You’ve probably heard all about Russell Martin’s work with his pitching staff. It seems that following every good outing, there is a quote made from one of his pitchers about how Martin impacted the game that night. In most cases, these would seem like throwaway lines made out of courtesy from the pitcher to share the success with his teammates. But the comments are made so often, and in so many different ways, that it goes beyond a standard line and starts to become a genuine statement towards how much of an impact Martin has on his pitchers.
There isn’t currently a way to quantify how catchers interact with their pitchers, but it’s pretty obvious that Martin brings positive value in this regard.
“It’s really just knowing your teammates,” Martin said on the skill. “Especially the pitchers and knowing what their strengths are and in any given situation, you are going to stick with your strengths. There is a combination of knowing the hitters as well, but the most important thing is understanding their strengths and what they like to do and stress them. You have to build that relationship where they have trust in you.”
After talking with several of the pitchers Martin works with, it’s clear that he has that trust, and that it’s not just clichéd responses.
The Relationship With the Pitchers
There is no doubt that the Pirates’ staff has full faith in Martin. To learn this, all you have to do is ask them. All-Star Tony Watson points to Martin’s energy as a driving force to the squad.
“He’s, in my opinion, one of the best in the game,” Watson said. “What he does for us, in calling games, reading hitters, scouting reports, and things like that, is second to none. Seeing his energy level throughout the course of a whole season is something that we all feed off of.”
Even while asking Watson a series of questions about Martin, Gerrit Cole in the neighboring locker caught wind and let out an audible, “he’s the best catcher in the game” as he was getting dressed for his Sunday start.
On August 19th, Brandon Cumpton gave up a solo homer in the ninth inning to Evan Gattis of the Braves. After the game, Cumpton tweeted the following:
Note to self…. Never ever EVER shake off @russellmartin55 and when I do I better burry that slider. Sorry Russ!
— Brandon Cumpton (@BCumpton28) August 20, 2014
Watson echoed this sentiment.
“He puts down the fingers and you rarely shake him off,” Watson said. “A lot of guys in here would probably say the same thing. There is always a purpose for the fingers that he is putting down and 99.9 percent of the time he is correct.”
When it comes to calling the game, Martin said that the work with the pitchers is one of the things that he looks forward to the most in the game.
“Game calling is one of those things that is not a perfect science,” Martin said. “There is not just one pitch that you can throw at a certain time. There are just conversations that you have an ideas that you share. That is what is fun about baseball, there is really no right or wrong, it’s just your thought process going into it.”
For Francisco Liriano, the key to his work with Martin is the trust the two have formed in their bond with burying the ball in the dirt to put away hitters.
“(It gives me) a lot of confidence to put a ball in the dirt,” Liriano said. “Especially when you have people on base. You can throw anything and know he is going to be good behind the plate. We have a good idea what each other is looking for and are pretty much on the same page.”
Liriano said that having the mutual trust with Martin makes doing his job on the bump so much easier.
Reliever Jared Hughes also points to a similar aspect with his game that Martin has aided him with over his breakout season during the 2014 campaign.
“He has made the difference for me a ton of times, because I have the tendency to yank my sinker,” Hughes said. “That means that it cuts and goes into the other batter’s box. If you are not quick, you cannot get to that pitch and it is going to go to the backstop. Russell, non-stop, is able to react to that pitch. Every time, when I yank my sinker, Russell is there to block it.”
With his blocking ability and athleticism, Hughes was blown away by a play that Martin made to instill the same confidence early on with newly promoted John Holdzkom.
“He is incredibly athletic,” Hughes said. “He is always back there blocking balls. He made a throw in John Holdzkom’s debut the other day. John struck out the first guys that he faced in the majors and the ball went to the backstop and Russell slides while going to the backstop. He makes a throw while sliding and I thought to myself that there is no other catcher that can do that. He is just one of a kind.”
