There was a lot of talk about Russell Martin today, including an article from our own Ryan Palencer, who talked with some of the Pirates’ pitchers last week about their catcher. I thought it was an interesting article, because you always hear the general compliments about Martin from the pitchers, but this went a little deeper into how exactly Martin helps his pitchers.
Of course, any article this time of year about Martin is going to bring up his pending free agency. That topic came up a few days ago when Ken Rosenthal speculated that Martin would receive more than Carlos Ruiz (3 years, $26 M), but less than Miguel Montero (5 years, $60 M). I personally think that Martin will have a shot to receive more than those figures, which would put him in the $9-12 M per year range. It also seems that Martin might feel like he has a shot at this.
Jerry Crasnick wrote about how Martin’s days could be numbered in Pittsburgh, due to the value he has been bringing the last two years, and the importance placed on catcher defense around the league lately. The line I thought was most interesting came from Martin.
“It’s going to be the postseason or the offseason coming up shortly, so I feel like it would be unintelligent at this point to not be patient and see what’s out there,” Martin said. “I love the guys on this team, and I love what we have going on here. I love the direction this team is heading in, but who knows?
“If there would have been something done in spring training, it would have been a different story. So far I’m having a solid offensive and defensive year, and people are starting to recognize the defensive attributes of catchers more. It will be fun to see how important that is and how much people value that.”
The first parts of the quotes don’t really give much hope that Martin will return, or at least they don’t suggest that he will be giving the Pirates any sort of discount. The part I find interesting is the end of the quote, where Martin wants to know how teams are now valuing defense. I’m interested in that quote because, like Martin, I really want to see how teams are valuing defense now.
When the Pirates signed Martin two years ago, the overall reaction was negative. That includes my reaction the night he was signed (the article was being written based on rumors earlier in the day, before he signed, but the feeling didn’t change after the deal was done). The Pirates out-bid the Yankees, paying Martin $17 M over two years. That deal now looks like a steal, but at the time it wasn’t considered a steal at all. The Yankees refused to go over $14 M. Meanwhile, Martin didn’t want to sign for a third year with the Pirates because he wanted to re-enter free agency quicker. That looks to work out well for him, mostly due to the changes in perception of catcher defense. The biggest change in perception can be seen in the following from that article two years ago.
There are also recent studies on pitch framing, and catchers being able to get extra strikes due to their skills in this area. You can read one of those studies at Baseball Prospectus. This isn’t a widely accepted skill. I can’t say I fully believe in pitch framing. The best argument against it is that catchers on teams like the Yankees would get the benefit of the doubt, while catchers on teams like the Pirates wouldn’t see the same advantage. The counter to that is to point out that catchers from the same teams, even from the Yankees, can have totally different outcomes.
I’m on the fence about the value here, but if you’re a believer in the study, Martin looks stronger. In that BP link, Martin ranked second, and was an upgrade of 20 runs per 120 games over Rod Barajas. Barajas was an upgrade over Ryan Doumit (who was the worst in that study) but was rated in the middle of the pack.
Pitch framing was still a relatively new concept. By the end of the 2013 season, it was widely known. A big reason for that is due to the attention Baseball Prospectus gave to the subject. But Martin played a big role here too. The Pirates had one of the best pitching staffs in the majors last year. Ray Searage and Jim Benedict were big factors in this. Focusing on advanced metrics like xFIP over ERA also helped. And Martin’s pitch framing played a big role, which was really brought to light by a great article by Ben Lindbergh at Grantland last May.
Two-years ago Martin was widely under-valued, to the point where only the Pirates really understood his value. Now? We get to see how many teams have caught up to the Pirates, and how much the focus on catcher defense the last two years has driven up the price.
One thing I see often when discussing Martin is the risk due to his age. That seems to be just a blanket statement about the fact that he’s 31, and not a specific comment tailored to Martin. Today, Lindbergh had another great article on Martin (and the Pirates in general), focusing on how they’ve managed to avoid injuries this year. Aside from the possibility that the Pirates may have found a way to cut down on injuries, there’s the fact that Martin is in great shape. His offense might not carry over after this year, but his defense alone would be worth bringing him back.
Or at least I think so. And while the estimates the other day were $9-12 M per year, I wouldn’t be surprised if Martin receives somewhere around $15 M per year, and possibly more if the right teams get involved. I’ve written why I think the Pirates should pay that, even though it would be the total opposite approach from what they did with A.J. Burnett last year. That comparison will be used a lot this off-season, but the situations are much different. Burnett was a 38-year-old pitcher at the end of his career, who was contemplating retirement, and the Pirates had shown a tendency to find value in the starting pitching market — which they did once again by signing Edinson Volquez.
The difference with Martin is that he’s much younger, projected to stay the same from a skill standpoint on defense, and while the Pirates demonstrated an ability to find value behind the plate, the rest of the league discovered their secret. Now they don’t have a replacement option for Martin. It’s not like Burnett’s situation. There is no Edinson Volquez out there on the free agent market who everyone will hate, but will end up just fine. There might be one on the trade market, but every team values catching. Landing the right catcher would probably cost a lot in prospects, which seems foolish when you can just spend money to bring back the guy you really want.
Clint Hurdle recently said that Russell Martin is just as important to the Pirates as Andrew McCutchen. I agree with that. Over the next few years, McCutchen will start making $13-14.75 M per year. Last year Neal Huntington famously said that they couldn’t spend a large percentage of money on one player, referencing Burnett and their $12 M offer. That led a lot of people to believe that they had some sort of individual salary cap that they wouldn’t go over. I never believed this. I do think there’s a limit, but I don’t think the limit for a guy like McCutchen is the same as a limit for a guy like Burnett. And I think Martin belongs in the same group as McCutchen.
It will cost more to bring Martin back than what McCutchen will be making. That’s just the difference between the open market and a pre-arb deal that has worked out in the best way possible. There should be no question about whether Martin should receive a qualifying offer. And if Martin does cost $15 M per year, that’s a price that the Pirates should pay. They can definitely afford to pay that price, especially when it’s paid to a player who is as important as Martin. There was a lot of anger last year over Burnett. This year is going to be the true test for the Pirates. This is the off-season where they need to get aggressive and spend some money. Because while I thought the Pirates would remain contenders without Burnett, I find it hard to believe they’ll avoid any major drop off if they don’t bring back Martin.
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