Toronto is so confident in Russell Martin that it gave the catcher the largest free-agent deal in team history. How can this son of Montreal return the favor? By making the Blue Jays Canada's team
A SIMPLE QUESTION: What makes a great catcher? He sinks into his squat, and if he's good at his job, he disappears. He is, over nine innings, at once analytical and improvisational, immovable and agile, calm and alert. Between the game-calling and the summits with the pitcher on the mound and the umpire give-and-take, the catcher slips in and out of more roles—strategist, psychic, cheerleader, therapist, negotiator—than a Saturday Night Live cast member. He receives, he throws and, of course, he hits. What is the value of a great catcher? That has always been a more complicated question.
Russell Martin is 32 years old, an age when most catchers, beaten down by the physical toll of the position, are crumbling. But Martin, now entering his 10th major league season—and first with the Blue Jays—at the game's most demanding position, is at the height of his powers. He is coming off the finest offensive season of his career, and he has never been more in command of his craft. Since breaking into the big leagues with the Dodgers in 2006, Martin has always been skilled with his glove and arm. Late in his career he has become one of the best in the game in the art of pitch framing, a master illusionist at turning balls into strikes (sidebar, page 53). Behind the plate Martin emanates a serene authority. "Ask any of our pitchers, and every single one will tell you he was our pillar, the epitome of cool," says Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle, who managed Martin for the last two seasons in Pittsburgh. It wasn't an act: Last season Martin wore a device on his chest—a "physiological monitoring module"—that measured, among other things, his vital signs. There were games when Martin's average heart rate registered below 50 beats per minute, not far from the resting rate of a world-class marathoner.
Not long ago a player with Martin's gifts might have been overlooked and underappreciated. The value of a great catcher has long been somewhat mysterious, his skills difficult to quantify, but new analytics allow us to measure how well catchers steal strikes, hold base runners on and contribute to wins and losses. As one of the off-season's most compelling bidding wars played out, we got confirmation that the all-around catcher has, at last, gotten his due: Martin—a career .259 hitter who had more than 20 home runs only once over his nine seasons with the Dodgers, Yankees and Pirates—attracted a long line of suitors. After receiving lucrative offers from the Dodgers and the Cubs, he signed a five-year, $82 million deal with Toronto, the largest free-agent deal in Blue Jays history.
Martin pulled for the Blue Jays as a boy, but growing up in Montreal, he was a die-hard Expos fan. On the wall of his bedroom in high school, in 1999, he taped up an artist's rendering of the Expos' proposed downtown ballpark as the threat of the franchise's shuttering loomed. "I was like, It's going to be so awesome—I'm going to play here!" he says. Martin was indeed drafted by the Expos out of high school in 2000, but because he slid all the way to the 35th round, he headed to Chipola College in Florida instead. Within five years, as Martin was becoming a young star in the Dodgers' organization, the Expos were gone, reborn as the Nationals in Washington, D.C. "My buddy and I used to joke," he says, referring to longtime friend Ivan Naccarata, a former Mets prospect, "if we had signed with the Expos, we could have saved baseball in Montreal."
Now he is here, in Blue Jays camp in Dunedin, Fla., the face of Canada's surviving major league franchise, the man brought in to help mold a young and talented pitching staff and power what has the potential to be one of the game's best offenses, and end the longest playoff drought in baseball.
THIS IS kind of top secret here. It's not something they want us to talk about." Martin is sitting on a bench outside the clubhouse in Dunedin, talking (or trying not to talk) about the devices that some Blue Jays players are wearing for the first time this spring: small pieces of hardware on their backs under their jerseys, just below their necks. Every team in baseball is looking for an edge, and tracking devices are cropping up within the more cutting-edge organizations. The Jays' new toy is clearly something Martin is very interested in. "I'd be stupid not to use it, after what I did last year," he says. Last season the Pirates began experimenting with the similar Zephyr BioHarness, which records a player's movements and vital signs while clipped to a compression shirt under the jersey, in the center of the chest. Martin was one of the few Pittsburgh players who embraced it early in spring training, wearing it every day during the 2014 season. The device tracked his heartbeat throughout each game, as well as how many calories he was burning.
Martin learned that the amount of energy he expended varied wildly from game to game. Catching is a grueling activity, but "squatting, you're just really sitting there, not burning any calories," says Martin. On days he caught a high-maintenance sinkerballer like Francisco Liriano, with his scud missile pitches that dart and dive into the dirt, he could burn 3,000 or more calories. With an efficient, one-pitch hurler on the mound, he might burn just 800 calories in a three-hour game. "In the past I'd be like, I can eat whatever I want because I'm in a game, but it's not really the case," he says.
