What Went Right: Russell Martin

What Went Right: Ivan Nova
Report: Boras looking to rework Cano's contract
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

For a short time last winter it appeared that Jesus Montero would start the season behind the plate for the Yankees. Brian Cashman had announced the end of Jorge Posada‘s days behind the plate, and the only catcher who appeared ready was Montero. But it didn’t take long for the Yankees to get involved on a free agent catcher.

A few years ago it appeared that Russell Martin would be the Dodgers’ catcher of the future. After a solid 2006 season he broke out with a .368 wOBA in 2007, and followed that up with a .351 wOBA in 2008. He knew how to take a walk, hit for a solid average, and played excellent defense. But in 2009 things started to fall apart. He lost power and saw his batting average drop significantly. In 2010 things got even worse. Not only did he produce similar numbers, but he suffered a hip injury that limited him to just 476 PA. Rather than give him a raise over his $5.05 million 2010 salary, the Dodgers non-tendered him.

It came as little surprise that the Yankees showed immediate interest in Martin. While Montero generated plenty of buzz, there were still concerns about his ability to handle the catcher position in the big leagues. The safe bet, then, was to pursue a veteran catcher and try to ease Montero into the the role. They did just that in signing Martin. Amid some competition from AL East rivals they came in with the winning bid, a $4 million contract that included plenty of playing time bonuses. He earned every one of those incentives in 2011, bringing his total 2011 salary to $5.375 million.

To be sure, Martin was worth every penny of his incentivized salary. In April it looked as though he’d be an absolute steal, as he hit .293/.376/.587, including six homers. But once the calendar flipped to May his offensive production dropped off considerably. In his 391 post-April PA he hit .225/.313/.368 with 12 home runs. That did amount to 3.6 runs above average, though, which ranked 11th in the majors among catchers with at least 400 PA. That looks even better when considering Martin’s total value, the bulk of which comes from his defense.

Catcher defense has long been an elusive element of analysis. A catcher is responsible for so many aspects of the game, and it’s difficult to quantify many of them. But with so many sharp minds and increasingly accurate data, it was only a matter of time before someone, or someones, figured out a way. At this year’s Pitch f/x Summit Max Marchi presented his findings, in which he stated that catcher framing can mean a swing of 40 runs at the extremes (i.e., the best catcher can add 20 runs while the worst can cost 20 runs). Baseball Prospectus’s Mike Fast put together his own study of catcher framing, while The Hardball Times’s Bojan Koprivica studied catcher blocking. These elements both favor Martin greatly.

According to Fast’s study, Martin has been one of the best framers in the league over the last four years. He ranked second in the majors in total runs saved during that four-year period — to Jose Molina, of all people. Martin is also near the top of the league in runs saved per 120 games caught, but he also has far more playing time than those close to him. In the blocking study Martin came out even. Koprivica did provide us a great service, though, by combining Fast’s study with his own, and further with the FanGraphs data on catcher arms, to create an adjusted WAR leaderboard for 2011. Martin gains a win and a half when considering these factors, and ranks sixth among all catchers in baseball. All for that cool $5.3 million.

While we can’t attribute an improved Yankees pitching staff to Martin solely, he’s tough to ignore in that regard. This year the Yankees staff produced a 3.73 ERA, which ranked 11th in baseball, and a 3.87 FIP, which ranked 13th. Last year they had a 4.06 ERA (15th) and 4.34 FIP (25th). Considering how well Martin graded out in the catcher defense studies, it stands to reason that he played a significant role in that improvement.

There are two things a team can do to win ballgames: score runs and prevent them. Martin didn’t do much in the way of scoring runs, though he did produce above-average numbers, which is no small accomplishment from the catcher position. His greatest contribution, however, came on defense. He’s one of the best in the game, and that benefits the Yankees in many ways. It’s also a joyful sight to see, after watching Jorge Posada, one of the game’s worst defensive catchers, for the past decade-plus. That’s no slight on Jorge, given his offensive contributions. It’s just that Martin was just as valuable, but in a different way.

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What Went Right: Ivan Nova
Report: Boras looking to rework Cano's contract
  • Sayid J.

    Was Montero really expected to handle the bulk of the catch duties at some point last offseason? It was so long ago, I don’t remember.

  • http://fendersonandhampton.com Cuso

    We need Martin back for next season.

