Pirates' catcher Martin offers hidden value
The hidden value of Russell Martin began its creation in obscurity, on the quiet backfields of the Dodgers' former spring training home in Vero Beach, Fla.
While playing third base in rookie ball in 2002, a Dodgers scout thought Martin had the arm strength, smarts and athleticism — Martin is a former hockey player — to make a conversion to catcher. Martin needed a different path to the majors; Adrian Beltre was at third for the Dodgers. So in the spring of 2003, Martin began his catching education in extended spring training. Then Dodgers' minor league catching coordinator Jon Debus began with an unusual exercise.
“One thing we did that was pretty cool is we would have intrasquad games, and we'd have a screen — like the one behind second base during batting practice — right behind the catcher,” Martin said. “We would sit down there while the game is going on, and we'd talk. We talked about game-calling, about blocking, and about receiving (pitches). He was the one who introduced me to all of this.”
It was there Martin learned — and has since mastered — pitch framing and pitch sequencing techniques, the hidden value playing a significant role in improving the Pirates' pitching performance.
This season, A.J. Burnett and Jeff Locke are off to career-best starts. Francisco Liriano has rebounded. Mark Melancon is one of the game's best setup men, and Jason Grilli is perhaps the game's best closer. The Pirates possess the third-best ERA in baseball (3.23).
The common thread is Martin, whose two-year, $17 million deal signed this offseason looks like a bargain. The staff had a 3.73 ERA when coupled with Rod Barajas last season, and a 5.36 ERA when pitching to Ryan Doumit in 2011.
Thanks to PitchFx data, analysts can quantify catchers' effectiveness at pitch framing, or the ability to make a pitch just outside the strike zone look like it was captured in the zone.
Martin's rate of having pitches two inches or less outside of the strike zone result in called strikes is 19 percent above average since 2008, according to Baseball Prospectus. From 2008 to May 17, Baseball Prospectus estimated Martin saved 105 runs due to pitch framing, fourth in baseball.
Catchers must understand framing theory, while also possessing soft, quick hands.
“I'm trying to go completely against what the ball is trying to do,” Martin said. “If it's a slider going down and away, I'm going to try and catch it before it goes further down and away. If it's a two-seamer coming back, I try to catch it deeper in the strike zone so the natural two-seam action makes it look like a strike.”
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said subtle actions are key in swaying umpires' judgments.
“Some are better than others,” Hurdle said. “Some catchers cost you pitches, some catchers get you pitches.”
Computer-generated heat-maps show the frequency of events — like ball-strike outcomes — in and around the strike zone. The charts resemble a storm cell on a weather radar map: A red blot in the center indicates the highest frequency of called strikes, surrounded by asymmetrical rings of yellow, green and blue denoting the decreased frequency of called strikes the further the pitches are located from the strike zone.
The Pirates' red area of called-strike frequency from pre-Martin last season to this season looks like a strengthening thunderstorm.
Martin also earns praise for his pitch sequencing.
“Baseball IQ is also experience,” Hurdle said. “He's been doing it quite awhile, and he's been doing it with good staffs.”
For instance, Martin caught Mariano Rivera's cutter with the Yankees. This season, Melancon is throwing his cutter at a career-high rate and is having a career year.
“On top of that, he's really smart,” Hurdle said of Martin.
Against one the NL's best hitters two weeks ago — Cincinnati's Joey Votto — Martin went against convention.
“We went with back-to-back fastballs in the first at bat to Votto (June 1). We went right after him. It's 0-2 and he didn't take a swing, and I'm sure that was kind of weird for him,” Martin said. “Guys that instill fear in pitchers get pitched different for the most part, not as aggressively.
“I went a completely different route. We just went right after him and got him on the defensive. And when you do it early in the series, you get them hoping you are going to throw another first-pitch fastball. You've planted that seed.”
Pirates starter Jeff Locke credits Martin's game-calling as a key to his breakout season. Locke said Martin's hidden value is tied to focus.
“I noticed it early in spring training. I was throwing a bullpen session to him at 10 a.m., and he dropped one and he was upset,” Locke said. “It's just a bullpen. No one is watching. But it didn't matter; he's competitive with himself.”
Even when no one is watching, even when skills are hard to measure, the Pirates' staff sees a clear value in Martin.