A few weeks ago I wrote an article about how Chris Stewart would be the best option for the Pittsburgh Pirates at catcher if Russell Martin leaves as a free agent. The idea that Martin will leave seems likely. He’s reportedly looking for a five-year deal at $75-80 M, which is close to Brian McCann money (5 years, $85 M). I’m not even sure if Brian McCann deserved Brian McCann money.
If that is the price (and it might be with the Cubs and Dodgers in the mix), then that would put Martin in a price range that the Pirates shouldn’t be paying. A big reason for that is the fact that Martin should be expected to go on the decline at some point during his deal. Under a four-year deal, you could probably expect one of those years to lead to poor production or even a missed year. I think you could expect two poor years under a five-year deal, since Martin would be in his age 35/36 seasons at the end of such a deal. I’d pay for age 35 if it means you’d be getting ages 32-34, but age 36 at a high rate is too much.
But what happens to the Pirates in the short-term, where they’d be seeing a big decline overall at the catcher position. Stewart looks like the best of a bad bunch, but he’s a clear downgrade from Martin. But what if the Pirates didn’t try to replace Martin? What if they tried to re-create Martin in the aggregate (much like the Oakland Athletics and Jason Giambi in Moneyball)? I decided to take that approach, and while it probably isn’t perfect, here is what I came up with.
I’m going to start here, because that’s where the Pirates are probably going to be starting if they end up searching for another catcher. I’m not sure if they’ll find a better starting option out there than Chris Stewart. That seems like a crazy thing to say, but it just reflects the lack of available options on the open market. The trade market provides hope that there could be a better option out there, but the reality is that teams just don’t trade two-way catching options. The Pirates are going to have to choose between offense only (someone like Evan Gattis) or defense only, and they’ve already got that option internally with Stewart. They’ve shown the preference for defense, so if you are hoping that they’ll pursue Gattis, it doesn’t fit their approach.
I’m going to go with the idea of Chris Stewart as a starter, with the Pirates adding a defensive backup who is good at pitch framing (David Ross would be a cheap option, although he hasn’t been connected to them, and isn’t even a guarantee to return next year). Here is how Stewart compares to Martin.
I’m starting with this because this started the idea of re-creating Martin. I looked at the numbers a few weeks ago when I realized how good Stewart was at pitch framing. According to the Baseball Prospectus figures, Stewart has been worth 16.4 runs per 7000 framing chances over the last two years. Martin has been worth 14.6 runs per 7000 chances in that same timeframe. Stewart has the edge here, with about a two run advantage over Martin.
This is an area where Martin is clearly better than Stewart. According to FanGraphs, Martin has been worth 15 stolen base runs (rSB) over the last two years as a starter. When Stewart was a starter in 2013, he was worth 2 rSB. You could estimate that Martin has an advantage of six runs per season over Stewart.
I don’t know why, but both catchers struggled in 2014 with blocking. Maybe this was due to their injuries, but the numbers for each player ended up below their 2013 totals, and below their career numbers. So let’s backtrack to 2013, when they were both starters. Baseball Prospectus had Stewart worth 2.2 runs per 7000 chances, and Martin was worth 5.7 runs. FanGraphs had a closer comparison, with Stewart at 2.7 RPP (catcher blocked pitches in runs) versus 4.5 for Martin. One figure has Martin worth 3.5 more runs than Stewart. The other figure has the number at 1.8 runs. We’ll split it and put the figure at three runs in Martin’s favor.
Total Defensive Value
Looking at the above three factors, Martin has an advantage of seven runs per season over Stewart. That’s a little bit more than half a win. I don’t want to say that catcher defense is just framing, caught stealing, and blocking. So here are some other factors to consider.
FanGraphs lists Martin as being worth an average of about 19 defensive runs above average over the last two years. Meanwhile, Stewart was worth 4.9 defensive runs above average in 2014 as a backup, and 11.9 as a starter. Martin was worth an average of 14 DRS over the last two years. Stewart has been inconsistent, but has been worth an average of 4 DRS over the last four seasons, spending three of those in a backup role. These two metrics already include things like caught stealing, and the FanGraphs figure includes blocking runs. So we can’t just add those figures in with the above categories, since we’d be counting some stats twice. The overall numbers have Martin at 7-10 runs better than Stewart defensively.
