Russell Martin and Wins Above Replacement


The Jays have had some brilliant free agent signings over their history.  Roger Clemens won the Cy Young in a Jays uniform in 1997 and 1998.  Paul Molitor led the AL in hits in 1993, and was the World Series MVP.  Dave Winfield – though only a Jay for one year – galvanized the Toronto fans (“Winfield wants noise!”) and delivered the World-Series-winning hit.

So it is pretty presumptuous for me to suggest that the Russell Martin signing could end up to be the greatest free agent signing in Jays’ history.

But I am doing it anyway.

Extending fWAR to mWAR

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As with any other player, you can start measuring Martin’s contribution using

fangraphs fWAR

.  In 2013 and 2014, Martin averaged a fWAR of 4.7, and Steamer projects a 2015 value of 3.8.  On this basis alone, Martin would be among the top 20 position players in the AL.  But Martin’s contribution does not stop there.

Much has been written about the value that a catcher can bring to their organization through pitch framing.  While I believe that our understanding of pitch framing is still in its infancy, best estimates have it that Martin has averaged 18 runs saved over the last three years with his framing.  Assuming the same level in 2015, and using the 2014 AL rate of 9.117 runs per win, this would notionally add just under 2 WAR per year, bringing his projected 2015 f+framingWAR to an impressive 5.6.  This 5.6 would tie Martin with Miguel Cabrera for the highest Steamer projection for a 2015 AL position player.

But even this does not fully reflect Martin’s value to the team.  In a characteristically excellent article, Kyle Matte of Capital Jays noted that during Martin’s time with the Pirates he had a significantly favourable effect on A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano‘s K-BB% – far more than pitch framing could account for.   In Burnett’s case, Martin’s knowledge of the strike zone and pitch-calling resulted in a K-BB% more than 5% higher than with other catchers (for Liriano, it was 2-4%).  If Martin could achieve a similar improvement in the Jays pitching staff, the effect could be enormous.  

RM: The more comfortable you are with a pitcher, the more you know what he has, the better you can get at it…You can get a feel for what the umpires are seeing and calling, and when they’re missing pitches and why, and what you think they’re seeing when they’re missing them”

Suppose, for the sake of the argument, that Martin could increase the K-BB% of the Jays’ pitching staff by an average of 4%.  It

has been estimated

that each strikeout, on average, increases the probability of winning (WPA) by 3%.  Similarly, each walk decreases WPA by the same 3%.  Assuming the mlb average of

roughly 38 plate appearances

per game, and holding other factors constant, a 4% increase in K-BB% would accordingly increase the team’s WPA by about 4.5% for each game.    Over 120 starts as catcher, that could in theory add over 5 wins, bringing Martin’s fWAR + framing + K-BB% WAR (call it “mWAR”?)  to over 10.  By comparison, the highest Steamer projection for fWAR in 2015 is

Mike Trout

at 8.7.

And as long as I have come this far …

Jun 6, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin (left) high-fives Edinson Volquez (right) after defeating the Milwaukee Brewers at PNC Park. The Pirates won 15-5. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

For several years, the Jays have emphasized pitching in the amateur and international drafts.  As a result, their top two players under 25 are both pitchers, as are their top three prospects (at least, in Baseball America’s opinion).   It is likely not an exaggeration to say that the mid-term future of the Jays will depend more on the development of these young pitchers than any other factor.   Pitching to one of the finest defensive / framing / pitch-calling catchers in the game could well give Norris, Sanchez, Hutchison, Hoffman et al the knowledge they need to optimize their talents and the confidence they need to reach their potential.  Pretty much impossible to quantify, but huge value there.

Clearly, the above calculations are based on many assumptions.  That pitch framing has not been officially added to fWAR is likely due, at least in part, to the relative immaturity of the stat.   And just because Martin was able to achieve improvements in K-BB% with Burnett and, to a lesser extent, Liriano does not guarantee that he will have similar success with the Jays.  Still, given where the Jays stand today it is hard to imagine a better place for them to have spent their money.

Next: Big League Chew: Blue Jays offseason