Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

Getting Defensive Over Catchers

It is less than a week into free agency and it is clear that the suitors for former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin are wasting no time in lining up. Martin has already met with the Cubs, and he has plans to meet with the Blue Jays and the Dodgers later this week. With all of these large market clubs that are flush with clash coveting the 31 year old backstop, the hopes that the Pirates can retain him are dwindling. Martin is going to get a huge pay day from some team. That team should not be the Pirates.
Russell Martin had an impressive season offensively in 2014. To a large degree that was a mirage. Martin is a smart professional hitter. But he is not a hitter that can be counted on to post an OPS of over .750, let alone reproducing the .832 OPS he had in 2014. That was largely the result of a ridiculously high BABIP of .336 that will surely regress next season. Martin will still be a solid hitter as far as catchers go, but only because the bar is very low for the position. League average OPS for catchers was just .701 in 2014. Going forward Martin is more likely to hit like he did from 2011 thru 2013. His OPS over that period was just .716. It is not Martin’s offensive projections that creates value in the eyes of the teams chasing him. It is his steady defensive production that has teams salivating over their chances of signing him. But is Martin’s defensive value something a team like the Pirates should be committing upwards of $60 million to?

Take a look at the following career totals of defensive stats for three current major league catchers in their early 30′s:

CS% Framing Runs per 7000 Blocking Runs per 7000
Catcher A 32% 17.9 1.4
Catcher B 38% 19.1 2.7
Catcher C 31% 21.3 1.1

These are three comparable defensive catchers. All three are well above average at throwing out base stealers, framing pitches, and blocking balls in the dirt. Two of the three were acquired last off season in trades. Two of the three have have salaries of less than $5 million. The other is Russell Martin.
Player A is Russell Martin
Player B is Ryan Hanigan
Player C is Chris Stewart.
Clearly a quality defensive catcher can be found without handing out an enormous multi-year contract. The Rays and Pirates did not have to trade any high end prospects to obtain Hanigan and Stewart last winter. So if defense is what you desire from your catcher why pay a premium for it on the free agent market? Martin does produce more offense than Hanigan and Stewart. But how significant is that boost in offense? It might be less than you think. In fact, over his career Hanigan has an on base percentage only slightly less than Russell Martin. Ryan Hanigan has a .353 career OBP versus .354 OBP for Russell Martin. If Martin were to hit like he did in 2014 then of course he would be much more valuable. However, we know that to be a pipe dream….just like the Pirates chances of ever signing a 31 year old catcher to a 4 year $60 million contract. It was never going to happen, so let’s not get defensive about it.

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