Pittsburgh Pirates: Russell Martin is the Best Free Agent Signing in Franchise History


When the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Russell Martin back in November 2012, they probably didn’t think it would have as long of a lasting impact throughout their franchise as it has.

Back in the 2012-2013 off-season, the Pittsburgh Pirates inked all-star catcher Russell Martin to a two-year contract. Though the Pirates knew that Martin would be a positive impact for a team looking to bolster its roster for competition, they probably didn’t know that it would have as long of a lasting impact this many years later. One can argue that Martin is the best free agent signing in franchise history.

In Martin’s first season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he posted a solid .226/.327/.377 line through 506 plate appearances, hitting 15 long balls, and posting a 100 OPS+ and 102 wRC+. He was an overall league average batter, but the amount of defensive value he could bring to the table is what the Pirates were more interested in when they signed him.

Martin was outstanding defensively, providing the Pittsburgh Pirates with +21 Defensive Runs Saved, and throwing out 40% of the runners trying to steal on him. Only Yadier Molina surpassed Martin in DRS with +30.

After years with well below average framers costing the Pittsburgh Pirates strikes and runs constantly, Martin was a nice refreshing breath of air as he saved the Pirates about 12.3 runs with his framing alone. His total contributions can be seen in his fWAR of 5.4, or the 16th highest mark out of 141 batters with at least 500 plate appearances in baseball during 2013.

The next year, Martin got even better. He provided his typical elite defense, posting +21 DRS for a second consecutive year, which is even more impressive considering he played 110.2 less innings behind the dish this year, catching 39% of runners trying to steal on him, and being worth 15.3 framing runs.

After being solid, but unimpressive, with the bat in his first season with Pittsburgh, Martin showed that he could hit in his second season, batting .290/.402/.430 with 11 long balls, and a 135 OPS+/140 wRC+ through 460 plate appearances. He posted a 6.2 fWAR, which rivaled 2014 MVP candidates like Giancarlo Stanton (6.8), Jose Bautista (6.2), Michael Brantley (6.5) and Anthony Rendon (6.4).

Between the two years, Martin had 11.7 fWAR. Only Andrew McCutchen, who won MVP in 2013 and finished third in voting in 2014, accumulated more fWAR than him. The Pittsburgh Pirates also made the postseason twice, in no small part to Martin’s contributions. He also owns one of the most memorable moments in Pirates history, going three-for-four in the 2013 Wild Card game. That includes two long balls, one of which was one of the most iconic in MLB postseason history.

That off-season, Martin hit free agency, and the Pittsburgh Pirates issued him a qualifying offer, that being a one year, $15.3 million deal, like any team would. Obviously after finishing top 10 in fWAR, and being one of, if not the best free agent on the market, Martin turned down that offer, which meant that whatever team that signed him had to forfeit a compensation pick to the Pirates during the 2015 draft.

The Pirates seemed to cut their losses as they went out and acquired Francisco Cervelli from the New York Yankees while Martin went on to sign with the Toronto Blue Jays just days after the Bucs’ acquisition of Cervelli. With the Blue Jays signing Martin to a five-year, $82 million deal, they had forfeited the 32nd overall pick in the draft to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Little did either team know that this would end up being a complete franchise changer for the Pirates.

During the 2015 draft, the Bucs had the 19th and 32nd picks in the first round. They selected Kevin Newman with their 19th pick, but with the compensation pick, they selected third baseman, Ke’Bryan Hayes.

Hayes quickly blossomed into a notable prospect. In his second full season of play in 2018, Hayes hit .293/.375/.444 with a 129 wRC+ while showing outstanding defense at the hot corner. Though he did struggle in 2019 at Triple-A, Hayes has become one of the Pirates’ best building blocks for the future.

Hayes made his debut earlier this year. He’s collected 81 plate appearances, but is absolutely demolishing the baseball. He’s hitting .329/.495/.603 with 4 home runs and a 164 wRC+. Though it is a small sample size, Hayes has always had the raw power to be an excellent hitter. His average exit velocity last year was 92 MPH. So far this year, his average exit velo is 93.5 MPH, and his hard hit rate is 54.9%, which would rank top 5 in baseball had he played enough. And that elite defense? Hayes already has +4 DRS, 1.3 UZR, 0.7 range runs above average, and a 28.7 UZR/150.

So far, he’s accumulated 1.0 fWAR. Across a 600 plate appearance season, that comes out to about 8.2 fWAR a year. Now obviously, that’s a very optimistic view using a small sample size, but Hayes does have the talent to be an elite Major League Baseball player who can provide 6-8 WAR per year. He has four above average tools, that being his hit, fielding, running, and arm tool. He isn’t seen as a big time power threat, but with his exit velocity, if he adjusts his launch angle just a little, he could easily be a four-and-a-half tool player. While he does have a .409 batting average on balls in play in the majors, you can’t look at BAbip as a lucky/unlucky indicator in such a small sample size.

So far, he’s reminded me of a young Andrew McCutchen. He has speed, can hit, and field. In McCutchen’s first two seasons, he hit .286/.356/.459 with 28 home runs, and 61 doubles with a 121 OPS+/123 wRC+. I don’t see why Hayes couldn’t hit something, like that, or even better based on his small sample size, but with Platinum Glove defense at third base.

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The Pirates signing Russell Martin has had a massive ripple-effect that has made it probably the best signing in franchise history. The Pirates got All-Star production from Martin in 2013 and 2014, and could get even better production from Ke’Bryan Hayes for the foreseeable future. This could end up impacting the Pirates over 15 seasons later.