A catcher debate: Russell Martin vs. Jarrod SaltalamacchiaBy
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.
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.