Are the Pirates better off with Francisco Cervelli at catcher than with Russell Martin?


Francisco Cervelli has been one of the biggest reasons for the success of the Pittsburgh Pirates this season. He has contributed at the plate and behind the dish, and seems to rake in hits even when the rest of the team can’t. He leads the current Pirates’ team in batting average at .331 and, if he had enough at-bats to qualify, would be tied for fourth in the National league (and fifth in all of baseball) in that category. He also leads the majors in runs saved via pitch framing at 8.9 (according to Stat Corner). Needless to say, he’s been nothing but an asset to the Pirates so far this season.

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But Cervelli wasn’t the Pirates first choice at catcher coming into 2015. The team wanted to bring back Russell Martin, but there was no way Pittsburgh was going to match Toronto’s five-year, $82 million offer to Martin. Cervelli was seen as a risk at the time, considering he’s never played in more than 93 games in a season and has been a backup for the majority of his career. But Huntington loves his former Yankee catchers, and sent left-handed reliver Justin Wilson to New York for Cervelli last November. While Cervelli is setting the world on fire, Wilson currently owns a 4.58 ERA with the Yankees.

So Huntington may have won the Wilson for Cervelli trade. But has Cervelli come close to matching what Martin would have brought to the table for the Pirates? Are the Pirates actually better off with Cervelli than they would have been with Martin? Let’s take a brief look at both sides:

Yes, they are better with Cervelli:

Cervelli’s batting average is no joke. He seems to consistently get hits no matter who else in the lineup is or isn’t getting them, and his 48 hits on the season rank fourth in the National League among catchers and are four more than Martin has. Cervelli has also played in seven fewer games than Martin has and has at least 30 less at-bats than the three catchers that have more hits than him in the NL.

His pitch framing skills are legitimate. This is one area that the league finally seems to be putting value in, while Neal Huntington has been doing so for years. His 8.9 runs saved due to pitch framing on the season leads the majors, while Martin only has 0.3 runs saved on the season. Cervelli is clearly a big upgrade from Martin in this regard.

Cervelli also bests Martin in on-base percentage (.398 to .351) and has less strikeouts (32 to 42) than Martin. Cervelli has been an underrated offensive performer this season. Any offense from the catcher spot is seen as an additional, not always necessary, bonus.

But the biggest reason why the Pirates may be better off with Martin is due to the difference in their contracts. Cervelli is making less than $1 million this season, while Martin is making $7 million. That $6 million difference covers the additions of Jung Ho Kang, Sean Rodriguez, and Arquimedes Caminero with over $1 million to spare. The change from Martin to Cervelli goes beyond what Cervelli brings to the table stat-wise.

But has Cervelli come close to matching what Martin would have brought to the table for the Pirates? Are the Pirates actually better off with Cervelli than they would have been with Martin?

No, they are not better with Cervelli:

Russell Martin is still considered by most to be a better overall catcher than Cervelli and one of the best catchers in all of baseball. He’s played in more games this year than Cervelli has, and he bests Cervelli in home runs (seven to one), RBIs (24 to 16), slugging percentage (.464 to .407), OPS (.815 to .805), stolen bases (three to none), and walks (21 to 13). Some of those numbers are inflated because Martin has played seven more games than Cervelli, but those additional games played are also where Martin adds value. Martin also leads all of baseball in caught stealing percentage at 48.6% of runners caught, while Cervelli has only thrown out 27.7% of runners. Cervelli is a clear downgrade from Martin in this area.

According to Fangraphs, Martin also bests Cervelli in wins above replacement at 2.1 to Cervelli’s 1.4. While WAR isn’t the perfect stat, it does help in quantifying the value of players.

So, are the Pirates better off with Cervelli than with Martin?

Martin deserves every penny he’s getting from the Blue Jays, but the Pirates couldn’t afford to pay him the contract he received from Toronto. Based on the financial restrictions the Pirates have, yes, they are better off without Martin. His contract skyrockets to $20 million in the last two years of his contract, which could affect the Pirates in future extension talks with Andrew McCutchen, Gregory Polanco, and Gerrit Cole, among others. Francisco Cervelli, if he stays healthy, is an adequate replacement for Martin. The energy he provides game-in and game-out from behind the plate and at the dish is an underrated part of his game. For now, Cervelli looks like a steal and another one of Huntington’s great offseason deals.

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