SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – Russell Martin has added significant value to the Pirates this season. Some of the value is obvious like his strong, accurate throwing arm, his athleticism, and his above average bat for the position.
But some of his value is obscured and difficult to measure like his ability to frame and sequence pitches, which we wrote about back in June.
And Martin offers even more hidden value as he demonstrated in yesterday’s walk-off in a series sweep over the Marlins.
If you are a frequent reader here, you know I am guy who likes the numbers. I read Fangraphs.com, I subscribe to Baseball Prospectus. I think WAR and xFIP are useful metrics.
But even I don’t believe everything is in the book.
I don’t believe everything can be measured by folks at Baseball Info Solutions.
Of all the remarkable outcomes authored by the Pirates this season: reaching 70 wins on August 8th, 28 comeback wins and a PNC Park record nine walk-off wins – one of the most amazing is that of those walk-off wins, Martin has had four of the walk-off at bats, including Thursday’s hit down the line against Marlins reliever Steve Ames.
There is value in intangibles. How much in terms of wins or WAR? I don’t know. But there’s a reason Martin leads the team in shaving cream pies to the face. There are perhaps reasons the Pirates’ 70-44 record is better than their run differential suggests it should be.
“I like the way my focus heightens,” Martin told me after Thursday’s win. “I like the way the game seems to slow down …I don’t have fear in those situations. I’m not afraid to fail…I like the moment.”
He certainly plays that way. He slowed the game down Thursday, thought about what sequence he might face, logically, and received the 3-2 breaking ball he anticipated from Ames. Game over.
Pittsburgh is not accustomed to such meaningful moments in the second half of a baseball season. If you were at PNC Park yesterday you were probably more nervous than Martin, whose first seven years of his career played out in the New York and Los Angeles markets. Martin has 135 career postseason plate appearances. Meaningful August baseball, pressure moments, are new to PNC Park. They are not new to Martin.
Martin said he likes these moments. He’s able to focus on his approach at the plate not get wrapped up in the context of the at bat.
“I believe all of us prepare for our future through our past,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “His past experience playing in L.A., playing in New York, the environments, the games he’s played, things he’s done. … He has a slow heartbeat.”
(Martin after his fourth walk-off of the season Thursday)
There is a hidden value in those that best handle the game’s psychological tests.
The University of South Carolina baseball team won back-to-back CWS titles when I was living in the state and nearly captured a third. The USC team was the only team I’m aware of that’s ever had a psychologist travel with the team. Did it matter? It didn’t hurt.
I know there are those in the sabermetric community that don’t believe clutch hitting exists and there is some data out there that suggest it is random. The best hitters are the best clutch hitters. But I believe there are players who better cope with clutch situations and Martin is one of them. There are always outliers (See: Craig, Allen). I believe this is a much less interesting game if we believe we can begin to measure and predict everything event on the field.
Fans’ heartbeats will be picking up at PNC Park this final stretch, there will be more sweaty plams season goes along, while this magical season is new to Pittsburgh, it’s important it’s not new to players like Martin.
CHARLES IN CHARGE?
In most seasons in Pittsburgh, Charlie Morton would have a long leash to work through mechanical issues in coming back from Tommy John surgery. Remember, he is just a year removed from major arm surgery.
Morton’s stuff is actually better post surgery. He’s averaging a career-best 93 mph with his fastball. He has a career best groundball rate (64.7), one that would rank first in baseball if he had enough innings to qualify. His curve flashes life at times.
But this is a pennant race and the public is impatient with missteps. Too often he’s lost location like he did at Miami and against the Cardinals. His sinker has been left up in the zone and punished. Morton noted the last thing to command from Tommy John surgery is command.
But he was at his best in a rebound start against the Marlins on Wednesday, producing a 13-to-1 groundball-to-flyout ratio.
If Morton can combine his improved stuff with improved command, the Pirates will have yet another asset for their starting rotation and the Nate McLouth for Jeff Locke and Morton trade will represent and even larger steal. Moreover, if the Pirates’ pitching depth is further tested it’s important Morton performs.
Hurdle said yesterday he hopes to have Wandy Rodriguez back in September. If, and it’s a significant IF, Rodriguez returns to form, Morton is a candidate to be moved out of the rotation. Hurdle said the challenge with Morton this season will be consistency, bottling up what he did Wednesday and repeating it. He’s another wild card.