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Is Russell Martin the Difference Maker for the Pittsburgh Pirates?

It's not often that one player can make a huge difference for a team that is viewed as "average" but can Russell Martin be that player for the Pittsburgh Pirates?


There’s a prevailing thought in baseball that one player won’t make a huge difference in the win column for a bad team, or even a mediocre one. For the Pittsburgh Pirates, though, one player can make a difference - a huge difference - and that player is newly acquired catcher Russell Martin. ESPN's Jayson Stark wrote a piece detailing five reasons why this could be the year in which Pittsburgh finally ends its losing ways.

I don’t particularly disagree with any of the reasons Stark lists but there is one that stands out the most to me. He lists "tThe catcher" as reason number two, just after "They learn their lessons," meaning they’re better with another year of experience under their belts, but to me Martin is probably the single biggest reason why the Pirates could possibly contend for a playoff spot this season.

No one pretends that Martin is a modern-day Johnny Bench -- or even a modern-day Tony Pena. But he is the Pirates' most important offseason addition, and not just because he figures to help this team do a better job of slowing the running game.

"Russell," said Burnett, of his old catcher in the Bronx, "is going to have a big impact."

OK, so Martin hit .211/.311/.403 last year with the Yankees. But you know those 21 home runs he launched? No Pirates catcher has ever hit 21 home runs in a season. Not Pena. Not Jason Kendall. Not even Jim Pagliaroni.

But even if that home run total drops, as you would expect because of the move to PNC Park, Martin brings a certain energy and presence to the job that this team -- and, especially, this pitching staff -- greatly needs.

I like the fact that Jayson doesn't mince words when talking about Martin’s offensive prowess at this point in his career. Martin is not an above average talent with the bat anymore, as evidenced by his declining batting average and OBP four seasons in a row, but he was also a victim of an incredibly low BABIP the last two seasons (.252 in 2011 and .222 in 2012) so he could see some slight positive regression in each of those categories this year.

However, Martin’s real value for the Pirates lies in his defense, and not just his ability to control the running game, as indicated by his career 30% caught stealing rate, and his above average defense behind the dish, as indicated by the 30 defensive runs he’s saved over his career.

No, Martin's real defensive value comes from the one thing that Martin does exceptionally well, which we have just recently begun to understand and quantify: frame pitches. Mike Fast did some research on catcher pitch framing abilities and published a study that looked at the number of runs saved through getting additional (close) pitches called strikes that weren’t actually strikes. The average run value placed on a pitch switching from a ball to a strike is approximately 0.13 runs.

Fast discovered that from 2007 to 2011, Martin was the second best catcher in all of baseball when it came to getting those extra strikes called. Jose Molina was first, having saved 73 total runs, whereas Martin saved 71 - a full 30 runs ahead of the next best catcher. Just using these numbers alone, Martin has accounted for roughly seven wins over that period of time. In 2012, Martin and Chris Stewart accounted for nearly 30 runs saved, courtesy of pitch framing, for the New York Yankees.

The Pirates' catching situation last season was trifling as their pairing of Rod Barajas and Michael McKenry didn’t do them many favors at all defensively, although Barajas was the truly guilty party in that department. The two combined to throw out just 19 runners attempting to steal a base out of 154 attempts (12.3%). Martin threw out 20 runners alone, at a 31.7% rate, last year. Barajas has also been a below average defensive catcher throughout much of his career, posting a -7 DRS rating overall.

Obviously replacing Barajas with Martin as the starting catcher is a no-brainer in terms of who offers more value to the Pirates, but is adding Martin going to make enough of a difference overall that it could propel the team into the 2013 playoff conversation?