A catcher debate: Russell Martin vs. Jarrod Saltalamacchia

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

In recent comments which I’ve been unable to locate, CC Sabathia mentioned a desire to win the division, which means home field advantage. Contrasting the 2009 campaign with the 2010 campaign, Sabathia mentioned a certain fondness for starting the postseason at home, noting that he felt more comfortable. There’s been plenty of research done demonstrating that home field advantage doesn’t yield a sizeable benefit for the team. There’s not a whole lot that can be said to dispute these facts, and you’re likely to have the opinion thrown at you in earnest over the coming weeks. It will likely get old.

At Baseball Prospectus recently, R.J. Anderson took a different approach. He noted that winning the Wild Card likely results in more games played at home for the Wild Card team in the League Championship Series and World Series. Anderson’s argument is particularly compelling, in that he doesn’t dispense with the logic of wanting home field advantage, he simply notes that you may have more of it by winning the Wild Card. And yet, there’s still a part of me that would like to set this aside and root for Sabathia to get what he wants.

There has to be something to be gained by listening to players. Sure, a lot of times they get things wrong. You wouldn’t to make personnel moves strictly on the basis of clubhouse opinion. But leaving aside the issue that home field advantage typically yields no sizeable benefit for the team, I wonder if there’s really anything all that bad about rooting for the players to get what they want anyway. If CC Sabathia likes to play with his kids, eat dinner in front of his surely gigantic TV, sleep in his own bed and drive in his own car to the Stadium for Game 1 of the ALDS, then I’d like for him to have that luxury. If he thinks it yields a psychological benefit, I can’t see telling him it doesn’t.

Most people operate under similar rigueurs of habit, even if they don’t admit it. Most people have very circumscribed patterns of behavior, rituals and routines that they hold to tightly every day. If something gets thrown off-kilter, they can get flustered and feel disorganized. My early morning routine and walk to my train is nearly identical every day of the week, and it’s likely that way for most people. It’s why experts recommend you lay out your clothes and have your pencils and water and snack ready the night before a big standardized test: you don’t want any unexpected variable messing with your head. You’ll need all the focus you can get and you don’t want to burn energy, mental or physical, on dumb stuff. Maybe it’s the same for the $161 million dollar ace.

This is dangerous territory, because the argument about home field advantage and hoping the team gets what it wants isn’t really that much different from believing a player who tells you he needs to change his gum every half inning to play better. At the end of the day, this is really about endorsing something that yields at best a psychological benefit to the players. You can even call it an endorsement of superstition. It can’t be quantified.

I’m comfortable with that. As long as it doesn’t come at the expense of known, quantifiable factors like resting key players sufficiently, then I’ll be rooting for the Yankees to get that home field advantage, and for CC to be able to eat Captain Crunch on his couch before Game 1 of the ALDS this year. Come on, you don’t think he really quit the Captain, do you?

Offense still MIA in walk-off loss to Angels

On the bright side, at least they didn’t lose in extra innings this time. To the bullet points…

  • The Yankees have scored exactly one run in their last 16 innings, and that was Jesus Montero‘s solo homer off Jered Weaver in the third, a bomb over both bullpens to left. I honestly can’t remember the last time they had two runners on base at the same time, the whole offense is just stagnant. Perhaps it’s fatigue, given how ridiculous the last few days have been. Better to be slumping now than in three weeks, I guess.
  • Know what the sad part is? Bartolo Colon was pretty damn good.  The only blemish on his line came when he had to get four outs in the fifth inning because Derek Jeter rushed a throw with the slow-footed Jeff Mathis plodding down the line. The error extended the inning and eventually led to the tying run. The defense has been pretty awful over the last few games as well, so is that another fatigue thing? Maybe, maybe not. Anyway, Colon struck out five and walked just one in seven innings, getting five strikeouts and eight grounders.
  • After another dominant eighth inning from David Robertson, Joe Girardi ran up the white flag in the ninth with Aaron Laffey (ground ball single) and Luis Ayala (line drove single, hit batter, walk-off sac fly). The bullpen was short yet again (how can a bullpen be short with 19 pitchers on the active roster?), but you know what? One earned run in nine innings is good enough to win. The blame goes to the offense in this one.
  • The Rays beat the Red Sox, so the lead in the division remains at 2.5 games while the lead in the wildcard shrunk to eight. Gotta hope Tampa sweeps that series, just so they close the gap on Boston and make them sweat a little down the stretch. The magic number to clinch a playoff spot stays stuck on 12. Anyway, here’s the box score, the FanGraphs stuff, and the standings.

