Russell Martin: Former Dodger, Future Dodger?

It’s now the offseason, so it’s time to talk about potential roster upgrades. The Dodgers have huge holes in the bullpen, some minor ones in the starting rotation, and of course, the left side of the infield. However, the biggest hole in last year’s lineup was catcher.

It’s safe to say that A.J. Ellis had a down year in 2014. Ellis hit .191/.323/.254, only being saved from total disaster by a good walk rate. Of the 263 players who accumulated 300 or more plate appearances last year, Ellis’ 72 wRC+ was 21st from the bottom and his ISO was 6th from last. After his wonderful breakout campaign in 2012 and a slightly worse but still decent follow-up season in 2013, Ellis’ 2014 season on offense can’t be viewed as anything other than a disappointment.

Ellis’ defense was a significant issue as well. His framing problems are well documented at this point, and this year things got worse. Even in his injury-limited playing time, Baseball Prospectus had him as the second-worst pitch framer in baseball, worth about -15 runs when including count context and -10 runs when summed as context-neutral. These values should be taken with a grain of salt, since the market rate seems to be lower than what most online analyses claim it should be. Even so, Ellis wasn’t great at the more traditional catcher defense metrics either. He allowed a greater than league average stolen base rate, despite having several pitchers who control the run game very well. Ellis only allowed two passed balls, but he also received 32 wild pitches, some of which probably should have been blocked.

If you put Ellis’ offense and defense together, you can see why the Dodgers might be looking for an upgrade at the position. However, the free agent market looks very thin. Teams aren’t going to be knocking down the doors of J.P. Arencibia, John Buck, or Gerald Laird. Those catchers probably aren’t worth the Dodgers’ trouble. The only interesting option on the free agent market, as of now, is Russell Martin.

Martin was non-tendered by the Dodgers after the 2010 season, which is easy to judge negatively with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, Martin had just completed his second straight down year offensively (87, 90 wRC+) and the value of pitch framing was not understood as it is today. He also had hip surgery earlier that season, and there wasn’t a lot of history of that particular surgery in catchers. The Dodgers offered Martin a lower value contract than what he would have received in arbitration, and he ultimately took a deal from the Yankees with an even lower base salary than what the Dodgers offered.

As a result of Martin’s somewhat messy departure, it’s valid to question if he even wants to come back to Los Angeles. That’s not something that I have the capacity to answer, but the point of the post is to see if the Dodgers should try.

There really couldn’t be a bigger gap between how Ellis’ and Martin’s 2014 seasons went. Martin put up a career year in terms of batting value, hitting .290/.402/.430 in a pitcher’s park, which translates to a 140 wRC+. In other words, Russell Martin put up the same translated batting line as Matt Kemp, except Martin plays a significantly more valuable position. Martin produced a Fangraphs WAR of over 5, while Ellis finished the season below replacement level.

That WAR difference is before accounting for the massive gap in pitch framing abilities, too. Here’s how the two players have compared since 2012 (Ellis’ first year with regular playing time) when neutralizing the value to 7000 “framing chances” (about a full season as a primary catcher) for each player:

Year Ellis Framing Runs/7000 Martin Framing Runs/7000 Difference (runs/7000)
2012 -7.9 +17.8 25.7
2013 -4.6 +12.2 16.8
2014 -15.4 +17.3 32.7

Between the three seasons, Martin has been worth about two wins more per season more when neutralizing playing time. Going from one of the league’s worst pitch framers to one of the league’s best pitch framers is a substantial change, even if the precise value still has questions surrounding it.

In 2014, Martin was more playing time away from being a legitimate MVP candidate. Ellis was one of the least valuable players in the league. This would make the decision easy, right? Unfortunately, there are a few caveats.

The first issue is Martin’s 2014 offensive production. He had a 140 wRC+ this season. When added in with his other post-Dodger seasons (100, 95, 102, 140) it looks like a total outlier. Some of the improvement is based on plate discipline; Martin posted his highest walk rate since 2008 and his lowest strikeout rate since 2011 this season. However, the biggest driver of the increase in offensive output is BABIP. In 2014, Martin posted a .336 BABIP. His career average is .289, and his batted ball profile this season was almost identical to his career average. It’s not like he’s getting any faster as he ages, either.

