Former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin may have been the most underrated player at his position in this past generation
For two years, in 2013 and 2014, the Pittsburgh Pirates primary catcher was Russell Martin. Martin was a multi-time All-Star before he arrived in Pittsburgh and gave the Pirates two very productive seasons, both with the stick and especially with the glove. However, Martin may be one of, if not the most underrated catcher of this generation.
Martin's two seasons in Pittsburgh saw him hit .256/.362/.401 with a .341 wOBA and 120 wRC+. He also slugged 26 dingers in 966 plate appearances. He also had a strong 12.1% walk rate, along with a respectable 19.3% strikeout rate. Even though Martin was mostly known for his defensive prowess, he was still one of the better-hitting catchers in the league, ranking 6th in wRC+, 8th in OPS, 7th in wOBA, and 4th in OBP among the 17 catchers with at least 800 plate appearances in 2013-2014. He was also a major playoff contributor, hitting two home runs off of Johnny Cueto in what is arguably the best modern day Pirates game, and racking up six total hits in seven playoff games.
However, Martin's defense was nearly unmatched by any other catcher in this two-year span. No catcher was worth more defensive runs saved than Martin at +42. St. Louis Cardinal all-time great, Yadier Molina, was second at +38. Martin was not the best framing catcher in the league, with +24.7 framing runs, but he still ranked in the top ten.
Martin played 14 big league seasons, including six with the LA Dodgers (2006-2010, 2019), two for the New York Yankees (2011-2012), two years in Black and Gold, and four more seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays (2015-2018). Martin was quite the solid batter in his career, slashing .248/.349/.397 with a .330 wOBA and 104 wRC+. The backstop hit 191 home runs while racking up 1416 hits, 771 RBI, and 101 stolen bases.
But Martin was easily one of the best defensive catchers of this generation. Among catchers over the last quarter century, Martin has +131 defensive runs saved, trailing just Molina at +184. Keep in mind that Molina caught 4861 more innings than Martin did. On a per-1000 innings basis, Molina and Martin were about on the same level in DRS. But Martin outdid Molina, as well as everyone else during this time in framing with +165.7 framing runs. That just barely edges out longtime Atlanta Braves slugger Brian McCann at +165.6. Overall, Martin had +16.5 defensive WAR, which ranks among the top 100.
Martin is one of just three catchers with +100 DRS and one of nine backstops with +100 framing runs. Combined with his solid offense, Martin posted a +54.6 fWAR. Over the last 25 seasons, only five catchers have collected at least +50 fWAR. Martin is one of those five, ranking third. The only catchers who surpassed him were Buster Posey and Yadier Molina. Even then, the difference between these three is miniscule. Molina is at +55.6, and Posey is at +57.6. JAWS (Jaffe Wins Above Replacement Score) is a variety of WAR that averages their seven best seasons with their career WAR. While Martin isn't the best in this number, he still ranks top 30 all-time among backstops at +33.
Sure, wins above replacement and its counterparts aren't perfect or the be-all-end-all, but the fact of the matter is that it's a good barometer of value, and Martin was among the best. You can get a good idea of how good or bad a player is by glancing at these numbers, and given that Martin ranks among the best, not just over the last 25 seasons, but also throughout baseball history, says something impressive about Martin and his career.
WAR and defensive metrics aren't the only noteworthy numbers Martin ranks among the best in. His home run total is the 9th best. Former Pirate catcher Jason Kendall, along with Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez, are the only catchers with at least 100 stolen bases over the last 25 seasons. Martin has the 11th-highest OBP among catchers with at least 2,000 plate appearances as well. His wRC+ of 104 may not be the most impressive number on his resume, but he still comes in at a respectable 17th place. Martin ranks 11th or better in multiple counting stats, including runs scored (8th), RBI (10th), and total hits (11th) among catchers over the last 25 seasons.
Martin's amount of awards (or lack thereof) really hammers home how underrated he was. The longtime backstop made the all-star game just four times. He took home one Silver Slugger but a single Gold Glove. There were definitely a few times he was passed over because of a lack of name recognition or a more popular player edging him out for an award or selection.
2014 was easily a year Martin should have gone to the Mid-Summer classic. Martin was batting .278/.407/.400 with a .364 wOBA, and 143 wRC+. Among the National League catchers with at least 230 plate appearances, he was first in OBP, 4th in wOBA, wRC+, and 3rd in fWAR. Miguel Montero, who was inferior to Martin in nearly every stat except for slugging percentage and ISO, was Yadier Molina's replacement. He hit just .261/.344/.416 with a 106 wRC+, in comparison.
Martin was also robbed of another honor a year later, this being the Silver Slugger. In 2015 for the Blue Jays, Martin batted .240/.329/.458 with 23 home runs, a .333 wOBA, and 115 wRC+. Martin led AL catchers with at least 400 plate appearances in slugging, isolated slugging, had the second-most home runs, and the second-best OBP. He lost out to Brian McCann, who slashed .232/.320/.437 with a .327 wOBA and 106 wRC+. McCann only outpaced Martin in home runs, but at a mere 26, just three more than Martin. Sure, McCann wasn't bad, but Martin outclassed him in batting average, OBP, slugging, ISO, wOBA, and wRC+.
The following season in 2016, Martin was passed over for the Gold Glove, despite ranking first among AL catchers in defensive runs saved (+8) and trailing Jason Castro in framing runs by a small margin (+16.1 to +15.1). Castro wans't the man who won the AL catcher Gold Glove, either. It was Salvador Perez, with -13 DRS and -15.1 framing runs with the only thing of note that Perez did significantly better than Martin was catching runners trying to steal. Martin had just a 15% caught-stealing rate, the lowest rate of his career, while Perez led the league at 48%. Still, caught stealing rate isn't solely reliant on a catcher's ability to throw guys out, as weird as that may seem. Pitchers may not have given Martin nearly enough time compared to Perez. Either way, there was a 21 run difference in DRS and 30.2 framing run difference between the two.
But even though there were awards that he should have won, it shouldn't take away from the great career Russell Martin ended up having.
When you think of this past generation of catchers, you think of Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, maybe Jorge Posada, Joe Mauer, or Brian McCann. Maybe you think of even a late-career catcher of this generation like Mike Piazza or Ivan Rodriguez. But I think it's easy to put Russell Martin in the top five, maybe even a top three catcher of this past generation.