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 Florida for as much as 13 more years for the sum of $325 million, and the Toronto Blue Jays bringing native son Russell Martin back to Canada for five years and $82 million to catch their young, talented pitching staff.


Stanton’s is the one that is receiving the lion’s share of attention, as well it should. It is the largest contract ever to be awarded to any athlete in North American history. Some might question the business savvy of anyone giving that much money to a guy who just turned 25 years old, but Stanton is not just another good player.  Last year he led the National League in slugging for the second time in his young career. Here is a list of all the players who have ever led their league in slugging twice before turning 25: Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb. That’s it. Basically it is the inner circle of the greatest hitters who ever lived and now Stanton joins that group. So what would you pay to lock up a young Babe Ruth or a Willie Mays?  Given that every team in baseball received $50 million last year from MLB’s new national TV broadcasting contract (that doesn’t include any revenue gained from local broadcasting, ticket sales or merchandising), I would think that an average of $25 million a year for the totality of the contract is pretty reasonable for a player with that kind of upside. Of course, the structure and particulars of the contract and all its ramifications are interesting in and of themselves, but that topic will have to wait for another day.


Perhaps the more intriguing debate is over what Martin signed for in Toronto, with the greatest focus having been on the length of the contract. Martin will be 32 to begin the 2015 season and the contract will conclude after he turns 37. Very few catchers in history have been above average offensive players after age 32, much less by the time they turn 37 so the concern is legitimate. But I will argue that not only is his contract grossly undervalued right now, but will still be when it ends and is perhaps even more reasonable than the Stanton contract.


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 Pittsburgh he saved the Pirates roughly 3 wins with his pitch framing ability alone. This doesn’t account for the benefit he adds through pitch sequencing or his ability to talk his pitcher out of precarious emotional states during games, two aspects of catcher defense that have yet to be even attempted to be quantified. The pitch framing only governs the location of a given pitch; pitch sequencing covers the velocity and angle of entry, with any pitcher commonly having 3 to 4 options (fastball, curve, slider, change, etc). So the math suggests that the impact of good pitch sequencing versus bad pitch sequencing could be many times as important as pitch framing. It is quite possible that our current measurements of how much a catcher influences a game reveal only the tip of the iceberg.


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 Chicago and the DH league to a pitcher’s park and the non-DH league were significant factors in his improvement, I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that Francisco Liriano’s reclamation from uber-talented underachiever (5.34/1.468) to All-Star (3.02/1.224) can be completely explained without Martin’s influence. Edinson Volquez was a mess before he came to Pittsburgh, posting a 5.71 ERA and 1.585 WHIP split between two NL Pitcher’s parks in 2013. Last year, he posted the best numbers of his career with a 3.04 ERA and 1.230 WHIP. The Pirate bullpen ERA improved from a middle of the pack 3.36 ERA/1.26 WHIP to 3rd overall in baseball at 2.89 ERA/1.17 WHIP. Since Clint Hurdle was the manager both years and Ray Searage his pitching coach, it’s evident that something or someone else is largely responsible for the improvement and the most obvious answer is Russell Martin.


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 question Stanton is a bargain at that price given his historic level of achievement already. We should be saying the same things about Martin.