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November 30, 2012

Transaction Analysis

Dollar Sign on the Russell

by Sam Miller

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed C-R Russell Martin to a two-year, $17 million contract. [11/28]

I’m might be missing somebody, but so far as I can tell by going through the past 20 years of rosters and transactions, these are the biggest per-season contracts ever given out by the Pirates to entice a free agent:

  1. Clint Barmes: 2 years, $10.5 million
  2. Derek Bell: 2 years, $9.75 million
  3. Kevin Correia: 2 years, $8 million
  4. Jeromy Burnitz: 1 year, $6 million
  5. Lyle Overbay: 1 year, $5 million

I know, right? It’s not just that they haven’t given out a lot of money or been able to entice big free agents. It’s that Jeromy Burnitz’ one-year, $6 million deal is the fourth-biggest ever given out to a free agent import. This is Pittsburgh.

So Russell Martin is (unless I’m missing somebody) now the Pirates’ biggest ever free agent import, having reportedly signed for two years and $17 million to catch A.J. Burnett and the rest of the Pirates’ almost-competitive staff. He’ll also hit. Here’s how he does at each of those things:

Defense
Measuring the basics of catcher defense, Martin doesn’t stand out: he’s not a great pitch-blocker, he threw out a career-low percentage of baserunners in 2012, and by FRAA he has been below average (slightly) in each of the past five seasons. But when Max Marchi looked at catcher defense three months into the season, he had Martin third best with the glove. That’s because Martin is a pitch-framer.

"Another thing that goes into catching ERA is your ability to receive -- getting a called strike here and there -- making a pitch look good that maybe was not necessarily a strike," Martin says. "For me, the true part of catching is being able to do that. I take a lot of pride in it."

In the final tally, he was at about 20 runs better than average with the frame in 2012 and now ranks third in baseball over the past five years. Those aren’t runs that show up in WARP yet, or any other Win Above Replacement model, but unless you have a reason to think those runs aren’t real, keep them in mind.

Offense
Like Rod Barajas, the man he replaces behind the plate in Pittsburgh, Martin was the victim of a BABIP in the .220s in 2012. At .222, Martin’s was the lowest in baseball (minimum 400 plate appearances) in 2012 and the fifth-lowest in a season since 2000. Martin has never been a notably low-BABIP guy, with a .295 success rate entering the season. (It’s now .286.) Batters aren’t completely absolved by a bad BABIP, but Martin’s batted balls followed their traditional patterns, both in elevation and direction. If Martin is hitting the ball more weakly, it doesn’t show up in his HR/FB rate, which was a career high. If he’s slower, it—well, he probably is slower, but he still stole a half-dozen bags, kept his double-play rate under control, and legged out the second-best infield-hit rate of his career. All that is to say, Martin’s season was one of those BABIP seasons.

Unlike Barajas, Martin has secondary offensive skills. Among all of baseball’s catchers over the past two years, he has the seventh-most home runs and the eighth-most walks. His True Average is merely 18th, so he will need that BABIP get well soon.

At 1.5 WARP per year—his average over the past three—he’s maybe just on the upper end of the current market, in which a win goes for $5 million to $6 million. Credit him with those framed runs saved and he becomes a bargain, particularly compared to Rod Barajas, a below-average framer. Credit him with those framed runs and the Pirates just upgraded their catcher by four wins. Playoff-bound? Not likely, but four more wins would have made for a winning record and a more exciting September this year.

Somewhere we should note, and so thus the noting has begun, that the Pirates signed Russell Martin away from the New York Yankees. The Pirates and the Yankees don’t generally pursue the same players; the Pirates’ set a franchise record for payroll in 2012 and were still outcompensated by the Yankees infield by $20 million. On the surface, this is Screech beating Slater in the Miss Bayside contest. Two days ago, Ken Rosenthal wrote that “the New York Yankees remain the favorites to sign Russell Martin,”  but

The Yankees say they’re committed to getting under the $189 million luxury tax threshold by 2014, and if you doubt their resolve, here’s some pretty strong evidence. According to Jon Heyman, the Yankees saw Martin as worth $6 million per year, “maybe a tick more.” Considering the uncertainty around catcher defense metrics, and the Yankees' information advantage regarding Martin’s work with pitchers, that might be justifiable. It’s just a whole new league when the Yankees let $2 million get between them and their best option. And when it’s the Pirates waiting with pen in hand. 

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Pittsburgh Pirates,  Russell Martin

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