Russell Martin And Big Contracts To Older Catchers

Just like winter, hot stove season appears to be arriving early this year. Somewhat lost in all of the hubbub regarding Giancarlo Stanton‘s record-breaking deal is Russell Martin‘s five-year, $82 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. Though it is heavily backloaded, this still ranks as the third-largest catching contract currently on any club’s books — behind Buster Posey‘s nine-year, $164 million, and Brian McCann’s five-year, $85 million deals, which both run through the respective players’ age-34 seasons. Martin’s runs through his age-36 season. So how do the next five years look for Martin, and for the Blue Jays?

On one hand, it’s refreshing to see a player get paid for oft-overlooked skills such as catcher defense, ability to handle a pitching staff and pitch-framing expertise. I don’t dispute that Martin has an abundance of ability in these areas — and Jose Molina is a telling example of how such skills age particularly well. Martin is going to be paid $20 million per season in the final three years of his deal, however, and that shapes up as a very steep price for his contributions on the defensive side. Martin is a solid offensive player as we stand here in November 2014, but let’s primarily focus on how his offense might project over the life of his contract.

First, let’s look at workload. You’d figure a player receiving such a healthy salary guarantee would project as a relative workhorse at his position. The playing time standards of the catching position are understandably set at a lower level than infield and outfield spots. Only nine catchers accumulated the 502 plate appearances necessary to qualify for a batting title in either league in 2014. Martin was not one of them. This wasn’t a single-season aberration, either: Martin has exceeded 502 PAs in exactly one season since 2009, and he barely reached that threshold in 2013.

Still, he generally doesn’t miss that mark by much, and he has been a regular catcher in each of his nine seasons in the majors, at the age of 31. In the game’s history, exactly six catchers have accumulated exactly nine seasons as a regular through their age-31 season: Mike Scioscia, Yogi Berra, Frank Snyder, Jim Sundberg, Steve O’Neill and Thurman Munson. Berra and Munson were superior offensive performers, compared to Martin, and relative to their respective leagues, and Snyder was clearly inferior. The other three, however, offer an interesting basis for comparison:

R.Martin 3.89 -4.60 103 ? ?
Scioscia 3.65 -6.17 99 88 33
Sundberg 1.29 -6.38 90 77 35
O’Neill 0.81 -4.61 88 73 32

The first two columns compare each players’ cumulative number of standard deviations above league average in OBP and SLG through their age-31 season. Obviously, summing standard deviations is not a statistically pure operation. Still, it does offer an opportunity to identify truly similar offensive players, not just in overall value relative to the league but stylistically as well, with relatively closely matching OBP and SLG offensive components. These four catchers are all defense-first types who had above average on-base skills but below MLB-average power.

The third column lists each player’s career OPS. Obviously, Martin’s career is unfinished. Of the other three, Scioscia was the best offensive player through age 31. The fourth column lists each player’s OPS+, in their remaining seasons as a regular only, after age 31. The last column is self explanatory, listing each player’s age during their last season as a regular.

Martin’s three comps combined for seven seasons as a regular after their age-31 seasons. Two of them — Scioscia’s age 32 and Sundberg’s age-33 seasons — featured OPS+ figures above 100. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, all but one of the other five featured OPS+ figures of 73 or below, including Sundberg’s 48 in his age-32 season, right before his above average year. Like these three, Martin’s seasonal production has been all over the board in recent seasons. It’s par for the course for the catching position. When a player at a different position has aches and pains, they’re more prone to take time off than the catcher, whose aches and pains are the daily norm. They remain in the lineup, and their offensive production bears the brunt.

These three comparable catchers’ average OPS+ was an average of 13 points lower after age 31 in comparison to their respective career averages. If this comes to pass with Martin, not only will his career OPS+ be dropped into the mid-90s or so by the effects of his decline phase, but his post-31 OPS+ would be 13 points lower than that, somewhere in the low-80s. At that point, it would be difficult to see this contract turning out well. It’s unlikely that he’ll be playing enough to accumulate 502 PAs, based on his recent usage, so he had better be contributing huge sums of value via his defense and pitch-framing to even come close to being worth his deal.

That’s a macro, historically based way of looking at Martin’s offensive future. To make a truly meaningful conclusion, though, we must also take a micro-style look that’s more focused on the specifics of Russell Martin, the hitter. Let’s take a look at the building blocks of his offensive game and examine at his 2013-2014 plate-appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data to learn more. First, the frequency information:

FREQ – 2013
Martin % REL PCT
K 21.3% 107 72
BB 11.5% 145 88
POP 8.7% 108 60
FLY 24.5% 87 21
LD 17.0% 80 3
GB 49.8% 117 86
FREQ – 2014
Martin % REL PCT
K 17.0% 83 40
BB 12.8% 168 92
POP 7.3% 95 44
FLY 25.2% 90 27
LD 21.9% 105 60
GB 45.5% 105 72

It’s a mistake to evaluate Martin’s offense solely on the basis of his stellar 2014 campaign. It’s also dubious to write it off as a fluke because he had a sub-100 OPS+ in the five previous seasons, never posting a batting average above .250. The nuts and bolts behind the numbers in the historical record will tell us more about where he is, and where he’s likely going.

