The Pirates’ Unlimited Supply of Russell Martins

From 1990 to 1992, the Pittsburgh Pirates averaged just over 96 wins per season. They were led by Jim Leyland and what we thought at the time were the peak seasons of Barry Bonds. The early ’90s Pirates were great, but they lost in the NLCS three times and then became the Pirates. From 1993 to 2012, their best finish was 79-83 and there were a lot of finishes worse than that.

So when the Pirates became good in 2013 and continued it into 2014, people began piecing together the puzzle that was the Steel City Renaissance. Maybe you’ve even read Travis Sawchik’s Big Data Baseball. The book is very much a spiritual successor to Moneyball in that it tells the story of a smaller market team trying to find ways to succeed in an environment in which they can’t spend on par with their rivals. In the modern game, data is everywhere. The story of the Pirates’ success was their ability to interpret the data and to get the field staff and players to believe in it.

One of the focuses of the book was the Pirates’ acquisition of Russell Martin. As a FanGraphs reader, you’re likely familiar with Martin’s excellent framing and defensive numbers. A league-average-hitting catcher with elite defensive ability is an extremely valuable piece, and the Pirates were the team that had the vision to sign him. The BABIP Gods rewarded them in spades in 2014 when he posted a BABIP roughly 50 points above his career average and produced a 141 wRC+. Martin was a valuable asset and wound up having an incredible offensive season in his walk year with the Pirates. His success proved the Pirates right, but it also put Martin out of their price range for 2015. He signed a five year, $82 million deal with the Blue Jays this offseason.

The Pirates were left in need of a starting catcher and they responded using their patented “who is a catcher on the Yankees?” methodology. Enter Francisco Cervelli. Instead of paying Martin $82 million, the Pirates received two years of Cervelli for four years of Justin Wilson, who is having a good 2015 in New York. Even if you’re fond of Wilson as a reliever, you can certainly appreciate the fact that the Pirates paid far less for Cervelli than Martin. And that definitely makes sense given that Martin had 29.4 WAR without framing in his career entering 2015 and Cervelli had 3.8. Martin’s track record was much longer, but a funny thing has happened so far this year:

2015 Season
Francisco Cervelli 386 8.0 % 17.9 % 0.116 0.367 125 6.0 3.0
Russell Martin 416 10.1 % 19.5 % 0.188 0.267 109 9.7 2.7

Cervelli gets more value from his higher BABIP and Martin’s is from his power, but they’re essentially equally valuable players in 2015. If you want to add framing into the equation, Baseball Prospectus puts them both around +8 runs above average for the year. Sawchik should start writing the Cervelli chapter of the sequel right now.

Of course you’re going to point out that we haven’t seen as much from Cervelli as we have from Martin, so our confidence in his offensive success should probably be dampened. The interesting thing about that is that our ZiPS/Steamer blend thinks they’re both 107 wRC+ hitters going forward. Martin gets some added value from his glove, too, but catcher defense projections are to be taken with a grain of salt.

Martin is one of the best defensive catchers in baseball; Cervelli, probably average or a little worse beyond his excellent framing. This isn’t necessarily an argument for Cervelli over Martin, but rather an acknowledgement that the gap is close enough for us to wonder if the Pirates can see something in catchers that other teams can’t.

We understand the framing component of this. Certain clubs value the ability to work the zone more than others and the Pirates are definitely one of them. It makes sense that the Pirates would target a good framer who wasn’t getting a shot to play every day, but they also wound up getting, to this point, a significantly above-average hitter. Let’s take a look at his offense, split into three different periods of time.

Francisco Cervelli
2008-2013 623 8.5% 15.1% .096 0.312 0.271 0.343 0.367 94
2014 162 6.8% 25.3% .130 0.408 0.301 0.370 0.432 129
2015 388 8.0% 17.8% .121 0.368 0.306 0.378 0.428 127

If you’re following along at home, Cervelli has reverted back to his pre-2014 plate discipline, kept his 2014 ISO, and has landed in between on BABIP. If prior to this season I had showed you his 2008-2013, his 2014, and asked you to guess his 2015 line, it seems very unlikely that you’d have predicted that the 2014 results were more likely. Our Fan Projections pegged him for a 109 wRC+ compared to a 92 wRC+ ZiPS/Steamer blend, but the Fans are bullish on average, so the true projection is somewhere a little above 2008-2013 and nowhere near 2014. Yet here we are.

It’s easy to brush this performance aside as an example of a player who happened to hit the high end of his projection. It’s not crazy to see a player perform better than his projection even if the projection is a perfect estimate of his true ability. It’s only 400 PA after all.

But in light of the Pirates’ success with Martin and guys like Jung-ho Kang, you do wonder a little if the Pirates saw something we didn’t. If you like our quality-of-contact stats, consider: his Hard% increased from 27% to 35% from the 2008-2013 period to 2014, but it’s back down to 28% this year.

One thing did catch my attention, however: he swung less and made less contact, which isn’t unusual considering what we saw in his walk, strikeout, and extra-base-hit rate. What is telling, perhaps, is the percentage of pitches he saw in the strike zone.

Francisco Cervelli
Year Swing% Contact% Zone%
2008-2013 43.0% 84.7% 54.6%
2014 40.8% 75.6% 48.8%
2015 43.0% 82.6% 50.2%

It probably isn’t significant, but the fact that pitchers threw him far fewer pitches in the zone when he was swinging less and making less contact is interesting. If you assume the swing rate and contact rate are somewhat obvious and meaningful signs, you would have expected pitchers to throw more strikes than they had previously. Could the pitchers see something we couldn’t? The sample sizes are somewhat small, but according to Bill Petti’s Heart/Edge% numbers, pitchers threw around 25% of their pitches in the heart of the zone to Cervelli before 2014 and only around 20% in the heart of the zone in 2014.

From the outside, we can’t know if the Pirates saw this coming or if they lucked into it. Cervelli had a very limited track record prior to 2015 and all of the standard signs of performance pointed to a lesser hitter than he’s been this year. Perhaps we can say that pitchers noticed some type of coming breakout last year, but we don’t have exceptionally convincing evidence.

It’s probably safe to say he’s at least a little better than we gave him credit for, but it’s too soon to say he’s one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball. Two winters ago, Dave wrote about catcher aging and the most relevant takeaway for us here is that we shouldn’t generally expect a catcher to improve offensively this late in his career. It’s not out of the question, but it does buck the trend.

Either on purpose or by accident, the Pirates found themselves a terrific catcher last offseason. Cervelli probably isn’t objectively as good as Russell Martin, but he’s played as well as Martin has since the start of the season. No one in our neck of the woods was surprised to see the Pirates target a catcher with framing bona fides, but his success with the bat makes you wonder if the Pirates are ahead of the curve somewhere else as well. There is a ton of randomness in baseball outcomes, but that doesn’t mean the unexpected outcomes are always the product of luck.

There isn’t an obvious explanation for why Cervelli has been a great hitter this year when his track record suggested he was much closer to average. In all likelihood, the Pirates liked his glove and thought he’d be 50% of Martin for 6% of the cost. That’s the way savvy, small market teams usually work. But after watching nearly 400 PA from Cervelli in Pittsburgh, it’s worth wondering if they saw something in the bat that we didn’t. If so, they’re going to want to enjoy him this year and next, because the last catcher they picked up and showcased is now making $17 million a season to play in Toronto.

Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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8 years ago

Oh no! Another article about the Pirates. FanGraphs ought to change its name to Pirates Fanboys.


Harold of the Rocks
8 years ago
Reply to  szielinski

That would be funny if it was true, like it is of other teams.