I was pretty underwhelmed when the Yankees made it clear that they were bringing back Russell Martin for another year. Back then, we were still anticipating the beginning of the short-lived Jesus Montero era, and Martin’s presence would ensure that Montero’s full value would not be realized. Even after the Montero trade, catcher was the position I was least excited about on the Yankees. Sure, Martin makes good financial sense — he’s a one-year commitment and only needs to be average to bring back value on his $7.5 million deal. But, I’m just not gonna get a chub for an average player.

On the surface, that’s just what RussMart appears to be. The Fans’ Scouting Report and Fangraph’s Fielding Runs both see Martin as above-average defensively. Yet, his bat has been about 10% below league average over the last 3 years. Add it up and you’ve got a guy on a good contract who’s nothing to write home about. With the Yankees’ budget, you expect more than that.

Yet, what if he’s not just an average player? What if Russell Martin is a 5 WAR player in a 2.5 WAR player’s mask? There are reasons for optimism on both sides of the ball.

Defense

In 2009 and 2010, Dodgers fans rated Russell Martin as 7% and 6% better than average, respectively. In 2011, Yankee fans thought RussMart was 14% better than average — which could be exaggerated since watching Jorge Posada for 15 years will make anyone else look like Pudge Rodriguez by comparison. Fangraphs says Martin has been worth 2 runs (one fifth of a win) above average per season defensively.

Both of these metrics have severe shortcomings. The Fans’ Scouting Report isn’t likely to do as well with catchers as other positions. Fans can gauge arm strength and how well a catcher blocks wild pitches. However, the casual observer will have a much harder time calculating the nuances of catching (framing pitches, calling a game, handling a pitching staff).

Fangraphs’ metric similarly only accounts for blocking pitches and controlling the running game, without attempting to measure the finer things which former catchers like Joe Girardi claim are of great value.

A recent spate of statistical research indicates that one of those finer points — framing pitches — is a valuable skill. This February 10th Baseball Prospectus article by Max Marchi is about former Yankee, Jose Molina, and the defensive skills he will now bring to the rival Rays. Marchi says that Molina does well controlling the running game (9.8 runs above average over the last 4 years) and fielding batted balls (1.2 runs). However, the money shot comes in the listing of the leaders for runs saved by framing pitches. Jose Molina is third-best — good for 62.8 runs above average over the last 4 years. Guess who was right ahead of the Middle Molina…

Yup, your boy…Russell Martin. By coaxing strikes out of umpires on borderline pitches, Russell Martin has saved 70 runs above average for his teams over the last four seasons. If Marchi’s model is accurate, this means that Martin is capable of adding as many as 2 wins to his WAR total via the unseen art of framing. Suddenly, Martin is looking like a no-doubt All-Star 4+ WAR catcher.

Offense

Martin’s offensive prowess is also probably understated. His wOBA over the last three years has been below average, but going into his age 29 season, we should probably expect him to be right around his career average (.335). As it turns out, Martin has been almost exactly league average for his career. League average may not sound impressive, but it makes him one of the better hitting catchers in the league. Since the start of his career in 2006, only 11 catchers have had better wOBAs (min 1000 PAs).

Moreover, there are several reasons to think Martin will surpass his career .335 wOBA. In 2007, Martin posted a career-best .368 wOBA. He followed that up with a .351 wOBA campaign. He was a 25-year old catcher putting up All-Star numbers in over 1200 PAs.

At 29, we shouldn’t expect Martin to be too far off from that peak. In fact, many catchers peak later than other position players (possibly because young catchers focus more on their defensive responsibilities, and learn to hit to their potential only after much seasoning). For example, Jorge Posada’s 8 best hitting seasons came after he turned 29.

So why did Martin deviate so far from the offensive talent he showed in his early years? The answer might lie in his hefty workload. In 2007, Martin appeared in a 151 games, more than any other catcher. So what does Joe Torre do to Martin for an encore? In 2008, Torre played Martin in 155 games. This apparently wore Martin down, as the following season his wOBA fell 44 points to .307. Torre kept Proctoring him though, riding Martin for 143 more games that season. Martin’s body broke down in 2010, as he hit for a .306 wOBA and was limited to 99 games due to injury.

Martin came into the 2011 season for the Yanks still dealing with hip and knee issues. His .325 wOBA looked decent, but it was an underwhelming bounce back. Yet, underneath was a .170 ISO that matched his power from his salad days. The wOBA was suppressed by a very unlucky .252 BABIP. Despite being a catcher, there’s no reason to think Martin ought to suffer a lower than average BABIP. He hits for decent power, puts the ball on the ground a lot, and has about average speed. It would be nice to see Russell get that walk rate back up a tick or two, but if can maintain his power from last year, Martin will likely see his wOBA jump the .340 mark and maybe even push .350.

Russell Martin gets overlooked by a lot of Yankee writers (this one included) due to his mediocre surface numbers. Yet, behind the the mask, might be squatting one of the most valuable assets on the Yankees.


With his ability to frame pitches, Martin provides extra security for Yankee pitchers.