Russell Martin: On the WAR-path

By: Dan Grant

Last week the Toronto Blue Jays made waves on the free agent market for the first time in eons, inking catcher Russell Martin to a five year, $82 million deal. The contract is predictable in terms of a big-name free agent deal in baseball these days; the Jays are going to look to squeeze value out of their newest asset for the first two or three years of the deal and be killed by that same asset’s declining value towards the end of the contract.

For Martin, this holds especially true. It’s a back loaded deal, wherein he’ll only be paid $7 million this upcoming season, followed by 15 million in 2016 and 20 million each in 2017, 18 and 19. Twenty million dollars for a 36 year old catcher seems like a huge loss, but equally, 7 million for a 32 year old Martin seems like a huge boon. It’s why these contracts happen.

Many fans are already bemoaning the nature of the deal, loving the flexibility that the early years provide, but in typically maudlin Toronto sports fan fashion, wringing their hands about the length and overall size of the contract. While nobody can predict injury or how a given player will age, it turns out that the Jays might actually be getting a bargain.

What. A. Stache.

What. A. Stache.

Thirty-two year old baseball players (and especially catchers) don’t generally improve. They’re a finished product, maybe even on the decline. Martin became an All-Star years ago with the Los Angeles Dodgers, winning both a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger in 2007, at age 24. A hip injury in 2010 led the Dodgers to cut ties and he moved on to two middling years with the New York Yankees. The Pirates outbid the Yankees for his services in 2012, giving a 2 year 16 million dollar contract to a player many thought was on the downswing of his career. Martin subsequently led the Pirates to two playoffs appearances, received MVP votes in each of his two years in Pittsburgh and was arguably the hottest free agent on the market this off-season. So what gives?

Now, I’ve discussed Wins Above Replacement in this space before, but just a quick refresher for the unfamiliar. WAR is essentially a catch-all stat that accounts for both offense and defense. It assumes that through a full season, a player that is completely average in all facets of the game will account for 1.0 win for their team. So if a player has a WAR of 1.0, they are essentially a replacement level player- any average player could match their contribution. It’s a very helpful stat for determining just how valuable players really are to the overall success of their team. Once you can establish how much a player gives you beyond replacement level, you can determine their true worth.

Martins first year in Pittsburgh looked suspiciously like his two years in New York, at least offensively. Solid power, but declining overall success at the plate. However, a quick look at his WAR sees a huge jump, from 1.7 in 2012 in New York, to 4.3 in 2013 in Pittsburgh. How did this happen? A return to full health led Martin to achieve 2.5 wins for his team with his defense alone, the second highest mark in his career, and the highest since that breakout 2007 season in Los Angeles. He actually had an uncharacteristically terrible defensive season for the Yankees in 2012, posting just a 0.1 WAR on that side of the ball, by far the lowest of his career. He did stay roughly the same at the plate, with his 2.6 offensive wins in Pittsburgh being nearly identical to the 2.4 he achieved for the Yankees. It was just that his defense was so much better that he transformed from a slightly above average player, to an invaluable cog in the resurgent Pirates playoff run. In 2014, Martin again created 2.0 defensive wins but this time his bat made the jump, up to 4.2 wins on offense. He had an OBP better than .400 for the first time in his career and hit .290 for the first time since that 2007 Dodger season. It’s important to note that because of the complex formula, offensive WAR plus defensive WAR does not  exactly equal a players overall WAR. There are positional adjustments made and certain things that fall in both. The math is beyond me and should be beyond you. However Martin’s overall WAR for 2014 was 5.5, 26th overall in the Majors and 2nd best among all catchers, behind only Jonathan Lucroy (6.7). In other words, he’s a stud.

What. A. Beard.

What. A. Beard.

So the Jays have got themselves a good one, we’ve established that. Why do I think they may have gotten themselves a bargain? Stay with me.

A lot of the conversation that has surrounded Martin has been about his defense and unquantifiable ‘leadership.’ It has also touched on something that WAR doesn’t yet account for – pitch framing. It’s a concept that you’ve seen before if you’re a baseball fan. The catcher will hold the ball a second longer so that the umpire can get a better look. Sometimes (now that we have the handy/annoying pitch tracker on the screen as we watch), we’ll see a catcher flail to grab a pitch that missed its location. It gets called a ball even though it appears to be a strike based on the unbiased strike zone on our television screens. And that’s the thing, umpires aren’t unbiased. Each umpire has their own particular strike zone, following the loose parameters of what’s expected: the pitch must be over the plate and between the waist and knees. A catcher that can influence their strike calls by framing the pitches properly is an invaluable advantage over the opposition. Martin is one of the best in the game at this. He essentially has the ability to turn balls into strikes. We’re only just beginning to be able to measure pitch framing and I won’t get into the nitty gritty here, but according to Stat Corner (via Bluebird Banter) in 2013, Martin was worth 11.7 runs saved via his pitch framing alone, whereas Dioner Navarro rated a negative 20. That’s a 31.7 runs improvement over the entirety of the season, which is remarkable. Remember how many one and two run games the Jays lost last season? This is something that could be a true difference maker.

 

I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it now: baseball is essentially an individual sport masquerading as a team sport. Players rarely interact with more than one teammate on defense and they are alone in the batter’s box. The position where this doesn’t hold true is at catcher. If Martin’s pitch framing is added to his already elite defense, we’re looking at a player who can add to the WAR of each and every pitcher he catches over the course of the season, a value that no other positional player can create. That’s added value that is not incorporated into Martin’s own statistics, but that is still essential to his value to the team.

In terms of value of the contract, each off-season, Fangraphs attempts to calculate just how much a ‘win’ is worth on the open market. This value generally inflates each season, as baseball doesn’t have a salary cap. Based on money spent in 2014, each win is now worth an astronomical $6 million. Even if we ignore inflation and say that Martin needs to provide market value in WAR over the duration of his contract at six million per win, that adds up to 16.5 wins in five years, or an average of 3.2 wins per season. That’s not accounting for the value in his pitch framing or the WAR he’ll create for others with his framing and defense. For his career, if we throw out his injury plagued 2010 season (when he still managed to create 1.9 wins in only 97 games), Martin has created 28.2 wins in eight full seasons, or just over 3.5 wins per year. His 5.5 win 2013 was ‘worth’ 33 million dollars in value, on the open market. Martin is coming off his 2nd and 3rd best seasons in terms of WAR and while his offensive numbers may normalize, an average Martin appears to be worth a whole lot more than what the Jays are paying.

If he can stay healthy, the Jays have gotten themselves a steal. Ironic, considering that nobody steals on Russell Martin.

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