There’s a significant difference between Martin’s K rate in 2013 (21.3%, 72 percentile rank) and 2014 (17.0%, 40). This improvement is even more impressive when considering he nearly completely reversed a steady five-year upward trend from a K rate percentile rank of 30 in 2009, in a single season. As we shall see later, it’s no accident. It was done in accordance with some other noticeable changes in his batted-ball portfolio.

Martin’s high BB rate (12.8%, 92 percentile rank in 2014) has always been the centerpiece of his offensive game. His low-water mark over the past seven seasons was a strong 78 percentile rank in 2011. A high walk rate does not an offensive game make, but it’s a heckuva start.

Martin also cut his popup rate noticeably in 2014, to a percentile rank of 44, after posting above MLB average marks in the last two, and four of the past six seasons. His line-drive rate spiked from a percentile rank of 3 in 2013 to 60 in 2014. Such rates notoriously fluctuate from year to year, so while this is clearly a primary driver of his improved overall 2014 performance that can’t be relied upon going forward, Martin now has been able to post above MLB average liner rates in four of the last six seasons.

He has always been a fairly extreme ground ball hitter, but his 2014 grounder percentile rank of 72 is one of the lowest of his career; it was 78 or higher in five of the previous six seasons. Martin’s career-high fly ball percentile rank is a modest 35.

All in all, moderation is the key word to apply to Martin’s 2014 frequency profile. Modest movements toward the MLB norm in strikeouts, popups and grounders, and a big jump in liners, along with his perennially high walk rate, all served to give himself a much more solid foundation upon which to build his offensive game. How high it could be built is dependent upon batted-ball authority. To get a better feel for where Martin stands in that regard, let’s examine his 2013-2014 production by BIP type profile:

PROD – 2013
FLY 0.418 1.089 216 196
LD 0.564 0.800 79 124
GB 0.205 0.205 70 97
ALL BIP 0.293 0.492 88 108
ALL PA 0.221 0.312 0.371 93 108
PROD – 2014
FLY 0.355 0.895 164 167
LD 0.682 0.848 101 102
GB 0.255 0.263 104 123
ALL BIP 0.353 0.526 116 124
ALL PA 0.281 0.377 0.419 133 140

Martin’s actual production on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and it’s converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure then is adjusted for context, such as home park, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP — of which Martin has a ton — are excluded from the OBP calculation.

Hitting the ball hard in the air has not been a problem for Russell Martin. Adjusted for context, he has hit the ball in the air much harder than the MLB average, with ADJ PRD figures of 196 and 167 in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Yes, his fly ball ADJ PRD was higher in 2013, a much poorer offensive season overall. His numbers were held down a bit in 2013 by relatively bad luck on line drives — he batted just .564 AVG-.800 SLG on them for REL PRD of 79, adjusted upward to 124 for context. In both seasons, his actual performance on grounders (as indicated by his REL PRD) was less than his ADJ PRD. Alas, he is a catcher, and he should be expected to underperform on them.

Overall, Martin’s ADJ PRD — which adjusts for the relatively pitcher-friendly status of PNC Park, among other factors — on all BIP was well above MLB average in both 2013 and 2014, at 108 and 124, respectively. Add back the Ks and BBs, and his 2013 ADJ PRD holds steady, while his 2014 mark surges to 140, thanks to the cut in his K rate.

There are other factors at play in his 2014 offensive resurgence. Martin was much more of a pull-oriented hitter in 2013. During that season, he had a line drive pull factor (liners to (LF + LCF))/liners to (RCF + RF) of 6. This is off-the-charts high. This was cut way down to 1.21 in 2014. His grounder pull ratio — a solid litmus test as to whether an overshift might be employed — also declined by a much lesser amount, from 5.81 to 4.50. He was a borderline overshift consideration in 2013, but had to be played straight up in 2014. This is a huge batting average enhancer, nearly as much a factor as his higher liner rate.

So the word moderation comes into play again. Martin has made some very difficult late-career adjustments at the plate. Cutting a K rate, a popup rate and substantially reducing pull tendencies are very hard things to do individually. Accomplishing all of them simultaneously is quite a feat. Will they all stick? Pretty unlikely, though I would conclude that his actions of the past year have turned his aging clock back a bit.

As our first, macro-style analysis showed, turning back the clock was something he needed to do. Turn the clock forward, to the end of his new contract. He’ll be 36 years old, and the Jays hope he’ll be completing his 14th year as a regular catcher. There are only eight catchers in the history of the game who completed at least that many full-time seasons at that position: Benito Santiago, Bob Boone, Carlton Fisk, Gabby Hartnett, Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Kendall, Lance Parrish and Rick Ferrell. Of that group, only three notched their 14th season as a regular by age 36: Pudge, Parrish and Kendall.

Of that group, Kendall is by far the closest comp. He finished with a career OPS+ of 95, and lasted five seasons as a regular after age 31, his offensive game imploding to the tune of a 74 OPS+. The wear-and-tear of this position historically has had a dramatically negative effect upon offense at the career stage covered by Martin’s new deal. Based on the modifications Martin has made recently — as well as his move to a much more hitter-friendly home park — I’d expect him to fare somewhat better than his closest career comps, giving the Blue Jays a chance of salvaging an acceptable return on their investment.

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9 years ago

Modern fitness and nutrition has got to help these guys stay back there a bit longer, right?

9 years ago
Reply to  Alex

Roids and other banned substances / PEDs were far better for preserving aging players’ value than modern legal fitness and nutrition regiments are. The numbers are trending the other way.