On Friday, Russell Martin was traded for the first time in his career, as his rebuilding Blue Jays passed him to his original team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, for two minor prospects in Ronny Brito and Andrew Sopko.
It was only the fifth time a team has ever bid for Martin’s services; the last time was his free agency where he received a whopping $82 million from a Blue Jays team ready to contend at that moment, and in his country no less.
The previous time was with the Pirates, who signed him at a higher price than even the Yankees wanted to, at $17 million over two years. The Yankees received him as a non-tender and gave him normal arbitration prices, and the Dodgers drafted him all the way back in the 17th round of the 2002 draft.
Up until that massive deal, and really when he truly “broke” out with the Pirates offensively, there wasn’t a single team that likely valued him properly, even when that was an age that paid free agents decent rates. But catchers are valued differently, and that means that when the Hall of Fame votes roll in, voters will likely treat him in that same, undervalued way.
From a first glance, I get it. Martin, by JAWS, is good but unspectacular—he ranks 28th in JAWS, and 28th in WAR. His OPS+ ranks 107th, and I can’t imagine anyone feeling too thrilled at voting for someone with a career .249 batting average.
Yet even before his supposed breakout, where his OPS+ was only a paltry 99, he had accumulated much more of a more representative stat—WARP, which accounts for advanced framing stats as well as normal catcher defense like blocking and stolen base attempts. When he started his first year with the Pirates he had already put up 37.5 WARP, about the same as Thurman Munson in his career.
Today, Martin’s WARP is at at a total of 59.8, or seventh all-time and just a bit behind Brian McCann (who I will also discuss briefly) and Gary Carter, who we readily accept as a Hall of Famer. Martin has a higher career WARP than Bill Dickey, Buster Posey, Joe Mauer, and Joe Torre, to name a few.
You can’t really compare the previous era’s with bWAR to WARP, largely because the defensive metrics are essentially on different planets when you go to the post-PitchF/X era, nor are the focus of skills the same. But because we are in the framing era right now, and we know who the best catchers are by those metrics (and other advanced defensive metrics for catchers), we have a better idea of who the best catchers of the modern era are... and they are:
- Mike Piazza: 70.6 WARP
- Brian McCann: 65.9 WARP
- Russell Martin: 59.8 WARP
- Yadier Molina: 59.2 WARP
- Ivan Rodriguez: 57.9 WARP
- Buster Posey: 49.2 WARP
Of those, Piazza, Pudge, Posey, and Molina are either in or are likely Hall of Fame candidates. Yet when you look at, say, Brian McCann, will he that be in the same discussion? McCann has a career 111 OPS+, so the discussion would essentially have to be centered around his defense, where he was worth 209 FRAA, much of that including framing. Martin, for what it’s worth, was worth 236 FRAA.
It’s more of a philosophical discussion, but our discourse on catchers and the Hall of Fame likely will have to change, just like it will inevitably have to change when starting pitchers’ inning totals pale in comparison to legacy players. It’ll look that way in the other direction for catchers, where exorbitant framing totals will go unrecorded in the past but will show massive defensive legacies for current players.
There are certain “obvious” catchers of today who will be Hall of Famers in the future, but if the voters (and possibly the Veterans’ Committee) miss on especially McCann and Martin, then they will have missed the most valuable ones of this generation.