Two years ago, Russell Martin made a very smart decision. He was reportedly seeking four years and $9-10 M per year, and no team would come close to that amount. The New York Yankees were reported to have offered two years and $13 M, or three years and $21 M. The Pittsburgh Pirates had the top offer at two years and $17 M. They also made a three-year offer. Martin declined that offer, opting for a two-year deal and the chance to re-enter free agency a year sooner, so that he could once again try for a big long-term contract.
Today, that move looks brilliant. Not only did Martin get his long-term deal — five years and $82.5 M — he got more than double the amount that he was asking for in 2012, and that was an amount that no one would touch.
When you look at Martin’s situation, there have only been two big changes between his current free agency bid and his bid in 2012. The first big change is that he’s coming off a huge year on offense, putting up an .832 OPS. Just looking at the surface numbers, you can see that this is probably unsustainable. The only other time Martin had an OPS over .800 was in 2007 with the Dodgers. He hasn’t been over a .732 OPS since 2008.
When you dig deeper, you see that it’s a little more unlikely that Martin will sustain those numbers. His isolated power has been on the decline the last three years, dropping from .192 in 2012 to .151 in 2013 and .140 in 2014. And the fuel to his big season was a .336 BABIP, which is almost 50 points higher than his career average of .289, the highest mark of his career, and the first time he’s been over .287 since 2008.
All signs point to the 2014 season being a career year offensively, and his future returning to where he was in previous years, which is in the low .700 OPS range. That’s not a bad range for a catcher with strong defense.
The other big change isn’t even a change for Martin. It’s a change in how everyone else values Martin’s biggest asset — his defense. Two years ago, when Martin signed with the Pirates, there wasn’t a strong appreciation for catcher defense. Shortly after Martin signed, Baseball Prospectus started researching the art of pitch framing, and Martin was a big focus in their research.
Since the initial focus on pitch framing, BP has come up with a way to quantify the stat, along with quantifying blocking. The results of those stats may not be perfect, but they’re the best attempt we have so far. Those numbers show that a good pitch framer can be worth about two extra wins, just for that skill alone. There’s still plenty that hasn’t been quantified yet and might never be quantified, such as game calling, pacing, and the relationship with a pitching staff. And we’re still in the early process of quantifying things like framing and blocking. One thing is for sure — there is a lot more appreciation for catcher defense today than there was the last time Martin was a free agent.
So which change led to Martin’s massive payday this time around, compared to his last free agent bid? I’m guessing that the defense played a bigger role. I can’t imagine Alex Anthopoulos would be signing Martin for his 2014 offensive numbers, while looking past the red flags that suggest this was just a career year that won’t be sustainable in future years. I’m sure there were other factors that played a role, such as the lack of any viable catching option, and the fact that Martin puts up decent offensive numbers in a normal year, especially for a strong defensive catcher.
Overall, I think this contract represents the massive shift in appreciation for catcher defense. It’s still something that isn’t fully appreciated. But we’re seeing things move in the right direction.
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