Girardi said after the game that Nick Swisher had an MRI on his injured left elbow, but he didn’t have the results yet. I’m sure we’ll hear more tomorrow. These same two teams will give it a go on Saturday, when Dan Haren gets the ball against CC Sabathia. That’s another night game, starting at 9:05pm ET.

Game 143: Swishaliciousless

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

After spending half of Thursday’s game flexing his left arm/hand, Nick Swisher is out of tonight’s lineup with a sore elbow and it could be a couple of days before he returns. He said his elbow has been bugging him for a while, but yesterday he felt a sharp pain after making a throw. He hopes to get it checked out by a doctor today. At this point of the season, there’s no reason for the Yankees to push it with anyone if they feel anything more than normal soreness; they should be focused on surviving the regular season and going into the postseason at full strength. Here’s the starting nine…

Derek Jeter, SS
Curtis Granderson, CF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Robinson Cano, 2B
Andruw Jones, RF
Jesus Montero, DH – first start against a righty
Russell Martin, C
Brett Gardner, LF

Bartolo Colon, SP

It’s a 10:05pm ET start, and the game can be seen on YES. Enjoy.

Yanks sending Burawa, Whitley, and Claiborne to the Arizona Fall League

The Yankees announced (well, I guess the league announced) today that right-handed relievers Dan Burawa, Chase Whitley, and Preston Claiborne have been assigned to the Phoenix Desert Dogs of the Arizona Fall League. Corban Joseph, David Phelps, Rob Segedin, and Ronnie Mustelier were already set to go to the desert. All three righties had fine seasons in 201 and will look to build on that success in the fall.

Friday Open Thread

From the picture archives...

The only think worse than a night game on the west coast is a Friday night game on the west coast. The regular game thread will be along shortly, but for now here’s a thread to use in the meantime. The Mets are playing and MLB Network is showing a game as well, but talk about whatever you want here. Go bananas.

Brooklyn forces Game Three with blowout win

Short Season Staten Island (12-5 loss to Brooklyn) the best-of-three series is tied at one, and the deciding game will be played in Staten Island on Saturday night (7pm) … winner advances to the Championship Series
Mason Williams, CF: 3 for 5, 2 R, 1 SB – got picked off first after reaching base in the first inning
Cito Culver, SS: 1 for 4, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 E (fielding)
Ben Gamel, RF: 2 for 4, 1 BB
Tyler Austin, 3B: 1 for 5, 2 RBI, 1 E (fielding) – I guess we’re not going to see Dante Bichette Jr. at all in the postseason
Reymond Nunez, 1B: 1 for 5, 1 R, 1 K
Casey Stevenson, 2B-LF: 2 for 4, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 K
Zach Wilson, DH: 2 for 4, 1 2B, 2 RBI – continues to rake despite the long rain-induced layoff
Cody Grice, LF: 1 for 3, 1 2B
Angelo Gumbs, PH-2B: 0 for 1 – pinch-hit late, but to no avail
Nick McCoy, C: 0 for 4
Bryan Mitchell, RHP: 4.2 IP, 6 H, 7 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 5 K, 1 WP, 1 HB, 5-4 GB/FB – less than ideal
Zach Varce, RHP: 2.1 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 1 WP, 0-2 GB/FB – couldn’t stop the bleeding
Jon Brebbia, RHP: 1 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 0-1 GB/FB – he couldn’t either
Mariel Checo, RHP: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 2-1 GB/FB

Triple-A Scranton, Double-A Trenton, High-A Tampa, and Low-A Charleston all failed to qualify to the postseason. The Rookie GCL Yankees have already won their league title.