Mar 10, 2014; Bradenton, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin (55) hits a 2-run home run during the second inning against the Baltimore Orioles at McKechnie Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Could Russell Martin Be Pittsburgh Pirates Team MVP In 2014?


Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin is off to a tremendous start in Grapefruit League action, having just mashed his fourth home run of the spring in Monday’s game against Baltimore.

Martin, 31, has six hits in 15 exhibition at-bats, plus a couple of walks. The second-year Pirate has admitted to feeling more comfortable at the plate this spring than last, when he went 6 for 40 in Florida.

Considering Martin’s .226/.327/.377 line in 2013 was exactly average for National League catchers according to the OPS+ metric, the offensive bar is set quite low for backstops in the current run-scoring environment. In other words, Martin wouldn’t have to exceed last year’s results by much to be a true difference-maker with the bat.

Looking back at Martin’s MLB career, he’s been an average or above-average offensive player four times in eight seasons. His best year was 2007, when his .843 OPS (on-base plus slugging) at age 24 was 16 percent better than the middle-of-the-road NL catcher.

Martin isn’t going to replicate those numbers in 2014, and we shouldn’t expect him to do so. However, if he can get closer to the .732 OPS he put up in 2011 with the Yankees, that would be a boon to a Pirates team looking for more run production than it got in 2013, when it leaned on pitching and defense for most of its 94 regular-season wins.

Martin, who accounted for 4.3 wins above replacement last year according to Baseball-Reference.com, is already more valuable than most Pirates fans probably believe. Analysts are just now starting to understand how important pitch-framing and pitch-blocking skills are, and Martin is one of the standouts in a recent study on that subject conducted by Baseball Prospectus.

But even prior to these findings, about half of Martin’s value in 2013 was attributed to his soft hands behind the plate. Now, with Martin and new signing Chris Stewart both ranking among the leaders in runs saved via pitch framing since 2008, the Pirates should have a distinct edge in what was once a truly “hidden” skill.

All of which would make increased offense a bonus from Martin, who should get a majority of the starts behind the dish in 2014. If he can carry over some of his spring hitting success, the Pirates could have a legitimate MVP candidate at the catching position.

Tags: Pittsburgh Pirates Russell Martin

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