Reversing the field: Pirates continue to raid Yankees for hidden skill
Throughout recent baseball history, it has almost always been the large-market clubs raiding small-market clubs for talent, mostly through free agency. Not the other way around.
There has been a curious reversal between the Yankees and Pirates in recent years. The Pirates' starting catcher the past two seasons, Russell Martin, backup Chris Stewart, and new starting catcher Francisco Cervelli previously were employed by the Yankees.
Despite employing a small army of data analysts who identified pitch framing as an undervalued ability for catchers, the Yankees did not properly value Martin when he walked as a free agent after the 2012 season. They also traded Stewart to the Pirates last offseason and traded Cervelli to the Pirates this past winter.
“I'm not sure if they were ahead of us, we were ahead of them or if we arrived at this way of thinking at the same time. Actually, they were probably first,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “The two clubs evaluate catchers similarly.”
But perhaps the two clubs value it differently.
While the Yankees might have been ahead on pitch framing, no club has invested as heavily in the skill — or remains as committed to it — as the Pirates. Martin, Stewart and Cervelli share one significant trait: They are above-average in their ability to “steal” strikes.
It is Cervelli and Stewart (though Stewart likely will open the season on the DL with a hamstring injury) the Pirates will team as a catcher tandem this season, hoping it can replicate most of the defensive value Martin had created.
The Pirates know it is unlikely Cervelli will replicate Martin's offensive value. Martin produced an elite .402 on-base percentage last season and .290 average.
But the Pirates are hoping Cervelli's glove can steal strikes around the strike zone similarly to that of Martin the past two years. It's a skill that helped turn around the careers of pitchers named Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon and Edinson Volquez.
According to Baseball Prospectus' pitch-framing metrics, Cervelli is an above-average pitch framer (11 runs saved for every 7,000 pitches in his career) but only half as good as Martin (22 runs saved).
That is disconcerting on the surface for the Pirates, but over the past two seasons, Cervelli actually has saved more runs than Martin through framing. Cervelli saved 17.1 runs per 7,000 pitches in 2013, Martin, 13.0.
Last season, Cervelli saved 18.7 runs per 7,000 pitches, Martin 18.6. The key for Cervelli is staying on the field. He has missed 199 games since 2011.
Cervelli said he has studied many of the game's best receiving catchers, including his idol, Yadier Molina. Jorge Posada was a mentor in New York. But Cervelli's improvement in framing also coincided with a new training technique adopted in his last seasons with New York.
Cervelli would sit on a chair and catch balls of varying weight and sizes, a drill designed to keep his receiving soft and relaxed.
“(Molina) doesn't let the ball play him; he plays the ball. That's what I try to do, too,” Cervelli said. “You cannot fight with the ball. If you fight with the ball, you're not able to make pitches (look like) strikes. The most important thing is being relaxed behind the plate. That's the key.”
The Pirates are still banking that this skill, framing, is important and undervalued. And they hope it pays similar dividends. Rather than match Toronto's five-year, $82 million contract given to Martin, the Pirates will pay Cervelli $1 million in 2015.
With Martin, the Yankees twice advanced to the playoffs. Without Martin the past two seasons, the Yankees watched the postseason from home while the Pirates participated. Perhaps it's not a coincidence. Perhaps, too, the reason is hidden in a subtle, undervalued skill.