Russell Martin isn’t what you’d call a flashy player nowadays, but very quietly he has made himself into an elite catcher.
When he was younger, the 31-year-old Montreal native really made a name for himself by hitting for above-average power and swiping more bases than any backstop in the business. In 2007 he fell one home run short of becoming the second catcher in MLB history to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases in the same season.
Fast forward seven years and Martin has only has six home runs and three stolen bases in 79 games. But the wild thing is that 2014 could wind up being his best season yet.
What sets the Pirates catcher apart is his incredibly balanced skill set. He may not have the pure hitting ability of Jonathan Lucroy or the defensive presence of Yadier Molina, but there is virtually nothing the three-time All-Star doesn’t do well.
The table below shows where Martin ranks among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances in a number of major categories.
|Statistic||Russell Martin in 2014||Rank among MLB catchers|
|Runners Caught Stealing||29||2nd|
|Wins Above Replacement (Baseball Reference)||3.7||2nd|
|Wins Above Replacement (FanGraphs)||3.5||3rd|
While the Canadian catcher isn’t getting a lot of extra-base hits, he’s doing everything else right. That’s why his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) numbers are so high, because they are taking both his offensive and defensive contributions into account. It’s also worth noting that not only is the Pirates backstop first among big league catchers in on-base percentage, he’s first by a mile. Martin’s .408 OBP absolutely dwarfs the second highest mark by a catcher, which is .376 by Derek Norris of the Oakland A’s.
It is apparent that Martin is getting it done with his eye at the plate, and the arm he wields from behind it, but those aren’t the only tricks he has up his sleeve. In recent years a lot of work has been done to study how catchers affect the way strikes and balls are called by framing the ball. With PITCHf/x cameras, we now know exactly where pitches cross the plate, and can determine which catchers get the most strikes called on pitches that were actually out of the zone.
While the work on this topic is just getting started, and definitely needs to be taken with a grain of salt, Martin is a player who seems to consistently get calls for his pitchers. The data goes back to 2007, which was Martin’s second year as an everyday catcher.
|Year||Extra Strikes Called with Martin behind the plate||Rank among MLB catchers|
Source: StatCorner Catcher Report
Martin has consistently shown the ability to be his pitchers’ best friend by getting them extra calls everywhere he’s played. This season his number is also deflated by the time he’s missed with a hamstring issue, meaning he’s been an elite framer every year except 2010.
The traditional idea of a star position player involves towering moonshots, dazzling speed on the bases, or hitting .300 with impunity. Russell Martin doesn’t do any of that. But what he does do is the little things. He works the count and gets on base, he controls the running game, and he receives the ball well behind the plate.
The contribution he makes to his team’s success may be more of a subtle nature, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. For a Pittsburgh Pirates team in the thick of the playoff race, it’s more than enough.