Saturday, January 26, 2013

Russell Martin's Role In The Potential Success Of This Winter

Neal Huntington has made some big additions, as well as a noteworthy subtraction, this winter. He’s traded his closer for a quartet of players, with Mark Melancon and possibly Jerry Sands beginning the year in Pittsburgh, re-signed Jason Grilli and Jeff Karstens as well as further strengthening the rotation with Francisco Liriano. However, I believe that the success of the winter will reside on the performance of the club’s new catcher, especially if the offense fails to progress further in 2013. 

Russell Martin is the player that is being paid the most by the Pirates this season among the free agent additions as he’ll earn a total of $8.5M for each of the next two seasons (in 2013 Martin has a $6.5M salary along with a $2M signing bonus). His salary ties Wandy Rodriguez for being the club's highest paid-by-the-Pittsburgh-Pirates player (both Rodriguez and A.J. Burnett will earn more after contributions from their former teams are added). While he’s going to be an offensive upgrade, it would be pretty hard for the club to downgrade on Rod Barajas’ wOBA of .272 last season. Barajas’ wOBA was the 12th lowest weighted on-base average among hitters with at least 350 plate appearances in 2012 (although it was still better than Clint Barmes’ third-worst wOBA in the same sample size of .260). 

Martin was the Pirates’ first free agent acquisition of the winter and he received the largest major league free agent contract ever given out by the franchise (beating the record set last winter with Clint Barmes). The Bucs actually out-bid the Yankees for Martin, as they didn’t view him as being worth an annual salary between $8M and $9M – with Jon Heyman reporting that their last known offer to the catcher being in the two year, $12M to $14M range. So the Pirates effectively competed with the Yankees off the field for a player and won, although that is something that Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane was quoted as advising small market teams against doing in Moneyball

While Martin’s salary does have importance when the success of the acquisition is considered (especially when looking at the value of Martin over the course of the season/deal), his affect on the line-up and offense as a whole also needs to be considered. There is also the aspect of the deal that his salary takes up more than 10% of the club’s payroll – so for any fans who didn’t think that the Joel Hanrahan trade was necessary, it became so as a result of the Martin signing (as potentially prevented the club from making further additions). 

So the Pirates now have a catcher for the next two seasons that will only turn 30 next month. This is supposed to be a player in his prime/only just hitting the declining phase of his career; however Martin’s prime appears to have ended after the 2008 season. Defensively, he has received a lot of praise for his pitch framing, with the value of that ability possibly worth up to two wins – which would make the new contract a bargain. There’s also hope for an improvement on last year’s .211/.311/.403 batting line due to his .222 batting average on balls in play. That said, as his power has returned to and surpassed his early career numbers over the past two years, Martin’s BABIP has dropped and strikeout rate increased as he’s added to his power numbers. He’s been seeing more pitches (up to a career 4.00 P/PA last season) but has also swung-and-missed more often (with an 8.3 SwStr% over the last two seasons), causing him to strikeout on 19.6% of trips to the plate.

When someone is replacing one of the worst hitters in the league, there should always be a positive effect – otherwise something has gone terribly wrong. Martin's .316 wOBA last season was above the Pirates’ team wOBA of .304 and more than 40 points higher than what Barajas produced. Given his BABIP last season, there will be some improvement (though that will be limited if his strikeout percentage continues to increase) that should help the club move closer to becoming a league average offense. The question is how much of an affect will he have on the offense as a whole? 

It’s a fact that the Pirates’ offense in the final year under Dave Littlefield was better than any offensive unit during Neal Huntington’s tenure as General Manager. The offense declined each season under Huntington before things began to turn around last season thanks to a power surge. What is also a fact, however, is that the offense has dropped within the sport as whole, with the 2012 Pirates offense closer to league average than Littlefield’s final club:


There’s no doubt that Russell Martin will be more of a run producer than Rod Barajas and this is highlighted by using the weighted runs created statistic (wRC), which attempts to quantify a player’s total offensive value and measure it by runs. Martin contributed 56 runs to the Yankees offense last season while Barajas’ wRC was 29 in 124 less plate appearances. It’s a big gap that could expand once Martin’s balls-in-play batting average improves. While this positional upgrade will improve the offensive unit as a whole, the Pirates are still a team that will struggle to get on-base (unless something creative is attempted – like taking the platoon advantage as often as possible, to the point where the club has two different line-ups that will depend on the opposition’s starting pitcher) and nothing has been done to improve the balance to the batting order, so the influence that Martin can have on the offense as a whole may be limited. 

It’s when looking at the potential batting order when issues become apparent with the offense. The problem that the Pirates have is that they only have one Andrew McCutchen when they really need two. The club really does lack a lead-off hitter and McCutchen is the best man for the job, however by moving him to the top of the order then the Bucs will lack his presence in the middle of the line-up. I would personally prefer to see him lead-off as giving McCutchen more plate appearances will always be a good thing for the club, as would having the club’s best player at getting on-base at the top of the order. The Pirates also have more options to step into the number three spot than they do to lead-off a game. Martin is not really suited to hit high up the batting order, however due to the inexperience of the corner outfielders then Martin will have to hit in a position where his offensive contributions may not be suited (Clint Hurdle has mentioned him as a possibility to hit second in the order). 

If the offense fails to take a significant step forward then much of the focus will be on the decision to invest so heavily on Martin. The offense should improve from the natural progression of players like Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte; so if the club’s younger hitters take a step forward in 2013 then the offensive unit will naturally improve – regardless of Martin’s performance. The problem is if improvement is minimal to non-existent, or if there is any regression from the club’s better hitters last season. It could reduce the affect that Martin has at the plate, shifting attention towards how the Pirates GM attempted to improve a team with a .304 OBP in 2012 – which will almost entirely center on Martin. 

This is a similar situation to last winter. The additions to a terrible 2011 offensive unit were two defense-first players in Barajas and Barmes as well as Casey McGehee’s platoon bat. Jerry Sands could find himself in the platoon role this year with Travis Snider, although Jose Tabata’s lack of minor league options may play a part in Sands beginning the season at Triple-A. While Martin is an upgrade and not an insignificant one, the addition of just one regular and potentially one platoon player is unlikely going to be enough for the club’s offense to be league average in 2013, which adds to the reliance on players like Marte, Snider and Alvarez to progress at the plate. 

Russell Martin’s contract automatically puts pressure on him in Pittsburgh. Earning $6.5M in New York in 2013 would rank him as the Yankees’ 12th highest earner in 2013, with a bump up to 11th once the signing bonus is added. This is very different in Pittsburgh. Only A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez rank higher than Martin, with both players having a significant portion of their salaries paid by their former clubs. He’s signed the richest major league free agent contract ever given out by the club and is expected to provide the offensive contribution to the catching position that was lacking in 2012. If he fails to hit, there will be criticism. If Martin does hit but the offensive is still one of the worst in baseball, there will be criticism that the front office didn’t do more to improve and Martin’s contract played a part in that. For this winter to be seen as a success from an offensive standpoint, the club needs more than Russell Martin to contribute at the plate.