Russell Martin Paying Dividends For Pirates

Entering play yesterday, there were four catchers among the top 30 position players in WAR. Three of them should come as no surprise: Buster Posey, Joe Mauer and Yadier Molina. The fourth might be a bit of a surprise, though. Well, at least it might be if you hadn’t read the title of this article. Which, I’m guessing you did. That’s right, it’s Russell Martin.

As Dave Cameron noted yesterday, the Pirates are legit legit, and Martin has been a big reason why. Acquiring him was a bit of a redux of the previous offseason. Following 2011, the Yankees didn’t want A.J. Burnett and decided to essentially give him to Pittsburgh in trade. This past offseason, the Yankees for some reason had decided that they had seen enough of Martin, and let him slide to Little Hollywood for nothing. Pirates 2, Yankees 0.

While the Yankees started the week 20th in catcher WAR and 22nd in wRC+, the Pirates began it in seventh and eighth, respectively. And that actually understates Martin’s effect, since Michael McKenry has been woeful. In fact, he’s essentially been the worst catcher in baseball. This has left Martin carrying the water for both backstops.

Looking back to 2012, you can sort of see the case for the Yankees wanting to get rid of Martin. He set a career worst for strikeouts, both in terms of raw totals and percentage-wise, at 19.6%. His .211 batting average was also a career-worst, and his .316 wOBA was close to the worst. His defense was also uncharacteristically poor, as he finished 88th in Matt Klaassen’s catcher defense ratings. He did set a career-best for homers — and he was better in the second half than the first — but it was merely a solid showing. Compared to his 2011 season, it was a letdown. And even though the Yankees didn’t have a great in-house option, they let him walk.

Whether Martin is taking the slight personally or not, he is certainly making the Yankees regret letting him go. A good catcher is hard to find, particularly one who is good on both sides of the plate. Of the 14 qualified catchers this season, Martin is one of four to have both a 100+ wRC+ and a positive defensive rating. In fact, the latest update from Zizzy’s No. 1 fan has Martin swinging with the big boys at fifth place. That’s quite the turnaround from last season, though it is in line with both his statistical and anecdotal resume. Martin has always been hailed as a good defender, and his DRS and FSR marks support that, as does his dWAR at Baseball-Reference. Last season was his lowest dWAR mark, but he has sprung back to form this season. It was also just the second time in seven seasons that he threw out a below-average number of baserunners. Again, he has rebounded this year: His  46% caught stealing rate so far would easily be the best mark of his career.

Martin’s offense has rebounded, as well. He has always had a solid foundation in that he doesn’t chase a lot of pitches. In fact, since the start of 2012, only five players have swung at fewer pitches out of the strike zone. This year Martin has not only remained selective, but he is also swinging and missing less frequently, which has obviously returned his strikeout rate to something more in line with his career average. He’s also hitting far more ground balls than usual, which may be influencing the uptick in his batting average on balls in play. It also could  be helping that Martin exited the American League East, where the Rays, Orioles and Blue Jays may just be the infield shift kings.

Another interesting thing about Martin is his Clutch score. Since his debut in 2006, only three players in baseball have a higher Clutch total than Martin’s 5.08. Now, considering that one of those players is Willie Bloomquist, and that Martin’s overall postseason line is .200/.319/.304 (135 plate appearances), you can take that with a big ole’ shaker of salt. Still though, it’s interesting to note, especially on the heels of him coming off the bench cold in the 14th inning Sunday and delivering a walk-off single.

It’s been a long time since Martin has been this good. His current 2.5 WAR tops three of his past four seasons, and should he continue to be as productive, he will be on the road to approaching his 2007-2008 peak. Certainly he is within hailing distance of his first 10-10 season since ’08. Pittsburgh has seen Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, Jordy Mercer and Jason Grilli emerge this season — and new acquisitions like Francisco Liriano and Mark Melancon have been instrumental to the team’s success. Martin though, has been just as influential. He’s already become the team’s best catcher since 2008, and the season is only half over. The differences between this season and previous seasons may be incremental and/or minor, but they have added up to Martin being a major difference maker for the Bucs.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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9 years ago

First you have to catch the ball

“Pirates 2, Yankees 0” Hey, wasn’t that a World Series score?