Martin took this information and used it to calibrate his diet and workouts. After an arduous day he permitted himself a postgame pizza; on less strenuous days it was a light dinner. He cut down on gluten and led soccer matches with his Pirates teammates in the outfield before games. In the past he would typically put on up to 15 pounds over the course of a season, but his weight last year never fluctuated outside of 204--208 pounds. Martin had his finest all-around season, with a career-high .402 on base percentage, and his highest batting average (.290) and slugging percentage (.430) since 2007. Of all catchers with at least 100 games played, he ranked second only to Yadier Molina in caught-stealing percentage (with 38.5%) and ranked eighth in baseball in strikes gained for his pitchers (110.9, according to Baseball Prospectus). And when the season was over, "I was waiting to hit the wall I always feel," he says, "but I didn't." Less than a week after the season had ended, Martin was back working out in the gym.
ONE OF the most important free-agent pitches in Blue Jays history took place over coffee and croissants, at a French patisserie in the city of Laval, just north of Montreal. It was an early November morning, and team president Paul Beeston and general manager Alex Anthopoulos had come from Toronto to make their hard sell. They knew what they were up against: The Dodgers and the Cubs, Martin's most aggressive suitors, had virtually unlimited coffers and, as tradition-rich franchises, each had a powerful story to sell. Anthopoulos, however, believed that the Blue Jays offered a more powerful narrative: Canadian kid returns home with a chance to bring baseball glory back to his country. When Martin had phoned in for a conference call a few days earlier, Anthopoulos, a fellow Montreal native, had blared "O Canada" from his phone before anyone even spoke.
"You have a chance to inspire a generation of Canadians," Anthopoulos said to Martin. After a one-hour meeting the three were stepping out of the café just as an elderly couple entered. The wife stopped cold. "C'est toi!" she bellowed, and then leaned in for a hug. Martin and Anthopoulos speak fluent French, but Beeston doesn't, and so the GM translated what the husband said next: "Hopefully you'll be a Blue Jay next year." Said Beeston later, "I wish I were smart enough to have planned that."
Dainty septuagenarian French-Canadian couples are a nice touch, but there's an even more persuasive negotiating tool: an additional year on a proposed contract. While the Cubs and the Dodgers were offering four-year deals in the neighborhood of $70 million to $75 million, the Blue Jays added a fifth year, an unprecedented move for a mid-market organization that's generally opposed to long-term free-agent deals. Given inflation and a catching market in which a 37-year-old A.J. Pierzynski received an $8.25 million, one-year deal last season from the Red Sox, the money was not only reasonable; for an 83-win team desperate for the extra handful of wins necessary to reach its first postseason since 1993, it was a no-brainer.
The Blue Jays, in short, hope Martin can do what he did for the Pirates, who were a punching bag when they signed him to a two-year, $17 million deal—then the largest free-agent signing in Pittsburgh's history—after the 2012 season. Martin was an unheralded star of a team that ended a 20-year playoff drought and advanced to the postseason in two straight seasons. "He was a calm, confident leader," says Pirates' reliever Jared Hughes. "As a pitcher, the most important thing is to believe in your catcher's game-calling, even though it may not be the right pitch all the time. Because of his experience and demeanor, you always believed in his game-calling." Says Hurdle, "Andrew McCutchen is the star, but Russell Martin, with just everything he brought to the table, was just as important to this ball club." Last year McCutchen, who finished first and third in NL MVP voting in 2013 and '14, respectively, led the team with a 6.4 WAR, with Martin close behind at 5.5—and that doesn't fully factor in Martin's pitch framing or game-calling.
"The way we saw it, this is a guy who can make 12 guys on our roster, the bullpen and starters, better—and we also have a wave of young starters," says Anthopoulos of a group that includes Drew Hutchison, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris. "He's going to be around for all of them."
Anthopoulos emphasizes that Martin's being a Canadian was only the cherry on top of the signing: "From a baseball standpoint, it was completely irrelevant." Still, a franchise that in recent years has positioned itself as Canada's Team now has a local hero to promote. Every Jays game is now broadcast from Nova Scotia to Vancouver. Toronto is a sleeping giant: Over the last decade the team has generally ranked in the bottom half in MLB attendance, but during the early 1990s—when the Jays dominated the AL East—they became the first major league team to surpass the four million mark in attendance, and did so for three straight years.
