This past year, as a regular for the Pirates, Russell Martin was worth 5.3 WAR, according to our data. Here’s the list of Blue Jays catchers who’ve had five-win seasons:
The year before, also with the Pirates, Martin was worth 4.1 WAR. Here’s the list of Blue Jays catchers who’ve had four-win seasons:
Looking ahead, over almost 500 trips to the plate, Steamer projects Martin to be worth 3.8 WAR. Here’s the list of Blue Jays catchers who’ve had 3.8-win seasons:
It’s a bit of a dreary history. Ernie Whitt was worth 3.6 wins in 1983. Pat Borders was worth 3.5 in 1990. Whitt was worth 3.4 in 1987. And then that’s it for even three-win seasons. The Blue Jays have never employed a star-level catcher. Now they have one in Russell Martin, who they plucked away from the National League for $82 million over five years. It’s not a sure-fire bargain — no long-term contract to an aging catcher can ever look like a bargain — but with the splash, the Blue Jays have moved up in the AL East, committing to a run toward a tournament the franchise hasn’t seen since 1993.
It is interesting to think about what this does to Martin’s NL suitors. The Pirates already acted to acquire insurance in Francisco Cervelli, but Martin seemed like a good bet to land with either the Cubs or the Dodgers. With Chicago, he could’ve represented a substantial improvement; with Los Angeles, he could’ve plugged one of few remaining weaknesses. As such, both those teams will have to consider alternatives like Miguel Montero, and maybe this makes it more likely the Cubs spend big on the starting rotation. But that’s a subject for another day, or for at least another post.
This morning, based on our depth charts and on the Steamer projections, the Blue Jays’ catcher situation was tied for fifth-worst in baseball. Now with Martin, they should be around the fifth-best, and while you know enough about how the error bars work, the Jays move past the Orioles in current projected WAR. They come right in line with the Rays and Red Sox, and while the Red Sox intend to make an impact move or two, the same might not be said of Tampa Bay. Martin greatly solidifies the Jays behind the plate, and he’ll also help to make them look better on the mound.
Based on market rates, for $82 million, the Jays are paying Martin to be worth something on the order of 10 – 11 wins. Historically, for catchers between the ages of 29 – 31, Martin’s been around the 85th percentile. For those catchers over the next five years, through age 36, the 85th percentile has been worth about 10 – 11 wins. It’s simple, but it works. If you prefer something Martin-specific, let’s begin with his 3.8-WAR projection for next season. Dock him six-tenths of a win each year, and in the end he’d have been worth 13 wins. Dock him 0.75 wins each year, and in the end he’d have been worth 11.5 wins. Pitch-framing value isn’t included, here. It appears the Jays have committed to a reasonable contract. No reason to think this is a huge mistake; no reason to think this is a huge awesome deal for the team. It falls within 10% or so of a good idea for both sides, and that’s the most that can be said about that.
What happens now is that the Jays trade or bump Dioner Navarro. They still have Josh Thole also under contract, but nevermind what happens to Navarro now; what matters is the improvement, to Martin. Toronto gave Navarro a small contract and he was fine over the first half of it. But Navarro’s an easy guy to push aside to make room for a star, similar to how the Cubs dumped Rick Renteria as soon as they realized they could get Joe Maddon. Navarro can hit a little, but his overall value is limited, and while he slugged .492 in 2013, that same year 65% of his extra-base hits were homers. His career mark is 34%, and last year he came in at 35%. Navarro isn’t a power hitter, so he’s not going to see another 137 wRC+.
Martin’s unlikely to see another 140 wRC+. Last season was his best season, driven by improvements going up the middle and the other way. Some relevant wRC+ splits:
Pittsburgh kills right-handed hitters who try to hit for pull power, so coincidentally or not, Martin last year did his damage elsewhere. Toronto’s ballpark plays very differently, so maybe Martin will get back to trying to drive the ball to left, but we can keep things simple: over his whole career, Martin’s hit 6% better than average, and Steamer projects him to be 9% better than average next year. He has a good eye, and he has decent power. Martin’s a more reliable hitter than Navarro is.
And as a defender, it’s not even close. Martin’s considerably more athletic than Navarro is — this also shows up on the bases — and that’s among the reasons the Jays think Martin shouldn’t age too terribly. Martin’s shown above-average control of the running game, while for Navarro it’s been neither a strength nor a weakness. Martin’s been an above-average pitch-blocker, while Navarro’s been below-average. And then you’re left with the framing stuff. Martin’s long been recognized as a high-quality receiver. Navarro, less so. Navarro rated as one of the worst framers last season. Martin rated as one of the better ones. With help from Baseball Savant, let’s compare called strike zones:
With Martin, you see more of an attack down in the zone, and a lot more called strikes down in and below the zone. Though they were both catching different pitching staffs, the Jays and Pirates pitchers tied in walk rate, and Jays pitchers had a much higher zone rate, which might imply better command. According to Matthew Carruth’s StatCorner data, and also to the Baseball Prospectus data, the difference between Martin and Navarro in terms of framing is worth tens of runs a year. Last year’s gap was about 30 runs. Over the whole of the PITCHf/x era, the gap looks like about 25 runs over an average season.
So the thing we know for sure: the framing metrics love Martin a lot more than they love Navarro. Could be you’re looking at more than a two-win difference. Perhaps more reasonably, it’s a one-win difference or so, between the two backstops. Whatever the case, it’s a difference that isn’t captured by the individual WAR figures available on the player pages, so while Navarro’s functional as a third-tier semi-regular, Martin’s a true difference-maker today, and his receiving shouldn’t age quite like the rest of his skills. Framing seems to not really deteriorate.
At the catcher position, the Jays just upgraded their durability, discipline, power, running, blocking, throwing, and receiving. Though we don’t have numbers for it, the Jays also seem to have upgraded their leadership, and in the overall picture, the Jays significantly upgraded their team and therefore their 2015 playoff prospects. Like most free-agent contracts, this one’ll look worse a few years down the road, but Martin ought to age somewhat gracefully, as he’ll be declining from a hell of a peak.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.