The Yankees’ Catching Situation

The Yankees chose not extend a $13.3 million qualifying offer to Russell Martin thus making him a free agent. There’s obviously still a chance Martin returns; but, he will no doubt be courted by other teams. Martin had an interesting 2012 offensively. He set a career high in homers (21) and continued to show the ability to draw a walk (10.9% BB%). Unfortunately, his average was a measly .211. All in all, he posted a .316 wOBA which isn’t bad at all for a catcher, but probably a little lower than expected.

Part of his struggles undoubtedly stemmed from his luck on balls in play as his BABIP was a career low .222. This estimator indicates it should have been more like .319 which would have him hitting an solid .282. This seems a little far-fetched given Martin’s recent batting averages. Nonetheless, Martin clearly was at least a little unlucky. On top of that, his season definitely would have looked a lot worse if not for 7 homers and a .380 wOBA after September 1st. His bad luck and late season surge give us reason to believe he’ll be a better hitter in 2013. A conservative prediction would be a league average performance offensively – similar to his 2011.

Defensively, Martin is widely regarded as being above average. However, he seemed to take a step back this year allowing a career high 9 passed balls and throwing out a career low 24% of base-stealers. For what it’s worth, there were 22 fewer steals against him than there were last season. So it seems the league is respecting his abilities a bit more.

Russell was worth 2.2 WAR last year according to Fangraphs.command that’s counting his defense as slightly below average. If he were to repeat his 2012 with average defense and hitting, he’d be worth about 2.4 WAR. If he were to come back on the qualifying offer, the Yankees would be paying $5.5million per win which certainly isn’t absurd for the Yankees. So by not making the offer, they obviously believe that a) Martin won’t get that much on the open market and/or b) there will be better options available.

If you believe in the miracle of aggregation, it’s more likely the former — Fangraphs’ Contract Crowdsourcing predicted a 2 year $16 million deal for Martin. In addition, the Yankees have expressed interest in retaining their incumbent catcher.

Who are the other free agent catchers this year?

The only other starting-caliber catchers without a team as of now are A.J. Pierzynski and Mike Napoli. Kelly Shoppach and David Ross are out there too, but they’re more backup types. It’s also looking like Ross will stay in Atlanta.

Pierzynski is coming off of a career year in which he put up a solid 3.4 WAR. His 2012 was a lot like every other A.J. Pierzinski season except that he had a few more strikeouts and exploded in the power department with a .223 ISO. He also had a HR/FB% of 18.6% which could be part of the explanation. A.J.’s defense graded out as below average the last couple of years which limits his value some. Prior to last year, he was consistently a 1-2 win player. He’ll be 36 this year and it’s hard to imagine him not reverting back to being ~1.5 WAR given the frequency in which his fly balls left the park in 2012. Fangraphs predicts Pierzynski will cost 2/18. At that price, it would probably be better to bring in a guy like Shoppach who could provide a similar value but at a significant discount. Pass on Pierzynski.

Mike Napoli isn’t even really much of a catcher and likely won’t learn to become one at age 31. What Napoli does do well is hit. After a beastly .445 wOBA in 2011, he posted a still good .349 in 2012. He’s definitely a better hitter than Martin, while Martin’s the superior defender. Overall, Napoli is probably the better player; but, it’s unclear how much longer he’ll be able to fake it at catcher. He’d definitely warrant a multi-year deal and the Yankees certainly won’t need any more DH types come 2014. Factoring in that he’d cost more than Martin (3/36 per fangraphs) Martin’s the better fit.

Based on the other options available, Martin seems to be the best fit for the Yankees right now. He definitely has his flaws, but he’s still just 29 and has shown the ability to perform at a high level both offensively and defensively. However, the Yankees could certainly upgrade their backup catcher. Chris Stewart was pretty terrible in his time as a Yankee and the alternative Francisco Cervelli was unimpressive in AAA. In order to receive any consideration, Austin Romine would have to prove that he’s healthy first after missing most of last season. However, he could be an option later in the year due to his defensive abilities.

Russell Martin also has a bit of an injury history and I’d hate to see any of Stewart, Cervelli, or Romine getting the lion’s share of playing time under any circumstances. This is where Kelly Shoppach could be useful. While Shoppach’s nothing to get excited about, he’s decent at throwing out baserunners (37% over the last 2 seasons) and has historically hit pretty well against left-handed pitching (career .374 wOBA). That’s more than you can say about Chris Stewart who couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat. Fangraphs predicts Shoppach would bring in $3million on a one year deal. That certainly seems like it could be doable for the Bombers.

About Chris

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, and is an occasional user of the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell
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