Quick one: Who has more wins above replacement from 2006 to 2011, Matt Kemp or Russell Martin? Before you make a quick pick, consider that Kemp has played 787 games while Martin’s been in 792. Their plate appearances have been nearly identical. Are you putting your money on Kemp?
Not so fast. Martin has been worth 20.7 wins above replacement while Kemp’s managed only 19.2. There has been one season in his six-year career in which Martin has been under league average (2 WAR) and only one in which he didn’t have a positive UZR (or defensive runs saved) value – both occurred during his 2009 campaign. Kemp, last year’s National League MVP-runner up, was handed an eight-year, $160 million contract this offseason. Martin, meanwhile, is operating with a $7.5 million dollar contract this year and no financial safety next year. He’s a free agent.
Martin is far from a sure thing – health woes have come up in recent years, and he’s missed a total of 121 games over the last three years from various ailments and day-offs. His batting average has also tumbled from past highs, and his days as a 5+ WAR catcher seem long gone. He’s been league average or below offensively in the last three years, and his current mark in 2012 is one percent above league average. But what he can do is crystal clear: he can draw a walk, as his walk percentage has never been below 10.5% and is hovering at an unsustainable yet impressive 19.2% mark this season. He can play defense, like I mentioned earlier – he’s saved 12.5 runs over his career, which is more than, say Spud Davis, Darrell Porter, Mickey Cochrane, Gene Tenache, Jorge Posada, Thurmon Munson, Mike Piazza, or Joe Torre saved in their storied careers.
Bojan Koprivica at The Hardball Times recently studied catchers’ value, and presented a graph that combined a catcher’s ability to frame pitches, to limit passed balls, and to throw out base runners. He combined all data to come with an adjusted WAR. Last year, the top catchers were as follows:
Two names ahead of Martin, Mike Napoli and Miguel Montero, are similarly facing free agency next year. Matt Wieters is still under minor league contract, and Alex Avila is making the league minimum. Who’s a realistic comparison, then? How about Yadier Molina?
The man just signed a five-year, $75 million contract and was born roughly seven months earlier than Martin. He’s worse offensively, clocking in at 10 percent below league average over his career where Martin’s been three percent above league average. He draws fewer walks (though he does strikeout less). And while he’s vastly better defensively and has handled a Cy Young winner in Chris Carpenter (2005), two runner-ups in Carpenter and Wainwright, and two third place finishers in the same fellas, Martin has a favorable career WAR in 150 fewer games.
This isn’t to say Martin deserves or will fetch a similar contract. It’d be silly to hand over such money to a player with legitimate injury concerns, a downward career trajectory, and a legitimate heir apparent in prospect Austin Romine. That all said, if the catcher market dries up quickly this winter with Napoli, Montero, and Martin all leaving allegiances behind for their respective bidding wars and if one can be had at a bargain, the Yankees shouldn’t hesitate to patch up their catcher situation by taking a good deal where one can be found. Hell, if Russell Martin can be the Ryan Madson of next year’s free agency (i.e. the inexplicably unwanted property who gets by on a too-small deal), then Cashman should dole out the, well, cash.