvigorish

    My one concern with framing is how do you project a player with little to know major league experience is going to do with this skill. By all accounts Sanchez appears to be a good framer. But there is really no data to back it up, at least publicly. We are probably still a long way off from having good pitch framing data for minor league players.

    • Leefoo Rug Bug

      My ONLY concern with Sanchez’ defense is his throwing yips.

      • glassers

        I agree .

      • http://hiddenvigorish.com Twitter@piratesvigorish

        He can get a little lazy blocking pitches too. We saw that in the short time he was called up. Only made 12 starts but had 11 wild pitched and 2 passed balls when he was behind the dish. I agree though, I think he’ll be a pretty good defensive catcher. It is just hard to compare him against Chris Stewart. Stewart is here mainly because of pitch framing abilities. Is that a trade that is made if there was data to indicate Sanchez would be better at framing than Stewart?

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/ Tim Williams

      That’s where scouting comes in. You can also get a rough idea of framing skills in the minors based on video. The Pirates actually have pitch tracking technology in all of their minor league parks, so they probably have a rough system for this.

      Sanchez had a limited sample in 2013. BP said that he was worth about 1.3 wins scaled over the course of a full season. That’s one win less than Martin, and about half a win less than Stewart. But again, it’s a small sample size. Hard to say if he’ll rank better or worse than that.

      • http://hiddenvigorish.com Twitter@piratesvigorish

        Thanks. I was wondering how robust certain technologies were in the minor league venues.

  • Leefoo Rug Bug

    If you think Martin is going to get that kind of money, then do we QO him?

    I would!!

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/ Tim Williams

      It really depends on how he does in 2014, and whether he can put up another big season. That might open the eyes of other teams. As it stands right now, I think teams still don’t appreciate pitch framing. There are some teams who get it (the Rays are a big one), but I don’t think Martin is getting close to his full value.

      I think he wanted something like 4/$40 M from the Yankees and they turned that down. Looks foolish on their part now, although if McCann bounces back he’ll ease that loss.

  • Ron Loreski

    One thing I love/hate about baseball is we look to put a number or a stat on everything. I’ll admit I’m finally starting to warm up to advanced metrics, but some of them to me are riciculous. Saying Chris Stewart is as vaulable as Prince Fielder, even on a down year, is preposterous.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/ Tim Williams

      Why? There is statistical evidence that Stewart is saving runs behind the plate.

      Dismissing stats because they don’t agree with a pre-conceived notion, or because they produce a surprising result, isn’t a good approach to take.

      • gregenstein

        While I’m not dismissing it outright, there is plenty of room for error. I like how they did the math and everything, but it’s not bulletproof. They added in the umpires and pitchers and such, I just don’t think the numbers in the vacuum in which they are placed represents their true value.

        The Pirates last had Ryan Doumit healthy for a full season in 2010. They allowed 866 runs. In 2013, they had Russell Martin and allowed 577.

        Based on the math in the article, this switch alone accounted for about than three quarters (3/4) of the difference (Doumit’s -124, Martin’s +91). This seems really high to me. Clint Barmes, Starling Marte, an improved defensive Pedro, Martin’s ability to throw runners out, Gaby Sanchez, and not to mention better pitching I believe accounted for at least as much as Martin’s improved framing/blocking over Doumit. I’m willing to believe you’ll save runs in pitch framing and blocking, but an average of more than 1 per game just by swapping out Martin for Doumit? I don’t know.

        That said, it’s a nice attempt at quantifying this ability. Just looking at the real world example I laid out, there’s still a grain of salt to be had.

        • esd4

          You misread the tables in the article. The +91 and -124 are the total runs saved and lost, respectively, by Martin and Doumit over the course of six whole seasons, 2008-2013. Doumit didn’t give up all those runs in 2010, and Martin didn’t save all those runs in 2013. According to the player pages, Doumit was -6 in 2010 and Martin was +17 in 2013, a difference of 23 runs, which is only eight percent of the total difference between the 2010 and 2013 clubs. That should be a lot easier to believe, I would think.

    • https://profiles.google.com/101510909979106143098 David Lewis

      I’ll bet that when Hervie Dobson started calculating batting averages back in the 1870s, people complained about how these new-fangled writers were cheapening the fine game of base-ball by trying to reduce everything to a number.