Martin isn't even the best player the Blue Jays added this winter—third baseman Josh Donaldson, acquired in a November trade from Oakland, has been an MVP candidate the last two years—and the lineup was already headlined by star sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. But Martin, a three-time All-Star himself, is the most high-profile Canadian player the team has ever had. "I think there's a very good chance that years from now we're going to have [Canadian] kids wanting to play the catcher position," says Anthopoulos, "and we'll hear kids say, 'I grew up idolizing Russell Martin.' "
The Blue Jays made Martin the third-highest-paid catcher in the game, behind the Giants' Buster Posey and the Yankees' Brian McCann. The contract affirmed that Toronto is all in on 2015. Its biggest stars are nearing the end of their primes—Bautista, Encarnacion, shortstop Jose Reyes and their highest-paid pitchers, R.A. Dickey and Mark Buerhle, are all over 30. There may not be a team with more at stake, and there's no fan base more starved for baseball in October—Jays fans' last postseason memory is Joe Carter rounding the bases after his championship-clinching home run in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series.
The reach of the Blue Jays didn't hit Martin until he joined a team caravan to Vancouver in January and saw the long lines of fans wearing Jays jerseys and T-shirts paying tribute to Carter, Robbie Alomar and Jack Morris. "You have Cubs and Yankees fans everywhere, but it kind of struck me that it's not the same," says Martin. "Since the Expos left, you're talking about an entire country rallying around one team. I didn't realize how vast the fan base has become."
The next chapter of Martin's career became something larger than leading a talented but inexperienced pitching staff. It was only after all the messages flickered on his phone through the winter, the selfies of old friends from Montreal wearing Jays hats, and after meeting all those hungry fans across Canada that he got it: He was back home now, with a bigger job to do than he'd imagined.
KINGS OF THE STOLEN STRIKE
Pitchers need every call they can get, and some receivers are more skilled at getting them than others
CATCHERS WHO EXCEL at pitch framing—the art of receiving a pitch in such a way that it's more likely to be called a strike—possess a valuable talent, one that doesn't appear in the box score and hasn't been fully accounted for by Wins Above Replacement. But with the proliferation of pitch-tracking data, front offices and analysts have been able to better quantify which catchers make sure pitchers get all the strike calls they deserve ... and some that they don't. Now the best framers are more coveted than ever, and their skills appropriately priced in the market. It's been estimated that an elite framer yields up to seven more strikes a game than a poor one; over the course of a season, that can add up to extra wins. Here are the catchers who, over the last five years, were the best at framing, as measured by Baseball Prospectus's Extra Strikes metric.
1. JONATHAN LUCROY, BREWERS, 1,047 extra strikes
Last year Milwaukee's 28-year-old backstop finally received the love he's long deserved, finishing fourth in NL MVP voting—clear recognition of his elite skills behind the plate.
2. JOSE MOLINA, FREE AGENT, 686
During his three seasons in Tampa Bay, Molina was the secret weapon for the Rays' pitching staff; the team valued him enough to make him their primary catcher at age 36, even as his hitting skills declined. Now 39, he's on the shelf indefinitely after undergoing off-season knee surgery.
3. RUSSELL MARTIN, BLUE JAYS, 672
Martin had the best offensive season of his career in 2014, but an even bigger reason he was so hotly pursued in the free-agent market is his framing ability.
4. BRIAN MCCANN, YANKEES, 658
The Yankees' $85 million catcher struggled at the plate in his first season in the Bronx, but McCann—though he didn't rate as the elite framer he was in Atlanta—still made a positive impact on New York's pitching staff.
5. YADIER MOLINA, CARDINALS, 557
Baseball's best all-around defensive catcher is known for his game-calling and cannon arm, but Jose's younger brother is also one of the best at pilfering strikes.
"He was our pillar, THE EPITOME OF COOL," says the Pirates' Hurdle.
Anthopoulos BLARED "O CANADA" FROM HIS PHONE before anyone could speak.
Photograph by Al Tielemans For Sports Illustrated
IN THE ZONE An elite receiver like Martin can nab borderline strike calls for his pitchers—a small edge that can add up to wins over the course of a season.
Photographs by Al Tielemans For Sports Illustrated
HOME BASE Jays fans are ready to embrace Martin, who hits for some power and has made pregame soccer part of his fitness regimen (far right).
Photographs by Al Tielemans For Sports Illustrated
LOADING UP MVP candidate Donaldson (above) joins an already fearsome lineup; the Jays think Martin (top) will help them prevent runs as easily as they score them.
Photograph by Al Tielemans For Sports Illustrated
BRACE HEMMELGARN/MINNESOTA TWINS/GETTY IMAGES (LUCROY)
MICHAEL ZAGARIS/OAKLAND ATHLETICS/GETTY IMAGES (JOSE MOLINA)
RICK MADONIK/TORONTO STAR/GETTY IMAGES (MARTIN)
JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (MCCANN)
JUSTIN K. ALLER/GETTY IMAGES (YADIER MOLINA)