Almost every time Russell Martin is shown on television, tweet after tweet after tweet appears on my timeline encouraging the Pirates to re-sign the man. Most people probably aren’t in the best mental position to consider a multi-million dollar contract right after a two-run homer, but when the dust settles what can we expect out of Martin going forward?
There is no doubt that Russell Martin has performed well this year. His average, OBP, and wOBA are all career highs. He walked more and struck out less than last year. Among catchers, he trails just Jonathan Lucroy and Buster Posey in WAR, although both have played 40 more games than Martin. He’s throwing out 39% of would-be base stealers, which is 11 points higher than the League average. Leaving New York appears to have been a great decision.
Before you get too high on Martin’s offensive output though, note that the Pirates have gone nuts with BABIP this season and Martin is no exception. Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Josh Harrison, and Martin all have career-high BABIPs in 2014. He is making contact with more pitches he swings at in the strike zone and hitting more line drives than he did last season, but those numbers are still around his career average. On the down side, he’s also chasing more pitches outside the strike zone than ever. At a .343 BABIP, Martin would rank fourth in the League among qualified hitters. That’s just not going to happen again next year.
Martin will be 32 years old next year. He missed May with a strained left hamstring and catching is not getting any less physically demanding. Age studies typically find that a baseball player will peak at 27, though there is some evidence that says they are not declining as quickly as they used to. Martin has not followed the average path—his career looks less like a bell curve and more like the Liberty Bell—but the chances he will surpass or even match this season’s performance is pretty low.
If the Pirates are going to stay in-house to replace Martin, Tony Sanchez might be expected to step up. He’s 27 and has never had more than the 74 PAs he had this season. He strikes out a lot, but his .304 OBP isn’t exactly bad. Chris Stewart has performed slightly better than Sanchez, with a .362 OBP over 125 PAs this year. He’s a year older than Martin though, and has never been an everyday player. Elias Diaz appears he could move to the Majors at some point in 2015, but no matter how well he does he’s probably not going to be a starter for a while. Obviously they’re all a far-cry from Martin, but all of them will also save a boat load, bringing us to the final topic.
If this were my fantasy league, even with the unlikelihood that Martin would provide as much pop at the plate next season, I would probably keep him on my team. I don’t have a contract to consider though; the Pirates do. Martin was the highest-paid Pirate this season at $8.5 million. Stats-wise he was second to only Andrew McCutchen (that’s not using any fancy numbers either, Cutch topped him in WAR, average, slugging, runs, RBIs, home runs, hits, you name it). As we have seen, his numbers almost surely won’t be what they were this year and it’s even less likely they will improve. His salary, on the other hand, almost surely will rise. Perhaps the biggest factor will be how much.
Remember last year’s “Must Sign Man of the Year,” AJ Burnett? He was sitting people the eff down mid-playoff race and everyone loved him. The Pirates were willing to pay him a good salary to return, but they would only go so far. The Allegheny River rose a few inches from all the tears shed when he went to Philly… who paid him $15 million to go from a 3.9 WAR and 3.3 ERA last year to a 1.2 WAR and 4.3 ERA this year.
I don’t envy the Pirates front office having to try and make a deal with Martin, but I expect to see the same strategy as they used with Burnett—we’ll pay, but there’s a line. Fans bemoaned the choice to let Burnett go last year, but the front office made the right call. No matter how this turns out, hopefully they can do so again.