One theory here is that they rate very similar in any other categories (fielding plays, bunt runs saved, etc). The caught stealing/blocking numbers above had Martin with a nine run advantage over Stewart. The pitch framing gives Stewart two runs back. I don’t think we’re going to get an exact figure here, but I’d estimate Martin’s defense is worth 0.5 to 1 full win over Stewart’s defense, with both getting regular starting time.
Here is where things get a little more tricky. Martin is coming off a career year offensively, and I don’t think anyone expects him to repeat those numbers. The same thing can be said for Stewart. Both catchers saw their numbers inflated due to high BABIP figures that probably won’t be sustained going forward. If we’re considering Martin the catcher for the Pirates in 2015, I don’t think anyone will be expecting his 2014 offensive numbers. The same goes for Stewart. So with each player, I looked at their 2011-2013 numbers, which were a lot closer to their career numbers than the 2014 totals.
There is one issue here, and that’s the expected decline in Martin’s offense. He’s most likely going to drop from an .830 OPS in 2014 to an OPS that is closer to his previous three years (.715). As a result, the Pirates as a whole will be looking to replace that offense. But for the purposes of this article, I’m not considering the drop off for Martin, because:
1. They’d have that drop off even if Martin returned. Therefore, it has no impact on the comparison between the two catching options.
2. I don’t think the impact really hurts them. The Pirates had a .734 OPS in 2014 with Martin, making them a top 10 offense. They would have still been a top 10 offense with the 2011-13 version of Martin, posting a team .723 OPS. So it’s not like they need Martin to have a career year to have a good offense.
This also assumes everyone else performs to their 2014 totals. I’ll get to that in a bit, but for now I’m just keeping this as close to a direct comparison as possible.
Russell Martin vs Chris Stewart
As you can expect, the difference between Martin and Stewart is massively in Martin’s favor. I took their 2011-13 figures, then gave them both 460 plate appearances with those numbers. The OPS figures for Martin from 2011-13 were .715, while Stewart was at .583. Clearly there needed to be an upgrade at another position to make up for the lost offense from Martin to Stewart.
The easiest position to upgrade would be first base. I wrote a few weeks ago about how the Pirates’ first base position in 2014 was a very expensive replacement-level player. Their first basemen combined for a .700 OPS in 725 plate appearances.
Meanwhile, Adam LaRoche posted an .817 OPS in 586 plate appearances last year, and those figures were close to his three-year average and career numbers, so I just went with his 2014 totals to make it simple. He’s the best free agent on the market that I think the Pirates could realistically sign (not to mention the best hitting first base options profile more as American League first base/DH options).
Since the Pirates had 725 plate appearances from the first base position last year, I ran LaRoche’s 2014 numbers, along with 139 plate appearances of a .700 OPS, figuring that when LaRoche wasn’t playing, he would be replaced by a league-minimum player. That set up the following comparison:
2011-13 Russell Martin at 460 PA
2014 Pirates First Basemen at 725 PA
2011-13 Chris Stewart at 460 PA
2014 Adam LaRoche at 586 PA
2014 Pirates First Basemen at 139 PA
The result was that the Stewart/LaRoche side won with a combined .711 OPS versus a .706 OPS for Martin and the 2014 Pirates first basemen. In terms of runs created, the Stewart/LaRoche side had an advantage of 3.6 runs.
The Total Comparison
Going back to the defensive comparisons, I had Martin with an advantage of anywhere from five to ten runs over Stewart. This would help even that out, giving Martin an overall advantage of around 2-6 runs, or anywhere from 0.2 WAR to 0.6 WAR. You can make up that difference by upgrading a bench or bullpen spot. Therefore, I’d say that the Pirates could go with Chris Stewart as a starting catcher, with a Stewart-like catcher backing him up. However, they’d need a really good first baseman in order to make up for the offensive drop-off from Martin to Stewart, and then maybe a small upgrade on the bench or in the bullpen to add some extra value.