The Dodgers will also need to worry about Martin’s contract. Martin is going to get paid, even if it’s a gamble on BABIP. An elite defensive catcher with good offense is extremely valuable. He’ll definitely get three years, probably longer. Unfortunately, the list of comparable free agents is a bit problematic. Here’s every catcher signed to a three plus year free agent deal since 2007, per ESPN’s free agent tracker:

Season Player Age Contract length Dollars
2007 Bengie Molina 32 3 years $16MM
2011 John Buck 30 3 years $18MM
2014 Jarrod Saltalamacchia 28 3 years $21MM
2014 Carlos Ruiz 34 3 years $26MM
2014 Brian McCann 30 5 years $85MM

The only player really comparable to Martin’s skill set on this list is McCann. Martin probably won’t get five years, since he’s two years older than McCann was last year. Still, Martin had the better walk year. Both are plus framers, so that value can be factored in, too. McCann’s contract already looks pretty bad, and that’s with four years to go.

Given inflation between last year and this season, is the same annual value as McCann over four years (4/68) out of the question for Martin? It wouldn’t shock me. There’s also the loss of a draft pick, though that’s not as much of a concern with Martin’s value. Catchers aren’t usually the most graceful agers, so signing Martin through his age 36 season would be pretty scary. He’s also the only good option on the free agent market, so his services will be in demand. Pittsburgh wants him back, the Cubs need a catcher, and this season’s Russell Martin would be better than what most other teams have on hand. The only saving grace might be that the Yankees and the Red Sox won’t be involved in the bidding. The Dodgers are built to win now, and Martin would help, but unless you want them to look like the Phillies in three years, they have to stop somewhere.

It’s also possible that A.J. Ellis’ bat will rebound next season. He’s not getting any younger, but he does have a track record that’s better than what he showed this season. Steamer projects Ellis to have a 92 wRC+ in 2015, significantly better than the 72 he produced this year. Ellis was hindered by his leg injuries, which might not repeat or have long term effects, and his offensive output was limited by a .225 BABIP. Ellis isn’t the type to produce a league average BABIP, but Steamer’s projection of .269 next season seems reasonable. When you compare Ellis’ projection to Martin’s projected 109 wRC+ for next season, suddenly the difference doesn’t seem so dramatic. The difference in framing will remain, but the offensive gap seems likely to close considerably.

Ellis also provides value off of the field. He famously helped Josh Beckett rediscover his curveball, leading to Beckett’s resurgence this year. He is also well liked by the Dodger pitching staff, which is pretty hard to quantify. Dylan Hernandez wrote a story on Clayton Kershaw after the season concluded, and this was Kershaw’s response to the thought of not having Ellis on the team:

Shortly after the Dodgers’ season ended, Clayton Kershaw imagined a future without his longtime catcher. As Kershaw started talking about the possibility, his voice cracked.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do if he’s not back,” Kershaw said.

Ellis could presumably serve as the team’s backup if the Dodgers upgrade elsewhere, but his second trip through arbitration would make him one of the richest backup catchers in baseball. It might be a worthwhile to take on that financial burden in order to keep people happy, even if Ellis is in a reduced role. There is some sort of value in making sure that Clayton Kershaw is content, even if that value is impossible to measure. There’s also value in Clayton Kershaw pitching to a significantly larger strike zone. It’s a difficult question, and I’m glad that I’m not the one who has to answer it.

Russell Martin would absolutely be an upgrade to the Dodgers catching situation. The amount is questionable since both he and Ellis had outlier seasons in opposite directions, and his contract would be associated with a very high risk. However, the Dodgers might be losing significant offensive production if they move from Hanley Ramirez to Erisbel Arruebarrena at short, and they’ll need to look elsewhere to fill it. The logistics and risk of Russell Martin are not to be ignored, though, and could derail this move before it starts. Martin is the only good free agent, but there are other places to look, like the Padres’ glut of plus defensive catchers.

A potential return by Russell Martin is fun to dream on, particularly due to the nostalgia left over from when he came up as a Dodger, but ultimately, a reunion is a long shot.

About Daniel Brim

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Daniel Brim grew up in the Los Angeles area but doesn't live there anymore. He still watches the Dodgers and writes about them sometimes.