From the moment all the talk about the Cubs having interest in Russell Martin started up, I’ve been skeptical. I mean, we’re talking about a player who’s on the wrong side of 30 coming off of a career-best offensive campaign, which means he’s in line for a hefty payday.
I know all the saber nerds have been raving about the guy’s pitch-framing skills, his stellar OBP, and several other statistical representations of various aspects of baseball minutiae that make him a much more desirable entree than Beef Welington. But I don’t really understand those things, so I speak of them and their practitioners with poorly-measured derision.
I don’t need to look into fancy-schmancy made-up numbers to determine the value of baseball player. If I like the cut of his jib and he displays TWTW, that’s all I need to know.
Okay, that’s not really true, but I bet a few of you started getting a little hot under the collar when I called you nerds and touted the will to win. But while I’m not prone to sitting atop a plate of spaghetti and being covered with sauce and parmesan cheese, I’m not completely analytical either.
So despite my skepticism over treating Russell Martin like Ricky Roe from Blue Chips and handing him a duffel bag full of cash, I wanted to dig into whether or not he could possibly “earn” the contract he’s reportedly asking for (5 years, $75 million). After all, I had seen some comments referencing the value of a win and how a guy doesn’t need to be stellar to actually be worth what we may perceive to be a big payday.
It was long believed in the sabermetric community that a marginal win was worth about $5 million. That is, a 2-WAR player earning $9 million would be a good value but one making $12 million is overpaid. Those estimates had been espoused by Dave Cameron at FanGraphs but have been challenged by Lewie Pollis of SB Nation’s Beyond the Box Score.
In an article titled How Much Does a Win Really Cost?, Pollis breaks down the traditional logic and lays out some research of his own. I’ll not get into the nitty-gritty here, as to do so here would be tedious and, above all, a disservice to the fine work present in the piece.
In short, Pollis concludes that “a win cost about $7 million on the free agent market,” and that “Barring another market spike, that figure is unlikely to change much in 2014.” It would figure that the same should hold true for 2015, so I’m going to dance with the girl that brung [sic] me.
If that $7 million is correct, little quick math tells us that Martin would only need to produce 11 marginal wins over the course of the aforementioned contract in order to be considered a good value. Based on the FanGraphs description, a solid starter is worth about 2-3 WAR per season, so getting to 11 wins over the course of 5 years isn’t a monumental task.
Taking a look at Martin’s career, we see that he’s accounted for 30.4 WAR over the course of an 9-year career, which averages out to 3.4 WAR/season. His Steamer projection for 2015 is 3.8, just a little over his career average; while it’s perhaps a bit dangerous to take that for granted, let’s go ahead and do so anyway.
If Russell Martin is indeed able to produce nearly 4 marginal wins in 2015, that leaves him with only 7.6 wins, or 1.9 per season, over the final 4 years of the deal. Even with the inevitable diminution of his skills, which could be at least partially mitigated by a platoon with Castillo and/or Kyle Schwarber, it’s easy to believe Martin could meet or exceed those levels.
So he’s worth the money, right? Well, maybe. You see, those WAR figures are assuming that Martin is playing instead of a replacement-level player, which Castillo is not. While his body of work is not nearly as extensive as Martin’s, Beef has 5.5 WAR in his two seasons as the Cubs’ primary backstop (6.6 if you take into account his 52-game 2012 season*).
I’m sure my assertion will draw the ire of a lot of people who are smarter than me (which is probably most of you reading this), but it seems to me that we can’t simply look at Martin being worth $7 million per marginal win. Rather, we need to look at his WAR relative to Castillo’s and then take into account the difference in their salaries.
For the sake of this exercise, I will make the reasonable assumption that Welly (or is it Wely?) can maintain a 2-WAR pace over the next 5 years. Certainly not stellar performance, but still better than some schmoe who’s fresh off the farm and excited just to be getting a cup of coffee in the Bigs.
When we look at it that way, Martin needs to produce 21 wins (11 more than Castillo’s 10) over the life of a 5-year deal in order to make $75 million a decent value. I fully admit that this is nearly as far from exact science as Anthony Bosch’s assertion that mid-stream urine contains less PED and more PEE than that at the beginning or end of the stream.
Of course, this also assumes that Castillo is making no money over the next 5 years, which is probably not likely. He did make only $530,000 last season, but 2015 marks his first year of arbitration eligibility and what will surely be a pretty significant raise. For the purposes of this illustration, I’m just going to assume that he averages $2 million/season ($10 million total) moving forward.
That brings the difference between the two contracts to $65 million and Russell’s marginal win requirement to 9.3, or just about 1.9 wins more than Beef over each of the next 5 seasons. Given that Castillo is just heading into his prime seasons and Martin is continuing down from his peak, this seems like an extraordinarily tall order.
Viewed through that lens, I can’t imagine a scenario in which Russell Martin is actually able to earn the contract he’ll likely be handed this offseason. At least not in terms of WAR and other statistical measures. But the Cubs, or any team for that matter, wouldn’t just be opening up the checkbook for Martin’s numbers.
As much as we all like to poke a little fun at Hawk Harrelson for his blathering about the will to win, there’s something to be said for a guy who has been a part of some successful teams and who can provide veteran leadership to a team that desperately needs it. Martin began his career with the Dodgers before spending a couple years with the Yankees and two more with the Pirates.
Over the course of those 9 seasons with 3 teams, the veteran catcher has missed the postseason only twice. Much of that may have been due to playing for the big-market behemoths on either coast, but when you consider that Martin was also part of back-to-back Pirates playoff berths, it adds some credence to his value as a leader. Trouble is, it’s impossible to place a dollar amount on something as intangible and unquantifiable as experience.
That said, it’s exactly that leadership, that veteran presence, that may be able to pick up the slack as Martin’s WAR numbers being to slip and his knees require more frequent days off. Perhaps his role as a mentor to Castillo and Kyle Schwarber can serve to add to their value even as his own tapers off.
We know that it’s going to cost a pretty penny to lure the double nickel to the North Side of Chicago, but is there really any way for the potential signing to be worth it? Short answer: no. I don’t think Martin can possibly provide the full value of the deal strictly from a statistical point of view, but baseball is about more than just numbers.
And with that in mind, I’m actually feeling a little conflicted about my stance at this point. After all, if Russell Martin can help restore the Cubs to playoff contention or even, miracle of miracles, be a part of a World Series team, $75 million will seem like a pittance.
So my conclusion is that Martin is not worth it…but he might be.
Am I an idiot? Are my assumptions completely flawed? Or am I actually making sense for once? I’d love to hear what you think below…
*I am not using Castillo’s 11 combined games in 2010 and ’11, over which he put up .2 WAR.