Saturday, November 13, 2010

Theo's Conference Call Part 2: Victor Martinez

Theo Epstein held a conference call today.  As Peter Abrahams writes:
"In strong terms, he said the Red Sox want Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez back and are pursuing them. Epstein said media reports portraying anything else are inaccurate."
The Victor Martinez situation is pretty complicated.  Martinez is a 31 year old catcher who is thought to be looking for a four year deal in the $50-55M range.  As a general rule, top tier catchers (Jorge Posada not withstanding) typically see significant declines in performance starting with their age-33 season.  Assuming VMart's performance follows a similar pattern, it's very unlikely that any team that signs him to a long term deal with get a positive return on their investment.  That said, I'm not sure VMart fits this description, and I'll discuss this more in a moment.

To further complicate matters, Martinez's defensive abilities came under serious fire this season.  Early in the season, fan and media criticism focused on VMart's inability to stop the opposing team's running game.  As the season progressed, the focus shifted to his pitch and game calling abilities.  VMart's detractors, using Catcher ERA (CERA) as evidence,* claimed he was unfit to handle day-to-day duties behind the dish, and suggested moving him to either first base or designated hitter.

*CERA, like it's pitching counterpart ERA, is a flawed metric.  ERA is defense dependent, and therefore, unfairly penalizes pitchers for the quality (or lack thereof) of the defense behind him.  Pitchers with a top quality defense (like the Orioles of the 1970s), tend to convert more balls in play into outs than those with poor quality defenses (like the 2009 Red Sox).  Due to this variance, it's unfair to laud or jeer pitchers based on their ERA since it's partially affected by factors outside of their control.  Metrics like FIP, xFIP, SIERA, and tRA are all much better evaluative metrics because they either strip defense out of the equation entirely, or factor for defense in a different manner.

With CERA, catchers are unfairly penalized for not only the quality of defense behind the pitcher, but also the quality of pitcher that's on the mound.  Catchers with a higher caliber pitching staff will be have a lower average CERA than catchers with a low quality or average pitching staff.  Furthermore, while catchers can call, set up, and frame pitches, they have very little control (if any) over the velocity, movement, or location of the pitch thrown.  The pitcher, on the other hand, does.  Based on this information, it's inappropriate to hold catchers responsible for items that are clearly within the pitcher's control.  If we're going to truly evaluate a catcher's defensive value, we need to look at the micro-level (borderline ball/strike calls, the affect of game preparation, pitch framing abilities, etc.), and less on the macro-level (CERA) because they don't explain why the outcome is occurring. 

While the pro-CERA crowd would argue that CERA is best used when comparing catchers on the same team over the same time period, I would argue that proves CERA's irrelevance.  The point of statistics is to use them to evaluate players from team to team, year to year, and era to era.  If CERA lacks that ability, how useful can it be as a metric.  We could use CERA as a stepping stone in creating an accurate metric, but we'd still need to either remove or account for defense.  Even if we did that, we still wouldn't have an accurate measure of catcher value because it still wouldn't measure the skills the catcher brings to the table.  Instead it would only measure how well a pitcher pitches when throwing to a specific catcher.  While this might be indicative of said catcher's skill set, it can't be seen as an indictment even if the performance has been repeated over a large sample size. 

The biggest problem with moving VMart to a less demanding defensive position, is that a major portion of his value comes from playing catcher.  As with my Jorge Posada example, VMart would lose about one to two wins compared to the replacement level just by moving to 1B or DH.  Most catchers could make up a portion of that value, purely through their ability to accumulate more plate appearances.  In VMart's case, it's unlikely he would make up for his lost positional value in this manner because he's made well over 600 plate appearances in four or the last five seasons.

While he could make up for some of his value defensively by moving to 1B, this seems unlikely considering his age.  In small sample sizes over the past five seasons, Martinez has shown that he's below average defensively at 1B based on advanced metrics like UZR, Total Zone, and DRS.  As Martinez ages, he'll become slower and less agile.  Within a few years, he'll become a liability at the position, and will need to be moved to either a DH or bench role.

Offensively, Martinez has been as consistent has they come.  Removing his injury riddled 2008 from the sample, Martinez has produced an average of +21.5 wRAA per season since 2005.  Initial Bill James projections show that VMart will produce +21.8 wRAA (.369 wOBA) in 2011 (his age-32 season).  While that's right in line with his recent performance, one has to wonder how long he'll be able to produce at the same rate.

Like I mentioned above, most top and mid-tier level catcher see major regression in their offensive performance starting in their age-33 seasons.  VMart doesn't really fit this description.  Unlike with most power hitting catchers, VMart has actually improved his control of the strike zone and make contact with pitches.  In 2010, Martinez posted career bests in contact rate (91.9%) and swinging strike rate (3.1%), while swinging at only 39.7% of the pitches he saw.  In doing so, he maintained walk and strikeout rates that, while slightly lower than expected, were within the range of his career norms.  This bodes well for Martinez's offensive rate of regression.

The only problem is that he only projects to stay at the catcher position for one or two more seasons at most.  Moving him to 1B or DH seriously cuts into the value he'll produces  Despite the fact Martinez is showing several positive signs that he can avoid some of the pitfalls of age related regression (at least offensively), we can't expect him to continue producing +20 wRAA seasons for each of the next four seasons.  Even if VMart was able average +15 wRAA seasons between 2011-2014, he'd still only be a 2.0-2.5 WAR player (assuming a move to first base), which isn't enough to justify paying a player $12-14M per season.

I have no doubt that Theo is going to make some attempt re-sign Victor Martinez.  That said, it's telling that the Red Sox front office has reportedly only made one offer, a two year deal, to VMart during his season and a half tenure with the team.  If the Red Sox sign Martinez, it will be on their own terms.  Like with Jason Bay last year, they'll take their chances and allow the market for Martinez to develop.  If the market develops in Boston's favor, they'll re-sign him.  If doesn't develop in their favor, they'll let him walk, knowing that they weren't overpaying for a declining asset.

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