  • Matthew Kruth

    Sorry Tim, the math for Stewart doesn’t add up. A 24.2 RPM for Martin equals a 2.4 WARP increase. That means that Stewart’s 1.9 RPM would only be worth .19 WARP amking him the equivalent to a replacement player…..

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/ Tim Williams

      The math is right. I just put RPM in the wrong part of the article for Martin. His 2.4 is the RPM. The 24.4 are the runs.

      Stewart had 19 runs, and 1.9 RPM.

  • skliesen

    For those of you who are having a hard time believing a run saved is at least as valuable as a run created, I submit Bill Russell vs Wilt Chamberlain as evidence. Sure it’s a different sport, but the concept is the same. Russell excelled at defense and Wilt at offense. Wilt got the stats, Russell got the rings.

    Pirates are building a winning formula by prioritizing keeping the other team from scoring runs. Be it infield shifts, two-seam fastballs, speed in the outfield, depth in the relief pitching, etc. Chicks may dig the long ball, but NH & his staff dig saving runs!

    Get ready for another season of close, low scoring games.

  • Andrew

    Obliviously this work, especially the model’s intricateness in valuing each count by run is exceptional. However the a better predictive model would be context neutral.

    What I find funny is pitch framing and shifting get a lot of attention however according to DRS the Pirates gained 15 runs from the catchers,
    13 from pitchers in 2013 compared to 2012 from not allowing runners to steal at will. I think the most mathematically inept coach will tell you that focusing on pitching and ignoring the runner or whatever garbage Barajas was selling is not an effective strategy.

  • ecbucs

    clearly a solution is to first base problem is to trade Stewart for Fielder (with Texas sending money to even out salaries). Martin will just need to catch a few more games or we’ll need to go a few games with potentially poorer defense from Sanchez.

  • impliedi

    Great article! It’s funny when you mentioned the “just for fun” amount of 5/$60, it made me immediately think of Jason Kendall’s 6/$60 extension. Which got me to go back at look at Kendall’s stats again. I know people kind of turned on him later, but, boy, Kendall was a beast and probably the best catcher to ever put on a Buccos uniform. I often wonder if that injury hadn’t occurred, if his drop-off would have happened so quickly a few years after, or if his age/catching so much was going to catch up to him anyways. (I put him and Brian Giles in the extremely under-appreciated category of Pittsburgh Pirates of the last few decades.)

    I’d also be curious to see if the Pirates see no great 1B on the market for 2015, if they decide to put that money towards approaching Martin with a contract extension (of Free Agent proportions) and then dangle T. Sanchez out on the trade market (I know it’s not what anyone is expecting, but I’d definitely be intrigued.)

    • impliedi

      It will be interesting to see if anybody does a study to see if pitch framing skills diminish over a player’s career. Is this a skill that deteriorates with age? If it isn’t, then a Russell Martin may hold his value longer in his career than a more offensive-valued catcher.

      Also, overall does a catcher’s value drop off as much as other position players? It seems to me (but with no stats to back it up) that an older catcher’s value seems to diminish more because they play less games when they are older, than by a massive skill drop-off.

      It just makes you wonder if Russell Martin is the type of player who will hold his value much longer than many other players, if it can be shown that his abilities in pitch framing and blocking will be roughly similar when he’s in his mid-30’s or even approaching 40. Or at least a slower drop-off than a catcher whose main value comes from the bat. This means he could be a productive player for at least another decade and would be a great (and safe!) target for the Pirates (or others) to offer a long-term contract.

  • esd4

    I don’t understand where the 2.4 and 1.9 wins are coming from for Martin and Stewart respectively. On Martin’s player page, it says he was 29.7 runs above average (+17 framing, +12.7 blocking). On Stewart’s, it says he was 23.8 runs above average (+18.5 framing, +5.3 blocking). Even if you use the 10 runs/win scale, that’s not correct. I also don’t see where Pavlidis and Brooks say that you can use the 10 runs/win scale. I’m only seeing results presented in runs.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/ Tim Williams

      It looks like the numbers changed since I first posted this article. I posted it almost immediately after their article launched, so maybe there was an error with the calculations when they first put it up.