There’s a Catch
November 19, 2014
There were two major
financial transactions in baseball this week: the Miami Marlins extending
Giancarlo Stanton’s stay in
Perhaps the more
intriguing debate is over what Martin signed for in
First of all, no other player has more influence on the outcome of the game than a catcher. And it’s not even close.
Assuming he plays between 155-160 games, a regular position player sees roughly 650 – 700 plate appearances in a season and depending on his position sees between 200 – 650 defensive plays. An outfielder will see probably 150-300 playable flyballs as well as a few grounders that snuck through the infield. An infielder, particularly a shortstop, might see up to 650 groundballs they can make a play on. So all totaled, at the very extreme a regular position player will get about 1200-1350 chances to affect the outcomes of games over an entire season.
A good starting pitcher will pitch roughly 230 innings over which time they will allow somewhere in the neighborhood of 210 hits and 50-60 walks (assuming they allow about 265 baserunners or a 1.15 WHIP) and record about 690 outs. So they will face roughly 950-960 batters over the course of a season. The best starters pitch about 250 innings so the total number of batters can easily be over 1000 for a season. In fact, last year David Price led the majors with 1009 batters faced.
A full-time catcher will see about 450 -500 plate appearances while catching between 130-140 games. Unlike the starting pitcher, they will be in the game for all 9 innings in those games. So the number of batters they’ll see from behind the plate over the course of a season can reach higher than 4700 (3350 outs recorded, 1100 hits, 250 walks). It is the catcher, who in conjunction with the pitcher who decides which pitch to throw and its ultimate location that begins every play in baseball. So the majority of his influence will occur when he does not have a bat in his hand. In fact, it might not be much more than 10% of his value if we are placing equal value on plate appearances.
Martin is widely
acknowledged as being an above average defensive player. Pitch framing is one
aspect of catcher’s defense that has recently been quantified, or at least a
reasonable semblance of quantification has been offered. In that regard, Martin
is credited with saving the Pirates almost 12 runs last year, which amounts to
a little more than one win. In 2013 his ability to finesse strike and ball
calls from the umpire saved them 17 runs. So over his two year contract in
Maybe we can see some
evidence of this in his pitching staff. AJ Burnett’s ERA and WHIP went from 3.51/1.241
in 2012 before Martin arrived, to 3.30/1.215 in 2013. Wandy
Rodriguez’s numbers went from 3.72/1.267 in 2012 to 3.59/1.117 in 2013 before
he got injured. Charlie Morton enjoyed the greatest improvement: 4.65/1.450 in
2012, 3.26/1.284 in 2013. And while certainly a change from a hitter’s park in
Martin is commonly viewed as a 3-4 win player offensively but if his pitch framing ability alone is worth 1.5 wins per seasons and we’re still not seeing his entire defensive contribution, and in fact we could be looking at only a small percentage of it, how much is he really worth? The “best” players in baseball, like Mike Trout and Stanton, are generally credited with being worth 7-10 extra wins for their team over a replacement level player, largely based on their offensive contributions. But is it a coincidence that teams with the best catchers - like the Cardinals with Yadier Molina and the Giants with Buster Posey - are almost always considered favorites to win their division? Is it possible we are grossly underestimating their true value? The Pirates went from 79 wins in 2012 to 94 wins in 2013 and then won 88 last year. Is it too much to suggest that maybe Martin is a 7-10 win player as well?
That could be one of the reasons catchers like Charlie O’Brien and Henry Blanco were sought after until they were in their 40s. They understood their value behind the plate and they were very good at framing pitches, blocking errant throws, talking with their pitchers and calling a game (sequencing). Those skills do not wane with age; they, in fact, improve as the catcher’s knowledge of the league increases. Their only limit to how long they can keep doing it is the ability to hit better than a pitcher, at which point their value at the plate begins to weigh more heavily as few teams can sustain a viable offense with two “automatic outs” in the line-up.
So right now, Russell
Martin is an above average player as a hitter as well as an above average
player as a defensive catcher. Even if he fails to remain above average with
the bat, his impact over the course of a game and a season is only going to
grow until he literally can’t hit anymore. Giancarlo Stanton will be making
roughly $25 million per year but will only have an influence on the outcomes of
roughly 1000 plays at a well above average level. Martin will be making roughly
$16 million per year but will be impacting almost five times as many plays at
an above average level. There’s little