Is Francisco Cervelli actually better than Russell Martin? Not possible, right? Russell Martin is the guy who signed the 5-year, $82 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays this past offseason, a deal that was almost universally praised. He's the guy who had the career-year in 2014, finishing second in the NL in OBP, minimum 450 PAs, and put up a career-high OPS+ of 135. He was lauded for his pitch-framing, ability to control the running game and to manage a pitching staff. And there is no doubt Martin was viewed as a leader in Pittsburgh. Martin finished 13th in the NL MVP-voting in 2014 and you could make a solid argument that he should have finished higher as his numbers compared favorably to both Jonathan Lucroy and Buster Posey who finished 4th and 6th.
Francisco Cervelli, the guy Neal Huntington moved quickly to acquire in the offseason when he realized the Pirates would be unable to afford Martin's services, had only once played more than 50 games in a season or gotten more than 150 at bats and those were both back in 2010. His career line of .278/.348/.381.729 OPS was not far off Martin's .259/.354/.399 .754 OPS, but he had almost 4,000 fewer PAs and durability was a concern. He was seen as a serviceable defensive catcher, but nowhere close to Martin, one of the game's best.
Two-thirds of the way through the 2015 season, let's see how these two compare.
Offensively, Martin got off to a slow start with the Jays. But in early May he got Bryce Harper-hot, going 14-for-23 with four homers in a six game stretch to take his OPS over 1.000. Since that time, Martin has been more-or-less the guy we've seen throughout his career. He's hit .240/.310/.401. On the season, his .255/.337/.461 119 OPS+ show an expected small-step back from 2014, but career-best power numbers have still made him an invaluable part of baseball's best offense.
This was Francisco Cervelli's line with the Yankees in 2014: .301/.370/.432 .802 OPS. This is Francisco Cervelli's line, through Aug. 11, with the Pirates: .307/.372/.432 .804 OPS. The difference is Cervelli only had 162 PAs with the Yanks last year and he's already more than doubled that with 331 for the Pirates. Cervelli's 123 OPS+ is fractionally better than Martin's 119.
Defensively, Martin and Cervelli grade out very similarly according to Baseball Prospectus' advance catching metrics, but according to StatCorner Cervelli is leading all of MLB catchers in Runs Above Average, while Martin is well down the list grading out right around league average. Martin has had much greater success in the running game throwing out 26 of 62 would-be base stealers, a 41.9% clip, while Cervelli has only nailed 21 or 91, 23.1%. (Although in A.J. Burnett and Gerrit Cole the Pirates do have two starters notoriously poor at holding runners. Conversely Martin has to deal with R.A. Dickey and his knuckleball.)
Leadership and intangibles? It appears Cervelli has capably filled the void left by Martin, bringing an enthusiasm that fires up teammates and has made him a fan favorite. And it's hard to argue with how it's gone, particularly of late, for Martin and the Jays in Toronto.
So who's the better player? Who's having the better season? It's very close. Cervelli's numbers are slightly better offensively, but Martin is the better defensive catcher. Although both are exceptional pitch framers I would give an edge to Martin in controlling the running game and blocking balls in the dirt. In terms of WAR, baseball-reference gives Martin the edge at 2.7 to 2.1, while Fangraphs has Martin at 3.0 and Cervelli at 2.6.
But here's the rub. Martin is making $7 million this year while Cervelli is making $987,500. The Pirates control the 29-year old Cervelli for one more year before he's eligible for free agency in 2017. The 32-year old Martin is under contract for four more years. He is due $15 million next year and $20 million in each of the following three years.
Both Russell Martin and Francisco Cervelli are among the top 10 catchers, maybe top five, in all of baseball and Martin is probably still the slightly better player. But factor in their respective contracts and it's a different story. Martin is very undervalued this year, but that may not be the case going forward, whereas Cervelli is one of the biggest bargains in the game and is likely to be next year as well. Another shrewd offseason move by Neal Huntington has paid off in a big way for the Pirates.