The Yankees have been checking items off their offseason shopping list with routine regularity over the last couple of weeks, re-signing Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera to sensible one-year deals. But while Brian Cashman has been busy maintaining his pitching staff, he and the Yankees have dropped the ball elsewhere. On Thursday night, free agent catcher Russell Martin chose the Pirates over the Pinstripes, signing a two-year, $17 million deal.
Though Martin was said to be seeking roughly twice as much — a four-year deal worth $9-10 million a year according one report — even the deal he signed may seem like an outlandish payday for a catcher with a .211 batting average in 2012, particularly one whose batting average has fallen for four straight seasons. But that statistic does little to capture the 29-year-old Martin's value. He's not a tremendous offensive force, but he's basically an MLB-average hitter for a catcher, and well above average behind the plate, worth about twice as much annually as what the Pirates will pay him.
Martin's full batting line for the season was .211/.311/403. His batting average on balls in play was an impossibly low .222, a 30 point drop from the year before, and 73 points off his previous career average. Whether due to bad habits created by the temptations of Yankee Stadium's short porch, or mere bad luck, the singles weren't falling in, and he exacerbated that by striking out in 19.6 percent of his plate appearances, up from 17.0 percent in 2011, and from 14.1 percent for the 2006-2011 period. Meanwhile, his 10.9 percent walk rate was right in line with his career numbers, and his 21 homers were a career high, as was his .192 isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average); the latter was 61 points above his previous career rate.
True Average, which expresses a player's run production per plate appearance on a batting average scale after adjusting for park and league scoring environments, with .260 as league average and .300 excellent, shows that the total footprint of Martin's offensive work was right in line with the last three years, with his power increasing to compensate for his falling batting average:
The major league True Average for all catchers in 2012 was .258, up from .252 in 2011, .250 in 2010, and .249 in 20109; Martin has more or less been in line with that in each of the past four years, his final two with the Dodgers and then two with the Yankees after Los Angeles surprisingly chose to nontender him in the wake of a hairline fracture of his hip.
That's the offensive side. On the defensive side, Martin threw out just 24 percent of would-be base thieves, down from 30 percent in 2011, and 31 percent from 2006-2011. In this day and age, stolen bases don't mean much, and in fact, the 63 successful steals by Yankee opponents on Martin's watch were 32 fewer than the year before in almost exactly the same number of innings. He was a little bit below average when it came to passed balls and wild pitches (which are worth considering together to remove the discretion of the official scorer); his 0.44 per nine innings ranked 16th among the 25 AL catchers with at least 400 innings; the league average was 0.4 per nine.
Where Martin has separated himself from the pack is in pitch framing. In late 2011, Baseball Prospectus researcher Mike Fast set the sabermetric world on its ear when his landmark study used years of PITCHf/x data to determine which catchers were the best at capturing extra strikes through their receiving skills, controlling for the effects of all kinds of biases (pitcher, batter, umpire, count, pitch type, and so on), and calculating the value of turning a borderline pitch from a ball to a strike. Martin ranked second only to Jose Molina in terms of his five-year value, worth an average of 14 runs a year. Fast was soon hired by the Houston Astros, so he didn't publish 2012 numbers, but his work has been carried on behind the scenes at BP; in a midseason snapshot from researcher Max Marchi, Martin was about 15 runs above average, and according to Marchi's unpublished data, his final value was 19 runs above average, which ranked ninth in the majors.
Those runs saved via pitch framing aren't captured in traditional value metrics such as Wins Above Replacement Player, which like other value metrics has a hard enough time with catcher defense as it is. At a quick-and-dirty exchange rate of 10 runs per win — it's actually a bit less than that, so call this a conservative estimate — Martin's work behind the plate nearly doubles his WARP:
At an exchange rate of around $6 million per WARP, that's about $20 million worth of production for 2012, and about $18 million a year over the last three. Meanwhile, Martin signed for an average of $8.5 million a year, just under half that much. If he stays healthy, the Pirates have a steal, and a major upgrade over Rod Barajas, who "hit" .206/.283/.343, threw out just six percent (!) of would-be base thieves (93 steals in 99 attempts in 99 games) and finished with -0.5 WARP, not including framing. I don't have a 2012 figure for his work in that department, but he was 10 runs below average in 2011, and 15 runs below average from 2007-2011, so chances are good that he was in the red.
Martin may easily represent a four-win improvement, and at the very least a three-win one given the presence of promising backup Michael McKenry, who hit .233/.320/.442 with 12 homers and was worth 1.6 WARP (again not including framing). Martin was apparently keen to play for Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, whom he met at the 2008 All-Star Game, and was said to be intrigued by the team's potential on the heels of a season in which Pittsburgh spent about two and a half months either in first place or second place before fading to a 79-83 record.
The Yankees, who certainly could have outspent the Pirates, reportedly never made Martin an offer, and now they have a gaping hole behind the plate. Backup Chris Stewart hit just .241/.292/.319, while the regular 2009-2011 backup Francisco Cervelli spent virtually the entire year in the minors because the Yankees were less than keen on his erratic throwing, which included 14 percent caught-stealing rates in both 2010 and 2011, and a whopping 19 errors (15 of them throwing errors) in 131 games caught during that span. Back in January, New York traded catching prospect Jesus Montero to the Mariners in part because of concerns that he wouldn't pan out behind the plate, and in part because it had a more defensively sound backstop, Austin Romine, waiting in the wings. Alas, the 24-year-old Romine was limited to just 31 games in 2012, and just 17 in the high minors, due to an inflamed disc in his lower back.
Thus Cashman will have to add a catcher to his shopping list, a task complicated by the fact that the best trade candidates, the Red Sox' Jarrod Saltalamacchia and the Blue Jays' J.P. Arencibia, play for division rivals. The former has been squeezed out by the signing of David Ross, the development of Ryan Lavarnway and the potential signing of Mike Napoli, while the latter will eventually be pushed out by highly-regarded prospect Travis d'Arnaud; both teams will be wary of dealing those backstops to teams that could flip them to the Yankees.
Napoli, who slumped to .227/.343/.469 but still hit 24 homers in 417 PA for the Rangers, caught just 72 games last year and 61 the year before, and probably isn't fit to be a full-time catcher; the Rangers are still interested in his services as well as the Red Sox. Free agent A.J. Pierzynski is coming off a career-high 27 homers to go with a .278/.326/.501 line, but he's headed into his age 36 season, and suddenly the Dodgers are interested despite having at catcher an inexpensive and productive A.J. of their own, Ellis, who hit .270/.373/.414 wiht 13 homers in his first season as a starter. Perhaps Cashman, who has gained a reputation for stealth in recent years, has something in the works to fill the catching void, and a sound reason for letting Martin walk. But right now, it appears he miscalculated by letting his backstop split town, and the Pirates are the better for it.