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.