Why Aren't More People Talking About Russell Martin?
The Pittsburgh Pirates are just two games out of a playoff spot, and many would argue that this is due in large part to Andrew McCutchen having another MVP-type season. Considering his fWAR and nERD is top-10 in all of baseball, it’d be hard to disagree. However, McCutchen isn’t the only Pirate having an outstanding season, as he's had some help keeping the squad in playoff contention - many just may not realize who it is.
Russell Martin missed roughly a month of games after being placed on the disabled list on April 26th for a strained hamstring. Between that and the normal days off a catcher receives, Martin has only played in 92 games this season, not giving him enough plate appearances to qualify for the statistical lead in most offensive categories.
Perhaps this is why he isn't receiving much attention for the year he is having. However, if Martin did qualify, his .413 on base percentage (OBP) would be the best in baseball, and for players with at least 350 plate appearances, it’s second best (the injured Tulowitzki still owns the lead there). While Martin has been getting on base at a potentially league-leading clip, many of his other numbers are also well above his career averages. Check out the table below comparing Martin’s 2014 season to his career numbers.
Even after missing a significant amount of time, Martin still has baseball’s 21st best fWAR at 4.5, 18th best runs created plus (wRC+) at 142, and the 21st best weighted on base average (wOBA) at .373. Just for comparison, his wRC+ is better than guys like Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Adrian Beltre, and David Ortiz.
Martin’s numbers look good against some of baseball’s bigger names, but when comparing them to his fellow catchers, they look even better.
Among catchers, Martin has the second best fWAR, wOBA, wRC+, and walk percentage, the third best batting average, is tied for the most steals, and, of course, the best OBP. He’s not only doing it with his bat, as his defensive numbers are also among baseball’s best for catchers. Martin is tied for first in both stolen base runs saved (rSB), which “measures how many ‘runs’ a catcher contributes to their team by throwing out runners and preventing runners from attempting steals in the first place,” and in defensive runs saved (DRS). His overall defensive fWAR is fourth best, and no catcher has thrown out more base stealers than Martin’s 33.
Buster Posey has a better bat and Jonathan Lucroy gets more credit for his defense and pitch framing skills, but Martin’s combination of both offense and defense this season make him arguably baseball’s best catcher, especially since Lucroy’s rSB of zero is league average, compared to Martin’s rating of 5, which is considered excellent.
Martin’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .344, well above his career average of .289. While the percentage of line drives he hits (18.9%) is over two points higher than it was last season (16.6%), it’s still right on par with his career average (19.1%), meaning he’s getting lucky right now. Looking further, his BABIP on ground balls is .282, on fly balls it’s .153, and on line drives it’s .696.
The league average BABIP for ground balls is .245, for fly balls it’s .081, and for line drives it’s .640 (stats via Baseball Reference). Martin isn’t so far ahead of these numbers that what he’s doing is unsustainable, but for whatever reason, the balls he hits are finding more holes than they have in the past. It’s possible that Martin is seeing the ball better, judging by his walk percentage – which is the best he’s had in his career – and a strikeout percentage that’s the lowest it’s been since 2011.
According to our own projections, we have Martin finishing the year with a line of .288/.408/.413, and with a wOBA of .361. These numbers are very similar to FanGraph’s ZiPS Projections, which has Martin at .286/.404/.416, and with a wOBA of .368. Based on either projection, Martin is expected to finish with an OBP of over .400. As of now, there are only two qualified hitters with an OBP of over .400, and neither of them are catchers. Since 2000, a catcher has posted an OBP of .400 or better for a season just 12 times, or less than one a year, making Martin’s season all the more impressive (if he gets there).
Martin has a nERD score of 1.52, which means that if he hit in every spot in the lineup, his team would score 1.52 more runs than a lineup full of league-average players. (For reference, Mike Trout has the highest nERD of 4.00). This number is impressive on its own, but when accounting for Martin’s solid defense, his value becomes that much higher.
McCutchen deserves to be considered the main reason the Pirates are still in the hunt, but overlooking Martin’s contributions – on both sides of the ball – is unfair. I’m guessing that if the Pirates are able to sneak into the playoffs, Martin will have had more than a little something to do with it.