Among other massive overhauls last season, the Jays experienced their first taste of Russell Martin's five year $82 million deal, a palatable one to say the least. While producing above average offensively, playing in a shocking 129 games, Russell Martin continued to be one of the game's most revered backstops.
At the outset of the Martin signing, many in Blue Jays land were skeptical of his age, speculating what the contract may play out like in the back half of the deal. Martin was already 32 years-old and the track record for such grizzled veterans wasn't favourable. Then again, he was coming off a career year in which he hit for a .290/.402/.430 triple slash to go with a tidy 5.0 WAR. This doesn't even delve into his defensive acumen where he saved the Bucks 15.1 runs over the average replacement per Baseball Prospectus.
Add to that, the Jays' former crop of catchers were unseemly at best. A combination of Erik Kratz, Josh Thole, George Kottaras and Dioner Navarro were tolerable offensively, but their defense left a lot to be desired. Bringing in a player of Martin's defensive ability made sense, perfect sense.
But just how much better did Martin do this season than his predecessors?
*CSAA- Called Strikes Above Average
*SRAA- Swipe Rate Above Average
Using catcher's framing data from Baseball Prospectus, it's evidently clear that Martin was a massive upgrade over his cohorts last year, especially Navarro. In 2014, Navarro was an abysmal catcher defensively, costing the Jays a hefty 19.4 runs. By 2015, Navarro maintained only a third of his workload with the Martin starting, giving him less opportunity to surmount a negative effect on the Jays' overall framing abilities.
It should be noted that he did improve his framing ability slightly. In 2014, his CSAA (Called Strikes Above Average) was -0.020 but improved slightly to -0.0012 in 2015, meaning he was gaining, or rather losing less strikes in 2015 than he had in 2014. Still, he cost the Jays 3.5 runs because of his framing inability.
Shifting to Martin, in 2014, he was the league's 7th best framer per Baseball Prospectus, saving 15.1 runs with his framing abilities. In 2015, Martin brought the tools that summoned him his lucrative contract and in turn saved the Jays 11.6 runs by season's end.
At least one factor makes this particularly enriching. For the bulk of spring training, one of the leading headlines was whether or not Martin would be able to catch R.A Dickey's unpredictable knuckleball or would they have to rely on Thole, Dickey's personal catcher, once again. Martin was adamant he could get the job done, and for the most part, he did despite suffering offensively.
That said, catching a completely unpredictable pitch cannot be easy. We found that out in August when Martin complained of thumb problems after taking countless pitches outside the "sweet spot" of his enlarged catcher's mitt. It is theoretically possible that Martin's sore thumb had a tangible negative effect on his other framing abilities while catching other pitchers in the time after his injury. Thus, Martin should be admired for his ability to remain a top-10 league-wide framer catching a pitch no other top catcher had to receive while maintaining above-average framing abilities with his conventional pitching brethren.
On a team level last season, the Jays catchers accumulated 8.5 runs saved through their defensive framing, 23.7 runs better than their mark in 2014. In sabremetric terms, using 10 runs as a barometer for wins, they were a little over two wins better through just framing in 2015 than 2014.
That number cannot easily be dismissed and there's reason to believe it could be even better this season. With the lack of depth at the catching position, it's most likely Thole will back-up to Martin, catching for Dickey during his starts. That option gives Martin a much needed day off every fifth day while providing Dickey the opportunity to work with the catcher who's demonstrated a strong degree of comfort with his knuckleball in seasons past.
Conceivably, assuming perfect health, which almost never happens, that means that both Martin and Thole should consummate a duo that is well above average in terms of the cumulative framing runs over the course of the season.
Although Russell Martin is tied up for $75 million over the next four seasons, his value added in 2015 through offence and a top-10 defense could make the contract a win for the Jays. FanGraphs estimates his 2015 value at $27.7 million, not including what he did behind the plate. Given that he added approximately one win with his framing, that sum could move into the $34 million range in only his first season.
If Martin is able to replicate 2015 in seasons beyond, the Jays may have saved massively on a much-needed upgrade. The future will be the judge, but for now it appears that Russell Martin was worth every Canadian penny.