Russell Martin versus Mike Napoli in a battle of who has the most and the worst tattoos. Oh, and maybe the Yankees starting catching job.
A week or so into the free agency period and we're still in the basically the same spot as any other time during this process. The Yankees picked up Eli Whiteside, the Red Sox gave David Ross a two-year deal and that's really about it for the nearby universe. Just minor moves and signings that aren't really that big of a deal. Well, those two are a bigger deal than say, a Daniel McCutchen signing, because those actually impact a position the Yankees need to fill. One we surprisingly haven't heard much about; the catcher position. See, it even got buried here.
Basically since Russell Martin was brought on in 2011, it has seemed inevitable that he was going to be around for awhile. There was that Montero thing for about a month, but the necessary steps were taken to make sure that wouldn't be a thing anymore. Even after a lackluster offensive season in 2012, a scarce free agent class, that was going to be even more barren based on contract options, made the question not if, but how much and for how long would Martin be signed for.
Now, while it still seems likely that he's re-signed, a twist appears to have emerged. From the big blue dot known as USA Today:
So there's that now. The name that was prevalent after a ridiculous 2011 season is now, unsurprisingly, on the Yankees' radar in some capacity. Unsurprisingly because he's a free agent, is touted as playing a position the Yankees need and, well, he's a free agent with a name and of course the Yankees are interested somehow. While the level of their interest in Napoli isn't made clear in 140 characters, it does open the issue up to wild speculation. It could just be trying to push his price up to some of the other teams pursuing him, including the Red Sox. It could be more! Just to try keeping it from getting too out there based on something that barely qualifies as a sentence, would it make even make sense to cut ties with Martin and take the Napoli route?
We basically know what Martin is at this point. He had a .732 OPS and 12 home runs in 2011, and a .713 OPS with 21 home runs in 2012. He's a frustratingly inconsistent hitter that takes walks and has above average power; a trait which basically sets him apart from the vast majority of catchers. That's never really been his selling point though, at least not to the Yankees during his two years. His work behind the plate is what has presumably kept him in favor with the team while they fend off fans' efforts to throw him in the East River. The basic stuff is easy enough to quantify: 27.5 percent of would-be base stealers thrown out and 13 passed balls, right in line with defensive catchers outside of the Matt Wieters division, over two seasons. It's the mythical game calling and pitch framing stuff where it's a bit tougher to prove his worth to the team.
That's getting slightly easier now with various forms of Pitch F/X popping up all over the place. Jeff Sullivan broke down which teams earned more strike calls, or cheated to get them depending on your rooting interest, over the course of last season over at Fangraphs about a month ago. He goes into the methodology more in depth there, but basically, using Pitch F/X data he derived actual and expected strikes and found the difference per 1,000 pitches. On the list, the Yankees ended the season with a Diff/1000 of 5, tying them for third behind only the Brewers and Braves. Given that Martin caught the lion's share of innings in 2012, it's fair to assume he played a large role in pushing the borderline strike numbers into the positive area. With only eight teams above zero in Diff/1000, that ability isn't easy to replicate, especially in a thin free agent market.
How did the Rangers fare? Not well. The Rangers were tied with the Twins as the fourth-worst team in the majors, getting 13 fewer strike calls per 1000 pitches than pitch f/x indicated should be called. The overall average is 5 fewer strike calls per 1000 pitches, so the Rangers were 8 strikes per 1000 pitches worse than average.
The Rangers threw 23,493 pitches in the 2012 regular season. That means the Ranger pitchers had around 188 more pitches called balls that should have been called strikes, relative to the average team. At a value of 0.13 runs per ball/strike call, that's a difference of 24 runs allowed over the course of a season.
Twenty-four runs seems like a lot. That's a lot. But Napoli can't be blamed for all of that, right? No, he can't, and that's part of the problem. For as much fun as the running joke about Mike Scioscia hating him is, and it is given his numbers against the Angels, his single-season innings caught total in either season in Texas would rank third from last and dead last in his career. He's a back-up catcher that plays a lot more than normal back-ups because he's a lot better than they are at the plate. The Yankees would have to know that going in and have a workload platoon partner ready to go. It would be probably Whiteside, Chris Stewart, Francisco Cervelli or Austin Romine in this hypothetical situation. Would anyone be comfortable that? Would the Yankees? The answer to both is probably the same, and really, it probably should be.
As resident devil's advocate in this contained corner of the Internet, despite his issues at catcher, he would bring a whole bunch of positives if the Yankees decided to go that route; the obvious one being his bat. He can really hit the ball and make it go a long way to all fields. His 2012 was a far departure from the year before, but it was still good for an .812 OPS and 24 homers. With Martin gone and the DH spot open because of free agency, it wouldn't be tough to keep his bat and career .287/.392/.573 (186 PA) at the position in the lineup either. Yes, Jeter and A-Rod would need that spot occasionally, but we'd likely be looking at a one or two-year deal with Napoli. It's not exactly locking the spot down for a baseball eternity. Defense isn't A-Rod's problem yet and let's be serious about Jeter. Yeah. Plus, with emergency first baseman Nick Swisher ready to jet out somewhere else, Napoli can play the position in case of Mark Teixeira related disaster. It wouldn't be ideal, but hey, neither would losing Tex to injury.
That was fun and all, but those same impressions we had when Martin first arrived will likely be the end result. Maybe the Yankees make a late change of course away from him and hope Stewart and his batting average or Cervelli don't kill the team in the 80 or more games they'd likely be catching; it just seems like a longshot. Whichever way they go, the best thing to hope for is a reasonable contract and some rapid development from the farm. Martin might steal a few more strikes than most, but how much is that really worth when this picture exists?
I'm sorry, but not really.