Russell Martin a key to Yankees' success

April, 16, 2012
4/16/12
1:00
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Martin/HughesNick Laham/Getty ImagesRussell Martin's ability to frame strikes and work with pitchers makes him invaluable to the Yankees.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Russell Martin knows what it is like to be framed. Sure, it’s his art, framing others, but every once in a while the tables turn. As the pitch comes toward the plate it looks borderline low. But then he glances back into the catcher’s glove. He sees a strike. The umpire does, too. Somehow, without flinching, the catcher grabbed the ball, brought it back into the strike zone and made the pitch look better -- so much so that a ball is now a strike.

As he tells this story, Martin talks with calmness -- a mixture of leadership, knowledge and initiative -- which leaves little room to doubt his ability as a catcher. Watch him closely as he interacts with teammates or manages the game from behind the plate, and one word comes to mind: trustworthy.

When Andy Pettitte walked out of the locker room for the first time in 2012, Martin stopped Pettitte and asked him where he was going.

Pettitte said he was on his way to throw his first bullpen. Martin, who joined the Yankees after Pettitte had retired and missed the 2011 season, told him, "I want to catch you."

Even though he was catching the 7:05 spring training game that evening, Martin grabbed his glove and spent some time catching and talking with Pettitte. They discussed how Pettitte likes to throw his pitches and what he likes to do on the mound. Martin later recalled being impressed with Pettitte’s command, and how serious he was with every pitch.

"It was great," Pettitte said. "I was glad he wanted to jump in there and catch me on my first 'pen."

The pitcher-catcher relationship is one of the most singular between teammates in sports. Unlike statistics such as batting average and slugging percentage, the impact a catcher has on a team’s pitching staff is hard to measure. The difficulty in qualifying a catcher’s influence on the entire pitching staff is a paradox: His impact on the team's ERA is unique to his relationship with each pitcher.

"The catcher is involved with everybody in the game, because he’s your field general," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "He’s going to control obviously every starter, all your relievers, he’s supposed to have the game plan in place, defensively he can hold the runner, he can block balls in the dirt, he can steal strikes by framing properly. There are a lot of different things that you need your catcher to do, plus you want him to hit in our league."

* * * *

Talk about a catcher influencing a pitcher’s ERA and two words immediately come to mind: pitch selection. Most major league pitchers can recall how many times they shake a catcher off during the course of a game. Some even remember how many times over the course of a season. Pitchers know how in sync they are with their catcher.

"There’s not necessarily a pitch that’s better than the other in a certain situation," Martin says of calling the right pitches. "But a lot of it is just knowing your pitcher, and knowing the pitches your pitcher can execute."

Martin says taking in all the information from scouts, and from the pitching coach, goes into knowing the opposing hitters and being prepared to call a good game.

"Another thing that goes into catching ERA is your ability to receive -- getting a called strike here and there -- making a pitch look good that maybe was not necessarily a strike," Martin says. "For me, the true part of catching is being able to do that. I take a lot of pride in it."

Martin’s ability to frame pitches is recognized throughout baseball. Through extensive statistical research, Max Marchi of Baseball Prospectus recently pinpointed Martin as the second best catcher (behind Brian McCann) in the major leagues over the past four years in framing pitches -- receiving that borderline pitch and influencing umpires to call a strike.

Cashman said he "very much so" takes advanced statistics and research into consideration when evaluating the work of a catcher. With the wealth of data now available via the Pitch f/x system, researchers like Marchi are digging into catchers' abilities in framing pitches, blocking pitches in the dirt, controlling the running game and fielding bunts. A major reason the Rays signed career backup Jose Molina to become their starting catcher was data that showed he was one of the best at framing pitches.

That one strike can make all the difference in an at-bat. Take a 1-1 count, for example. In 2011, major league batters hit .340 after the count reached 2-1. But they hit just .180 after the count reached 1-2.

The marriage

Maybe the catcher doesn't matter to a great pitcher like Mariano Rivera. After all, it doesn't seem like he needs much help on the mound.

"I can [use] all the help that I can get, and the catcher is one of those guys," Rivera said. "I mean, if you have a guy who really takes his business back there [seriously], he can help you more than 50 percent."

"It’s trusting," Rivera says of his relationship with his catcher. "It’s trusting. It’s a marriage kind of like."

Rivera pauses at this thought as Alex Rodriguez walks by and gives him a part friendly hug/part pummeling. It is a display of longtime friends and teammates.

As if reminded how important it is to have faith in his teammates, Rivera continues. "Trust in each other," he says. "Knowing what he is going to call before he actually calls the pitch. So when you have that kind of relationship, that’s when the catcher is in the game; you guys are thinking alike, you don’t worry about nothing else."

Chris Carpenter, who pitched one of the most mentally demanding games in recent history -- the Cardinals' 1-0 victory against Roy Halladay and the Phillies in Game 5 of the 2011 Division Series -- described what the best catchers can do behind the plate. "They can take control of your mind," Carpenter said. "They can take control of what you want to do."

Executing the perfect pitch, the perfect swing, or the most accurate throw in baseball requires muscle memory, but when the mind is clouded with doubt and uncertainty, executing the right play at the right time becomes more difficult. Preventing that doubt from creeping into a pitcher's mind is the intangible element in the art of catching.

"The catcher is like a quarterback," Cashman said. "He has to be a leader. He has to be able to take charge, and that will show up in his play. Listen, if he’s not a leader, he’s not going to be able to get back there and do the job. It will manifest itself in performance and stuff like that. So, he has to carry himself with leadership abilities, much like the quarterback in the huddle."

The key for Martin in reaching the mental side of the pitcher is to understand there are different kinds of people. And here lies his secret, because, of course, it is easy to trust someone when they know you well enough to let you just be yourself.

"It’s about communicating and knowing who you have on the mound," Martin said. "That goes into knowing how your pitcher is made up mentally. What kind of person is he? Is he the kind of guy that you have to kind of ease your way with him? You know, like a softer approach. Or is he the kind of guy that you kind of have to grab by the collar?

"The key is to build a relationship with your pitcher where he is comfortable with what you are putting down. Obviously you’re just putting some suggestions down, but the mindset is to have them focus on pitch after pitch; not having to worry about strategizing while they are on the mound. You want to simplify everything for them, where they are just on the mound executing each pitch at a time."

But Martin is not just putting random signs or numbers down. It is a combination of skill, knowledge and trust.

In his first season with the Yankees, Martin started 118 games, and the staff's ERA decreased from 4.06 in 2010 to 3.73. Manager Joe Girardi expects Martin to "do a great job like he did last year. Obviously he has fewer pitchers to learn, because he’s been here for a year. But the expectation is to continue to build on what [he] did last year."

* * * *

On a beautiful, 80-degree March day in Florida, Martin takes a break from batting practice before the night game. His 5-foot-10 frame sits comfortably in the shade of the Yankees' dugout as he looks out at the empty field. He’s thoughtful, thinking about baseball and his role on the Yankees.

"My take on baseball and what defines you as a good player is offensively it’s your ability to produce or create runs, and then on defense it is your ability to take away runs, take away hits, take away extra-base hits, and you combine both of those, and that’s who you are as a player," Martin says. "That’s what you mean to your team."

There it is again, Martin’s calm demeanor, easygoing and accepting. You can see it in Martin’s eyes. You can see why the pitchers enjoy working with him.

"One pitch can change everything,” Martin says. "It starts with pitching. You can’t wind down the clock in baseball, you have to get 27 outs."

One pitch can change a game. It's why the Yankees have complete trust in their catcher.

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