Going forward, Chris Stewart can’t replace Russell Martin. But Chris Stewart plus Adam LaRoche’s 2014 production could replace Martin plus the 2014 Pirates first basemen.
Thoughts and Disclaimers
**I went with a three-year average for Martin and Stewart, but didn’t do the same for LaRoche. Part of this is due to what I mentioned, that his career numbers (.811 OPS) and three-year average (.804) were close to the 2014 numbers (.817). A bigger reason is that I was more interested in the numbers. LaRoche isn’t necessarily the only option for the Pirates to get those figures. They could go with a platoon of Pedro Alvarez and Gaby Sanchez, and hope both players bounce back from their 2014 slumps (and 51% of you voted that option for the 2015 first base position last week). I was more focused on the target (.817 OPS) than which specific player got those numbers.
**I didn’t focus much on who would be replacing Stewart as the backup catcher, because I’m assuming it would be someone exactly like Stewart. Thus, a wash.
**From a financial standpoint, the Pirates would probably be paying $15 M in 2015 to Martin, and about $8 M to Alvarez/Sanchez. Stewart would be a wash, since he’s in both scenarios. That means the alternative scenario would have $1 M for a defensive backup catcher, plus $10 M for LaRoche, or $8 M for Alvarez/Sanchez. This leads to about $12-14 M remaining that could go towards the rotation, which would really upgrade the rest of the team. Assuming Ike Davis is traded in this scenario, the Martin payroll would be just under $77 M, and the Stewart/LaRoche payroll (assuming Alvarez and Sanchez are also gone) would be just under $65 M. Either way, there would be plenty of room for the Pirates to load up on pitching. They could also afford to keep Alvarez around as an expensive bench option/backup plan at first and third base in the LaRoche scenario.
**There are factors here which are impossible to measure at this point, especially with catchers. You’ve got the way a catcher calls a game, and the way he interacts with his pitching staff and influences them during the games with mound visits and pacing. It’s possible that these could tip the defensive scales even more in Martin’s favor, leading to the need for more offense to make up for that. It’s possible that Stewart is just as good as Martin in these areas. Right now we just don’t have the information to quantify these factors. The Pirates would be in a better position to quantify this, but any outside analysis would have to leave this out.
**The big issue would be the rest of the team. There are always questions about who will improve and who will regress. In this case, will Josh Harrison repeat his breakout season? Will Gregory Polanco adjust to the majors and provide an upgrade in right field versus the production in 2014? Will Jordy Mercer play like the second half version or the first half version? Will the first base options step up if the Pirates keep them around?
This was the most difficult part to consider for the offensive side of things. I used the 2014 first base figures, basically taking an approach that all else would be equal on the team, and that the Pirates would have to upgrade their worst position to make up for the loss of Martin. In reality, they could be better, with other positions seeing upgrades (Polanco). Or they could be worse, with the first base upgrade being negated by a decline at another position (third base with Harrison). I’m using Polanco and Harrison as examples, rather than making predictions.
The best way to do this would be to look at the expectations for everyone on the team, then compare that with Martin and without Martin. But in reality, there are way too many variables involved with that sort of approach. And since I don’t think anyone would argue with my conclusion of “You need to upgrade the offense at first base to make up for the loss of Martin”, then I’m going to avoid that extreme approach in a free article, and get back to working on the 2015 Prospect Guide, so that I might continue being able to provide free content on the site.
**I have no regrets for that shameless plug I just threw out. Also, I’m keeping the nightly link below to pre-order the Prospect Guide, despite said shameless plug. You should definitely buy it if you enjoy reading about the Pirates’ prospects, anything involving baseball in general, or books that help make it possible for this site to cover the farm system each year.
Russell Martin is better than Chris Stewart, but Chris Stewart and Adam LaRoche are slightly better than Russell Martin and Ike Davis/Gaby Sanchez. Although that’s based on the things we know about catcher defense, and there is still plenty we don’t know that could change this analysis.
Links and Notes
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.