A catcher debate: Russell Martin vs. Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Give the man what he wants
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Those of us in Connecticut know all to well about the “great divide.” That is to say, half our state (the foolish half) is comprised of ravenous Red Sox fans. The other half of the population is comprised of the Yankee faithful (well, technically we have small portion of Mets fans too, but they don’t really count, right?). We get bombarded day in and day out with Yanks/Sox themed bar nights, rivalry lottery ticket contests, and just about everything else in between – which is honestly to be expected as we are literally in-between the two cities.

Mostly, what I find myself getting though is debatable points sent my direction. For example, just the other day, my friend Gregg, argued that Jarrod Saltalamacchia is having a better season than Russell Martin.  My initial reaction was one of defiance as I instinctively rebuked the thought.  The more I contemplated it however, the less outrageous the assertion seemed.  So in the spirit of adding fuel to the fire, I decided to take a deeper look to see if the claim had any merit.

In terms of offense, I think both guys have their strengths. Both players have hit a respectable number of long balls – which is great considering their position. As to be expected, both have solid ISO marks (especially Salty, flashing some serious power at .224). Both have comparable batting averages, and wRC+ (runs per plate appearance — scaled where 100 is average, league/park adjusted and based off wOBA). And, of course, both have similar wOBAs. In terms of conventional stats, Jarrod has a significant advantage in slugging while Martin is about 20 points higher in on base percentage. One point that does work in Saltalamacchia’s favor though (at least for certain stats), is that he’s had almost 100 fewer plate appearances to work with.

What I found rather curious though was each player’s BABIP. Jarrod is sitting at a comfortable .315 on the season which is fairly close to his career norm of .326. Martin on the other hand is at .255 which is well below his career average of .296. This isn’t to say that Martin’s been victimized by astronomically poor lucky necessarily, but it does show that his batting average has taken a bit of a dive for reasons that may have been somewhat out of his control. I suspect some of those weakly hit infield shots could have been resultant of some of the nagging injuries Martin experienced earlier on in the season.

For what it’s worth, I think one could certainly make a case, though, that Martin’s been a substantially more disciplined batter. His walk rate is a good deal higher and K/9% is also substantially less. Moreover, when considering O-Swing% (the percentage of pitches swung at that are outside the strike zone), Jarrod has a 35.4% compared to Martin’s 23.8%. While perhaps neither guy qualifies as an offensively “elite” catcher (I mean honestly, it’s not like they’re a dime a dozen to begin with), both clearly have some pop and are capable with the bat. Neither is likely to bat fourth in the lineup, but neither is the black hole that is typically associated with the position by any means either.

"Don't test me foo!" (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)

In terms of base running, I initially thought the hands down favorite was Martin. In terms of stolen bases, Martin has eight to Jarrod’s one. Martin has also had seasons in the past where he’s accumulated double digit steals (he actually had 21 in 2007 and 18 in 2008). As we all know though, stealing bases is only one part of dominating the base paths. Baseball Prospectus’ EqBRR stat tries to account for this (it includes stolen bases, advancement from various types of hits, along with wild pitches) shows that once again, the catchers have a lot in common. Martin’s scores a -1.0 (for a point of reference, Jorge’s earned a -4.4 this year) while Salty’s rates as -1.1. Neither is Juan Pierre on the base baths (11.6) by any stretch of the imagination, but as far as catchers go, neither is terrible.

Defense always makes for a tricky conversation, and doubly so when it comes to catchers in my opinion. Territory behind the plate can vary greatly which makes gauging a catcher’s range more challenging. Particular pitchers (i.e. A.J. Burnett) can be harder to handle which makes things like passed balls and wild pitches harder to decipher. The catcher’s ability to inspire confidence within the pitcher from smart pitch selections is inherently difficult to quantify. Moreover, if a particular guy has a reputation for being especially capable of throwing out a base stealer, runners in general may not be as aggressive against him in terms of overall quantity of attempts. Those who do attempt to steal though may be premiere base stealers, which could then consequently skew the caught stealing percentage. And…end rant.

Anecdotally speaking, people often criticize Salty for not having the most accurate arm in the world — just think back his time with Texas when the pitcher’s mound was evidently floating all over the infield — while Martin is generally viewed as a defensively savvy backstop. At 3.0, Salty’s UZR score is noticeable “better” than Martin’s 0.5. Of course, by design, this stat loses much of it’s credibility in one year samplings as you all know. On the other hand, FRAA (Baseball Prospectus’ defensive metric measuring fielded runs above average) scores Martin a -0.4 while Salty garners a -2.4.  For what it’s worth, Hardball Times also made a fairly compelling case that Martin was one of the best catchers in terms of framing pitches while Saltalamacchia wasn’t really even in the discussion. Long story short, when it comes to defense in terms of this particular comparison, I guess it really depends on who you ask and whether or not you trust what your eyes tell you.

When we turn to our trusted pal, fWAR, Martin has the slight edge (although part of that score was certainly inflated by Martin’s super hot start along with more opportunities thus far in general). I think it’s fair to say that given the fact that both catchers were somewhat risky investments at season’s start, the return surely has been a rather pleasant surprise for both teams. Overall, I still prefer Martin personally, but I am willing to admit that there is less separating these two players (at least this season) than I initially expected.  Much to my chagrin, this also means that my friend, Gregg, may not be entirely crazy all of the time.

