Russell Martin’s defence behind the plate has been a key to Pirates’ success

Israel Fehr
The Eh Game

From his familiar position crouched behind home plate, Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin sees everything.

He sees how the defence is aligned, he sees the runner creeping off first base, he sees the game flow right in front of him, and this season, he's seen and received tens of thousands of pitches from one of the best and deepest staffs in the league. No one has had a better view for Pittsburgh's best season in over 20 years.

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So Friday afternoon in St. Louis was exactly in line with what Martin has seen all season.

Pirates starter Gerrit Cole tossed six innings of one-run ball and the bullpen combined for three shutout innings to shut the door on the Cardinals in a 7-1 win that evened the NLDS between the two division rivals at a game apiece.

The constant through nine innings? Martin's presence behind the plate, calling the game and keeping the few base runners that got on honest.

There's bound to be the occasional clunker, like A.J. Burnett's performance in the Bucs' 9-1 loss in Game 1 of the series, but the baseball revival on the banks of the Allegheny River wouldn't have been possible without the emergence of starting rotation and bullpen that combined for a 3.27 ERA in 2013, the third best mark in the majors.

See, the Pirates' transformation has everything to do with what Martin sees.

Born in Toronto and raised in Montreal, the 30-year-old Martin, one of four Canadians playing in the postseason, was unwanted by the Yankees after two years in New York and quietly signed a 2 year/$17M deal with Pittsburgh.

One team's trash is another team's treasure. According to Fangraphs, Martin is having the best defensive season by a catcher in over a decade.

They're still raw but the all-encompassing defensive metrics attempt to quantify a catcher's impact behind the plate by breaking down and isolating three facets of their game: throwing out base runners, blocking balls in the dirt, and framing pitches.

It's not the sort of material that will fill a highlight reel but it's critical to success and Martin excelled in all three aspects this season.

He threw out 40% of attempted base stealers, helping his pitchers out by policing the base paths.

"Martin has saved the Pirates nine runs through base stealing prevention, adding basically a win of value just by gunning down opposing runners so often." - (Fangraphs)

Blocking balls in the dirt and pitch framing aren't as easy to quantify even though their fundamental importance is acknowledged throughout baseball.

Martin added significant value in those areas as well.

"Based on the location of the pitches he’s received, the expectation is that Martin would have had 65 pitches get by him for wild pitches or passed balls; in reality, he’s only had 54 get by him, a difference of +11 pitches blocked, which translates into four runs saved." - (Fangraphs)

"While pitch framing calculations are still in their early stages, Matthew Carruth’s catcher report at StatCorner estimates that Martin has saved the Pirates 18 runs through turning balls into strikes, the fourth highest total in baseball" - (Fangraphs)

All-Star centre fielder Andrew McCutchen carried Pittsburgh offensively and is the favourite to win the NL MVP, but it's Martin who has anchored the defence, and if there's any city that can appreciate defence, it's the home of the Steel Curtain.

Pirates fans are seeing postseason baseball for the first time since 1992. And everything that Russell Martin sees is a big reason for that.

This season on the banks of the Allegheny, seeing is believing, and the Canadian catcher has the sharpest eyes on the field.

For more on Martin and the Pirates, check out David Cameron's excellent article on Fangraphs: How the Pirates Built a Playoff Team.

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