Catcher Deterioration: Projecting Russell Martin’s Starts the Next Four Years

Russell Martin Pirates

Can Russell Martin continue to retain value by staying healthy behind the plate? (Natalie Litz/Creative Commons)

One of my projects still on the table is to determine a proper contract value for Pirates catcher Russell Martin. There are so many aspects to evaluating a catcher, not the least of which is how many runs and wins his defense is worth.

I want to consider one factor in this post: deterioration. We all know that catcher is the toughest position (other than pitcher) on a baseball player’s body. Guys get knocked around by foul balls and wild pitches, must crouch and stand for all nine innings, and even still, get occasionally pummeled by world-class athletes running full-speed into home plate.

How long can Russell Martin continue to start 100-plus games per season at the catcher position? To get some idea, I looked for catchers over the last 30 years who have made 1,000 starts by age 32, as Martin has made 1,050.

Here were the results and season-by-season start totals for those players, with thanks to the indispensable Baseball-Reference Play Index:

Starts at Catcher

 

Focus on the average/median starts for age 34 and 35. One could easily project that Martin will make only 160-170 total starts over those two seasons.

A few conclusions I want to make:

  • The catchers stayed healthier than I anticipated.

Two of the 10 catchers flamed out, as Charles Johnson and Todd Hundley both retired before their age-35 seasons. But Hundley dealt with major elbow surgery and a Piazza-led move to left field in 1998. The fact that 8 of 10 catchers made at least 60 catcher starts at age 34 showed decent sustainability for older catchers.

  • Props to Jason Kendall.

His season-ending dislocated ankle at age 25 could have lingered and shortened his career. But for the next 11 seasons, he started at least 118 games at catcher in a showing of remarkable longevity. He probably could have extended that streak if he didn’t become an awful hitter. Still, what a bulldog.

  • Ultimately, catcher deterioration should be factored into Martin’s contract.

Catchers like Benito Santiago, Ramon Hernandez and Javy Lopez had similar offensive metrics and health levels to Martin through age 31. All three struggled to make as many starts in their following four seasons. All catchers are not equal, but it’s safe to expect Martin will not average 115 starts at catcher per season for the next four years.

How much should one considered deterioration into the contract? Depends on many things. Do you think Martin is built differently than older catchers? Can your training staff can keep him healthy through age 35? Will Martin’s offense (at near-career-highs this season, but should regress) be enough to hack it at third base or first base?

Those are just a few of the questions Neal Huntington and 29 other general managers must consider before offering a four-year contract to Martin this offseason. And it wouldn’t hurt for fans to think about it too.

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