    Maybe even for 2013. By 2014, one of the kids will be ready for full-time duty.

  • http://www.simdynasty.com/index.jsp?refer=Jeety Jeety

    Russell was the kind of pickup that GM’s can put on their resume, its easy to pay the guy everyone wants the most money… but its the under the radar guys, that you gamble on and if you are right you look like a genius, otherwise… well, you get the point.

    • JobaWockeeZ

      Yes, while Epler did a good job in scouting, I wouldn’t say it’s udner the radar. As said in the article he drew interest from a couple of AL teams and he wasn’t exactly a scrub in his Dodger years. At worst he was a 2.0 WAR player while banged up and it’s mostly on his defense.

      His upside though is his 4-6 WAR years. He’s not old that those days are so behind him so I wouldn’t classify it as under the radar. Good signing though.

  • http://www.twitter.com/matt__harris Matt :: Sec110

    Love Martin, and I’d love him to be the option behind the dish for the next few years.

    Montero as a OFer?

    • Monteroisdinero

      No. Think of Montero as a catcher, DH, backup 1B. He is similar to a younger/healthy Posada in that way. He simply would not be an adequate right fielder although his arm is at least as good as Swisher’s.

      • nsalem

        The thing with Swisher’s arm is an
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NdBk3cnhtP4

        • Monteroisdinero

          It is a peeve and a fact. Montero could only be considered for RF which is where Swish is/will be for 3 years-maybe no more.

          If Montero were to play rf, he would not be very good athletically but his arm would be fine.

          • nsalem

            As you just said he would probably not be a good right fielder but you decide to drag it into the narrative as a way to can talk about Swisher throwing skills. Swisher’s arm strength is irrelevant to Montero and besides that this post is about Martin. You do this on a regular basis and it is off topic and unfair.

      • UncleArgyle

        I agree. I think Montero should be used similiar to Victor Martinez. A DH who can give a team 40 games at catcher and 40 games at 1B.

        • Cris Pengiucci

          Which is why we need to bring Martin back for at least 2012 and perhaps beyond (to bring this discussion back on topic).

          Martin was a pleasant surprise. You need players to out-perform expectations in some manner to cover for those that don’t quite live up to theirs.

    • http://yankeeanalysts.com Matt Imbrogno

      The knock on Montero behind the plate is lack of athleticism. That would be highlighted/exposed in the OF.

  • Colin

    I’d love to see him bring his OBP back up to the .340-.350 range next season

  • 7commerce

    Cervelli’s WL% & CERA best on club over last two seasons–rarely credited. Terrific hitter w/ RISP. Martin is terribly flawed as he sits AWAY for every pitcher except Mo–Cervelli uses whole plate. Martin shines on balls in dirt, throwing, & pops–good but over-rated.

    • AndrewYF

      CERA is deceptive. Cervelli only really catches Sabathia – who happens to have a really good ERA.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      Wow, if only WL% and CERA meant something.

    • pat

      Martin shines on balls in dirt, throwing, & pops

      So basically all the important stuff.

    • BK2ATL

      Are you seriously trying to compare Cervelli with Martin???

      I thought I’d heard it all.

  • Monteroisdinero

    I like Martin and definitely want him back but that popup with one out and the bases loaded in our last game still stings.

    Sigh.

    • Alibaba

      But, Tex was our pop-up king this year.

  • Rich in NJ

    Martin’s offense will likely be better with less playing time, so Montero/Martin can be a productive tandem.

  • BK2ATL

    Martin was a great signing for Cashman.

    One more year of Russell. If he improves his offense in 2012, he might be in line for the starting gig in 2013, with Romine being dangled in trades. Why mess with a good thing, a true all-around MLB catcher.

    Plus we have young catching options beyond Romine, on the way. Martin could be our bridge to that.

  • LiterallyFigurative

    Another excellent move by Yankee management.

    Martin will be the main C next year, with Jesus backing him up and Cervelli the emergency guy (unless you can trade him for something decent). Romine should start in AAA for seasoning.

    Martin fights nicely into the team, gives them a quiet intensity, athleticism at catcher (something that is lacking on most teams), and will give you ok offensive numbers. I’ll take that from my 8 or 9 hitter.

    • LiterallyFigurative

      fits, not fights….