Give the man what he wants
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  • NHYankeesFan

    going by the “eye” test, Martin looks like a great defender. I also noticed how great he was at framing pitches. I havent seen Saltalamacchia all that much, so I cant really compare them but I do think that Martin’s been well above average defensively

  • bonestock94

    Wasn’t there a study where Martin had the most runs prevented ever by a catcher in some recent season?

  • Ron Jeremy

    Ah yeah, but Varitek is better thatn both of them.

    • http://www.retire21.org first name only male (formerly Mike R. – Retire 21)

      Exactly! You don’t see Salty or Martin catching no hittahs!

  • matt

    where I live in Connecticut (Fairfield County) there are WAYYY more Mets fans than Red Sox fans. We dont live in Boston after all, lol. We’re Suburban NY.

    • http://riveraveblues.com Matt Warden

      Ahh yes, you’re a bit further south than I am. I reside in central CT (just south of Hartford) and it’s pretty 50/50 here.

    • Jesus Freak

      How can anyone be a Mets fan when they’re such perennial losers, as captured in these brilliant gags on “The Family Guy”?



      • JAG

        My clearest recollection of Fairfield County fans was in 2003/2004 when all the Mets fans became fair-weather Red Sox fans when it was clear the Mets weren’t doing much and the Sox were going to the postseason. So apparently, that’s how you become a Mets fan: you cheer for the Mets, and then when they start losing, you cheer for the Red Sox (or the Rays in recent years I guess. Whoever’s up against the Yankees).

  • Anton

    I think something that disqualifies Salty is he takes adderall and it definitely impacts his all in game.

    • Owen Two

      You’re not serious, right?

      • Jesus Freak

        Adderall is a performance enhancing drug.

  • Rainbow Connection

    Were the Yanks offered a trade for Saltalamacchia?

  • JobaWockeeZ

    Good piece.

  • Bronx Byte

    It’s a non question. Russell Martin means far more to the Yankees than Saltalamaccia will ever mean to the Boston Socks.
    The numbers tell the story as well as the ones that don’t show up.

    • Brian S.

      Gotta love the irrational love Russ gets around here.

  • Brian S.

    Despite being a bigot Saltalammachia is a better player than Russ.

    • http://johnsterling.blogspot.com/ Xstar7

      Disagree. They’ve been about even.

    • Guns of the Navarone

      I disagree as well. In fact, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that a player with a 30% K rate and a 35 % o-Swing can’t continue to have such a high BABIP.

  • Monteroisdinero

    Salty’s too big to be a good catcher at 6’4″

    Jesus Montero 6’3″

  • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

    Salty is a racist so I’ll go with Martin.

  • Rey22

    Jesus Montero will destroy them both next year.

  • JAG

    It seems that they’re close enough and there are enough unquantifiable intangibles that it’s absolutely defensible to just say your favorite guy is the better player this year. I remember being pretty high on Salty’s potential a few years ago (especially when his name was much, much too long to put on a random player in MLB 2K) but nowadays I definitely like Martin much better. The little I’ve seen of Saltalamacchia doesn’t impress me much.

  • Tom

    How does the Salty having 100 fewer plate appearances “work in his favor” when looking at mostly RATE stats? Other than HR total what # that you had in the post would be impacted by PA’s… I know you said certain stats.. but it seems like ONE stat

    If anything, I’d argue the exact opposite – catchers get dinged up and play with nagging injuries a lot of the time.. Marin putting up the same rate stats over more AB’s is more impressive to me.

    Also the fWAR for catchers needs to be completely ignored… even the writers over at fangraphs will tell you their catcher defense stats leaves a lot to be desired (I think it is pretty much just equivalent runs based on SB and errors). Using a SB run equivalentcy is a bit silly as that is fairly pitcher dependent (and a case where more innings actually works against a catcher if he is on a staff that is bad holding runners like the Yankees)

    Just one stat but interesting…. Martin 4 passball, Salty 19 (in fewer innings).. that is the equivalent of an extra 15 stolen bases (more if you normalize it to innings)

    • http://riveraveblues.com Matt Warden

      Good points, Tom. I was basically just referring to the HR.

      As far as WAR having some major limitations regarding catchers, I completely agree.

      • Guns of the Navarone

        You also mention WAR’s limitations for catchers in the post. Not sure why it needs to be brought up again.

    • Magg G

      Salty’s 19 passed balls are a bit misleading. About 15 or 16 of them happened while catching Wakefield.

    • PortlandYankee

      Part of the difference in playing time can be accounted for by Salty’s brutal platoon split:

      Martin vs. L/R (WRC+): 89/109
      Salty vs. L/R: 72/125

      In other words, any additional playing time for Salty would probably come against LHP, which would then decrease his offensive contribution.

  • http://twitter.com/urbainshockcor Urban

    Saltalamacchia is not a good defensive catcher. Never has been. As has been noted, UZR for catchers may be the most useless defensive metric around, even worse than for first base.

    So, yes, your friend Greg is still crazy because he suggested Saltalamacchia was better. He’s not. At best he should be arguing they’re having similar seasons. You at least wrote a reasoned article on why Saltalamacchia might be as good, but once true defense is entered into the discussion, it’s all Martin.