How the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Created Their Own Strikes


The 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates were a team that was built and driven around analytics. This is how they got as many strikes as they possibly could out of their pitchers.

One of the heroes throughout the Pittsburgh Pirates’ postseason runs in 2013 and 2014 was catcher Russell Martin. Martin’s first season with the Pirates cemented himself as a fan favorite, and one of the leaders of the team. With the bat, Martin was so-so with a .226/.327/.377 line, 14 home runs, and 100 OPS+ in 506 plate appearances, but was worth 4.1 bWAR. He had the third highest bWAR on the entire team that year. Clearly, it was his glove where he provided almost all the value. But Martin was the way the Pittsburgh Pirates of 2013 created their own strikes.

Before Martin, you could say that the Pirates didn’t have a good answer at catcher since Jason Kendall’s departure in 2004. From 2005 to 2012, the Pirates had only 1, 3+ bWAR season at the position. That was in 2008 when Ryan Doumit hit .318/.357/.501 with 15 home runs and a 127 OPS+ across 465 plate appearances. But defensively, Doumit was one of the worst catchers in baseball history. Among catchers with at least 1500 innings behind the plate between 2005 to 2011, Doumit ranked 60 out of 63 in defensive runs saved (-33), and cost the Pirates 65 total runs with his awful framing behind the plate from ‘07-’11. That was the worst in all of MLB. It undoubtedly costed the team walks, and runs.

In 2012, the Pirates brought in Rod Barajas to take over for Doumit, and it did not go well. Barajas put up a 73 OPS+, and -1.0 bWAR across 361 plate appearances. He was worth an astoundingly low -21(!) DRS behind the dish, and caught only 6% of all runners trying to take an extra base on him. His framing costed the Bucs 13.5 runs, as he ranked 103 out of 108 total catchers in framing runs saved. Again, the Pirates were giving up runs on below average pitch framing.

During the 2012-2013 off-season, the Pirates focused on Martin because of his defense and pitch framing. Sure, Martin could hold his own with the bat. Martin had the 7th most home runs, 9th highest ISO, and a strong 10.7% walk rate in 2011 and 2012 among catchers with at least 600 plate appearances. In the book Big Data Baseball by former Pirate beat writer Travis Sawchik, the Pirates found that the most valuable pitchers are strikeout pitchers. Keeping the ball out of play means there is zero percent chance a runner reaches base. But strikeout pitchers were also the most expensive pitchers on the market, and a hard skill to learn. You can’t make a ground ball pitcher a strikeout pitcher. So the Pirates had to find other ways to get strikes. This is where Martin came into play.

Martin was easily one of the best defensive catchers in the game. From his 2006 rookie season up through 2012, Martin had racked up an 8.3 dWAR and a +63 DRS. His DRS total was 2nd in all of baseball in this time span with catchers who had at least 5,000 innings behind the plate. More than Brian McCann (+26), Ivan Rodriguez (+24) and Joe Mauer (+7) combined.

The real value was in Martin’s framing ability. In 2012, Martin helped the New York Yankees save 19.7 runs, which was the 5th most in the MLB. Before 2012, Martin had consistently ranked in the top 5 of framing runs saved, and had the 2nd most framing runs since 2007. Martin, overall, added a 10.2 WPA+, or win probability added to the roster, compared to Barajas’ 6.16 WPA+.

Clearly, the defensive improvement from Barajas to Martin made a large impact on the team. Pirates pitchers greatly improved from 2012 to 2013, despite the few additions made. Their ERA dropped from 3.91 to 3.27, their FIP went from 3.94 to 3.42, and their xFIP went from 3.97 down to 3.58. They also gained 3.1 fWAR between the two seasons. Clearly, pitch framing was also helping the team get more strikeouts. Their K/9 went from 7.48 in 2012 to 7.72 in 2013. The improvements also led to the Pirates getting more first pitch strikes as well.

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Martin’s value to the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates was tremendous. He provided value that can’t be measured in terms of leadership and clubhouse presence that surely helped some of the younger players, but while we can’t measure that, we can easily measure the amount of impact he had on the field. Martin’s pitch framing helped the team get more strikes, and helped the Pirates manufacture outs in a way they wouldn’t have been able to without going out and overpaying for a strikeout pitcher. You can’t make a soft contact pitcher a strikeout pitcher, but you can get more strikes out of a soft contact pitcher if you have a catcher that can frame a pitch very well. The Pirates took this to heart, and produced many more strike calls with Martin behind the plate.