Hughes said that Martin is a master communicator as well and that has led to the bond that he has formed with the staff. Martin will be honest with pitchers and try to guide them in the right direction with his game plan. He is also not afraid to let pitchers know if they throw a bad pitch and what a better choice would have been. A lot of this is the result of the prep work that Martin does. Martin can be seen all of the time in the clubhouse, studying the tendency of hitters and working on game plans.
The Value that Martin Brings Behind the Plate
Martin has helped Hughes in another aspect that he has struggled on throughout his career. Hughes said that he has struggled to control the running game in the past. With Martin behind the plate, this is no longer a concern in his mind and he said that this has become a strength. That can be seen in the stats. Hughes gave up 19 stolen bases in 19 attempts in 2011-12, spanning 86.2 innings. He has given up 8 stolen bases in 16 attempts the last two years, spanning 82 innings. This year he has only given up four stolen bases in ten attempts.
That trend isn’t limited to just Hughes. Jeff Locke had a 30% caught stealing rate in his limited time in the majors in 2011 and 2012. Last year with Martin, he had a 47% rate, catching seven out of 15. This year he has a 50% rate, catching five out of ten.
Tony Watson went 2-for-19 in 2011 and 2012. He is now 3-for-10 in the last two years. Charlie Morton had a 22.5% caught stealing rate in his career before working with Martin. He has posted a 28.5% rate the last two years, although that breaks down as an excellent 35% rate last year, and a 22% rate this year that is closer to his career average pre-Martin.
Not only has Martin done a better job of catching runners stealing, he has also led to a massive decrease in the amount of runners who are attempting stolen bases, as seen in the numbers above. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has noticed Martin’s control on the running game the past two seasons as well.
“He has thrown out  guys stealing [this season],” Hurdle said. “Last year, he had a fantastic season and it was 36. He blocks balls as well as any catcher also that I have ever come across.”
Hurdle also knows that the impact Martin has on every part of the game, both offensively and defensively.
“[Martin] adds an edge and dynamic to our club that is significant,” Hurdle said. “In the dugout, when he is behind the plate, when he is one the bases, when he is in the box, when he is not in the game, he is in every pitch. His ability to help the pitcher who is on the mound is as good as any catcher that I have ever been around. He empowers that guy to think that it is going to be the best night that he has ever had.”
With this work, Martin admits that the connection with the pitchers is ever evolving each day.
“Baseball is a game of adjustments,” Martin said. “Sometimes you make adjustments on the fly and sometimes you go over it with the starter in the pregame. Sometimes you see a team a couple of times in a week and you talk about changes here and there.”
Martin said that once the trust is there, he just looks to build on it with the pitchers. He said that it is about keeping an open eye and ear to the pitchers, while trusting your instincts. With this in mind, Martin is pleased where he is with the staff.
“As far as my pitching staff, I feel like I trust them and they trust me,” Martin said. “That goes a long way.”
Russell Martin’s Value to the Pirates
Without even putting his offensive season into consideration, Martin’s work with the pitching staff and his effort behind the plate show’s Martin’s true value. Clint Hurdle recently told the media that Martin is just as valuable to the squad as MVP Andrew McCutchen, and this could not be more true.
The statistic show the same value as Martin is posting a 4.9 WAR in this season and a 4.1 WAR last season. He has only topped the 2014 number once in his career, with the Dodgers in 2007. McCutchen is posting a 5.7 WAR this season, and has been over seven the previous two years. While those numbers favor McCutchen, Martin’s work with the staff, combined with his defensive prowess makes plays into this statement. Martin’s framing has earned his staff 138 extra strikes this season, according to Baseball Prospectus. His value from a framing and blocking perspective has added about 16 runs this year, which is good for another win and a half that isn’t considered in the numbers above. This doesn’t consider that there are no good ways to quantify a catcher’s relationship with his pitching staff, and Martin clearly adds value there.
Andrew McCutchen is well-regarded as the most important player on the Pirates, but with more appreciation going to catcher defense the last two years, we’re starting to see that Russell Martin is right up there with him. And a big reason for that is not only the impact Martin has individually, but the way he elevates the game of his pitching staff, improving the team as a whole.