What Makes Toronto Blue Jays Catcher Russell Martin Special?

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With the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox rebuilding, the Toronto Blue Jays have built an offensive juggernaut. While they may not have the best pitching in the AL East, they signed one of the best defensive catchers in the game before the 2015 season to give their pitching staff a boost. Ian York explores the framing abilities of Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin to show why the team invested so much in the catcher.

As catchers go, the Toronto Blue Jays’ Russell Martin is a pretty good hitter. He ranks 17th of the 46 catchers with 1000 or more plate appearances since 2010, with a 107 wRC+, and he has been in the top 5 catchers (300 or more PA) in the past two years (wRC+ of 114 in 2015, 141 in 2014).

Of course, Martin’s bat is not the main reason the Jays are paying him $82 million over his five-year contract. The Jays already had plenty of offense going into 2015, but they also had a set of young pitchers, and – in Dioner Navarro – they had a sub-par defensive catcher who wasn’t going to get the best out of their pitchers.

In particular, Navarro was not a good pitch framer. In 2014, he was among the worst framing catchers in baseball. His framing cost his pitchers about 1.48 strikes per game, compared to the average catcher. That is roughly the equivalent of 18 runs over the season, or very approximately two wins, that Navarro cost the Jays from his framing abilities alone. His league-average offense was not enough to compensate for this.

We can look at Navarro’s framing, relative to league average, by calculating the average fraction of strikes in each section around the strike zone, and then comparing Navarro’s outcomes to the number of pitches he saw in each zone (more on that here). The grey polygons here represent the de facto strike zones, as umpires called them in 2014. These charts are shown from the umpire’s viewpoint, so batters would stand between the charts. Regions where Navarro generated more strikes than average are red; those where he generated fewer than average are blue.

At the bottom of the strike zone, Navarro was much worse than league average, losing many potential strikes for his pitchers. At the top of the zone, he was slightly, but only slightly, better than average not enough to compensate for the lost strikes at the bottom.

Russell Martin didn’t have to be a great framer to be a massive upgrade over Navarro, but in fact, during his career he had been pretty great every year from 2008 to 2014, ranking among the top ten framing catchers (minimum of 5000 chances) each of those years.

Unexpectedly, Martin’s framing in 2015 didn’t match up with his previous years. He was still positive, with .34 extra strikes per game (translating to about half a win over the season), which was well above Navarro, who managed to lose the equivalent of about a third of a game in framing in just 39 games as backup catcher.

Looking at Martin’s extra-strike distribution since 2008, we can see that in 2015 Martin stopped gaining extra strikes at the bottom of the strike zone, which has traditionally been an area of strength for him, although he was still gaining extra strikes at the top of the zone and on the outside of the left-handed batters/inside to RHB.

To be fair to Martin, while StatCorner agrees with the estimate that Martin was just above average in 2015, Baseball Prospectus ranks him somewhat higher in their “Called Strikes Above Average” (CSAA) rating. CSAA attempts to separate out the effects of catcher from pitcher and other factors in framing, so it is possible that Martin is being unfairly penalized for his pitchers’ poor framing contributions.

Martin’s defensive strengths go well past framing though. He is an excellent blocker, is frequently among the caught-stealing leaders, and has a reputation as a very good game caller. Combined with his above-average offense, he represented great value to the Jays in 2015. However, if his framing abilities are genuinely in decline, he may be less valuable to Toronto in the future than they had hoped.

Ian York uses the PITCHf/x to monitor the strike zone, highlights great performances, monitors league-wide trends and tracks the performances of interesting young hitters.

Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.

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