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July 8, 2014

Notes About Baseball, 7/8

Russell Martin and Other Baseball Aberrations

by Rocco DeMaro

Formerly the pregame/postgame radio host for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Rocco is now a freelance writer, broadcaster, and podcaster. You may remember him from Episode 31 of the Up & In podcast. Follow his tweets here.

Given the roster of talented baseball researchers and essayists here at BP, most of whom pen 1,500-word theses on this inefficiency or that, there would seem to be an opportunity for some counter-programming—something more bite-sized and consumable. A piece to balance out the menu, to diversify our portfolio.

That hodgepodge of metaphors was the essence of my pitch to start up a Notes column for the site; oddly, it worked.

In the Room
Russell Martin is having quite a season.

As of this writing, the Pirates catcher is slashing .273/.408/.390. Should the numbers hold, this would be by far his best season by on-base percentage and TAv (.313).

But I didn't sit down with Russ last week to chat about his lack of outs with the bat; I wanted to learn how he creates them with his catcher's mitt, as Mr. Martin happens to be one of the best pitch-framers on the planet.

Since 2008 (which is as far back as we have complete PITCHf/x data), Martin has finished second, first, fourth, third, fourth and third in the majors in Framing Runs Added by Call. He ranks eighth this season, with over 11 runs added.

Some quick context: The best at this skill—think Martin, Jonathan Lucroy, Brian McCann and Jose Molina—can tack about two full wins(!) of value onto their profile with pitch framing alone. For a more comprehensive look at pitch framing value and methodology, have a go here.

With context established, I sat down with Martin last week, hoping to learn how he does what he does.

"Pitch recognition is huge,” he said. “If he's a sinkerballer, knowing his sinker. How does it work? How does it tend to move?"

Pirates sinkerballer Charlie Morton was scheduled to pitch that night, and walked by just as Martin was offering the above response. While starters don't generally talk with media the day they're scheduled to pitch, Charlie nodded his head, offered a wide-eyed expression in the affirmative, pointed to Martin and whispered, “so good.”

The numbers are the numbers, and they tell us a lot, but the pitchers themselves would seem to be the ultimate authority when it comes to appreciating a good pitch framer. And Charlie has been caught by Ryan Doumit, so he would know good from bad.

Back to Martin now.

"For a sharp slider going away from a righty, I try to catch it out in front, before the break takes the pitch out of the zone,” he said. “It's all about giving the umpire a good look. You have to understand what their vantage point is.

"Now, a front-door two-seamer to a lefty from a right-hander, I'd let the pitch work and catch that one a little deeper, and kind of massage it back into the zone. Same thing with a backdoor breaking ball."

I asked him how much difference there is between pitches—how much spread in terms of depth and where he can receive.

"There's not much room to play with, but every little bit helps," he said.

The conversation then turned to the guys he admires across the league.

"Probably the best in the game, in my opinion, especially with the low ball, is Jonathan Lucroy,” Martin offered. “He has very small movements, very subtle, very calm back there and he catches the ball well."

Catches the ball well?

"I believe that if you catch the ball in the sweet spot and you make it pop, that strike arm tends to come up more times than not."

Martin repeated that a few times throughout the chat, the importance of getting a good “pop” in the sweet spot as the key to maximizing the effectiveness of a well-received pitch—an aural efficiency that might go overlooked. Umpires are mostly using visual data to make calls, but as we learned in Scorecasting, audio data from crowds impacts judgments. A crisp “pop” on a borderline call, then, could be similarly meaningful.

Martin also went on to praise the framing of Brian McCann and Jose Molina.

"Pretty much any Molina,” he said. “Pick a Molina. All of the Molinas."

As we wrapped and Martin prepared to head out for his stretch, he offered this final pearl of pitch-framing wisdom:

I believe that my job isn't really to turn balls into strikes, but to just keep a strike a strike. The worst thing you can do is to have a pitcher throw his best pitch...you know, a corner down and away...and take it out of the zone. You see that quite often, and it's got to be frustrating for a pitcher. If you square a ball up at the plate, you want that to be a hit—it's the same for a pitcher. If you make that perfect pitch, you want to be rewarded for it, you want it to be a strike.

The Outliers
Billy Hamilton's blazing speed. Jose Abreu's otherworldly power. Carlos Santana's extreme patience. In this section of the column, we'll have a bit of fun with the players who stand out from the pack in one way or another.

(Note: I'm soliciting reader-based selections for inclusion in the “Outliers” section, so if there's a guy that's great at...something, and you think he deserves a spot in the column, leave a comment below or hit me up on the Twitter.

Hamilton's Speed
Hamilton went just 1-for-2 this past week in his stolen base attempts. He also leads the league in times caught stealing (12) and owns a pedestrian 74 percent SB success rate, which is right around league average (73 percent). So while he's almost certainly the fastest player in Major League Baseball, raw speed isn't cleanly equating to base-stealing value just yet.

With that said, many players get better at swiping bags with more reps. The Pirates' Andrew McCutchen would seem to be a good point of reference here, as despite being very fast, he, too, puttered along with a mediocre SB% early in his career. These days, however, the reigning NL MVP is a ruthlessly efficient thief; he's a perfect 13-for-13 to this point in 2014.

Back to Hamilton: The rate at which he takes an extra base stands at a solid 59 percent; league average is 41 percent. Good marks there.

Abreu’s Power
Abreu slugged two homers this past week, bringing his season total to 27. He leads the league in SLG and sits in third place on the extremely manly Home Run / Flyball distance leaderboard.

That 27th home run of his season extended Abreu's hitting streak to 18 games at the time, and it flew 393 feet. While that might not be among the rook's more prodigious blasts, it was hammered—109.3 mph off the bat—making it the fourth hardest-hit homer of the season for the Cuban import.

Abreu is on pace to make a serious run at Mark McGwire's record for homers in a rookie season (49).

Other, Carlos-based Outliers
Carlos Santana might be the most disciplined hitter in baseball.

Santana's 4.45 pitches per plate appearance ranked as the fourth-most in the majors through Sunday’s games. Only one player has swung at a lower percentage of pitches (Matt Carpenter), and none has walked more often than Santana (17.9 percent).

The man has more patience than Cleveland Clinic. If Carlos were to play a role-playing game, he would choose the Monk class (Lawful Neutral?), but only after a great deal of thought and consideration. He is the closest thing baseball has to a pacifist in the batter’s box.

Carlos Gomez, on the other hand, is the anti-Carlos Santana.

Gomez swings at more first pitches than anyone, and by a staggering margin—the difference between Gomez (56.2 percent) and the second-most aggressive first-pitch swinger in MLB (Mike Zunino, 45.6 percent) is the same as the distance between Zunino and the 33rd-most aggressive first-pitch swinger, Brandon Moss (35.0 percent).

Predictably, Gomez ranks in the bottom 25 in pitches per plate appearance and has a career walk rate of 5.5 percent.

In our role-playing metaphor, Gomez would be a Chaotic Neutral Beserker, dual-wielding axes or some ridiculous thing. He’s the yang to Santana's yin, the Joker to Santana's Batman, the Bizarro Carlos, if we can ignore the evil connotations...and yet he is also a highly effective offensive player.

These two Carlos-es, despite their wildly different approaches to hitting, have each found a way to succeed in the Darwinian gauntlet of ideas and athleticism that is Major League Baseball. They've tested hitting theories, maximized their approaches based on the data they've collected throughout their careers, and thrived.

There's something beautiful about that.

Rocco DeMaro is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rocco's other articles. You can contact Rocco by clicking here

Related Content:  Defense,  Russell Martin,  Catcher Framing

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