Spring training | Russell Martin, Pittsburgh Pirates prove to be perfect match

jlembo@bradenton.comMarch 9, 2014 

BRADENTON -- The Pittsburgh Pirates are happy to have Russell Martin.

Just ask their manager.

"What didn't he bring? That's the better question," Clint Hurdle said. "Pitch-calling, framing, controlling the running game, making every pitcher out there better -- all of it. He catches with an edge and he's an impact defender."

Just ask one piece of the Pirates starting rotation.

"He's an excellent catcher, man," Wandy Rodriguez said. "He's got good hands, sets up a good target, too. ... If I throw one in the dirt, I know he'll block it."

Just ask a former Gold Glove winner behind the plate who is back in Bradenton as a special instructor.

"The things you look at that you can measure -- thrown-out percentage, blocking balls -- he does that fabulous," Mike LaValliere said. "But I think really his biggest contribution was making those 12 (pitchers) better."

Martin, however, is just as happy to have the Pirates.

Just ask him.

"I get along with nice people and with good people. Really, it's just a large group of good people here," Martin said Friday after he had two hits and threw out a runner trying to steal during the Pirates' Grapefruit League game against the Minnesota Twins. "You don't feel the selfishness in this clubhouse. You feel a unit, probably from guys coming up together and the front office looking for guys that have that personality trait."

The marriage between Martin, who had spent the previous two seasons as a New York Yankee, and the Pirates was seamless last summer. Inked to a two-year deal prior to the start of spring training, Martin responded with a stellar defensive year -- "By far, my best," he said -- that earned him MVP votes for the first time in his eight-year career and helped the Pirates reach the playoffs.

Martin, however, slings the credit around to nearly everyone else in the Pirates clubhouse.

Yes, he threw out more than 40 percent of runners trying to steal last season, third-best in the majors, a year after Pirates catchers threw out just 11 percent.

According to Martin, that wasn't all his doing.

"Controlling the running game, the catcher gets credit for it, but it's 100 percent pitchers," he said, "how they hold runners, how quick they are to the plate, how close are they keeping runners to the base. I'm a machine. I'm catching it the same way, and I'm throwing it the same way. I'm trying to throw a strike. I'm not changing anything. I can't make up for lost time. For the most part, time is won and lost with the pitcher's windup and getting the guy a little leery at first base. So that's the coaches and the pitchers and myself. It's really a team thing."

Martin allowed four passed balls while catching 1,051 full innings -- only St. Louis' Yadier Molina, Kansas City's Sal Perez and San Francisco's Buster Posey permitted fewer passed balls, allowing three each -- and finished ninth in baseball with a defensive WAR of 2.2.

Again, however, Martin shares the kudos.

"I felt comfortable all year, and it helps when pitchers are hitting spots," he said. "It's allowing us to get pitches. When pitchers are around the zone and they're hitting the areas they're supposed to, it's easier for me to work. I remember catching rookie-ball guys, and compared to now, it looks like I'm a much better catcher. In reality, I am a better catcher now, but when you're catching a guy whose got command, it makes you look better, instead of a guy who's really all over the place."

Most players, especially catchers with All-Star appearances and a Gold Glove on their résumé, don't have career years a few weeks after they turned 30. (Martin turned 31 in February.)

But Martin arrived in Bradenton last year more toned and lean and began impressing LaValliere as soon as he put on the equipment.

"I knew he was real solid. But he's an even better athlete than I imagined," LaValliere said. "This guy's incredibly talented. It's amazing. He does some great things athletically behind the plate that a lot of catchers can't get away with."

The proof is in the numbers. Martin led all catchers in fielding percentage (.998) while throwing more runners trying to steal than anyone in baseball (36).

The Gold Glove, however, went to Molina, considered the game's best all-around catcher who took second in MVP voting behind Martin's teammate, Andrew McCutchen.

Did Martin deserve the award?

"I wasn't at every game that Molina caught, so I don't know," he said. "Statistically, it looks like that (Martin deserved it), but I'm not a stats guy. Honestly, who cares? We made it to the playoffs, we had fun doing it. I've won one before, and I don't play this game to win awards. I know that I showed up every day and played the best that I could, and that's all that I could ask from myself.

"If I get an award for it, great. If I don't ... . It would have been fun to talk about 20 years from now. But it's not the reason that I play. But I do think if he played better than I did defensively last year, I don't what I'm going to do."

Martin may not have received hardware for his performance last year, which he capped by hitting a pair of home runs against the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Wild Card game.

But that may be the one blemish of his first year as a Pirate, one that kept getting better for everyone involved.

"In the spring, it was the realization there was a lot of talent, a lot of young talent, a lot of guys that I didn't even know how good they were," Martin said. "And as the season went along, you start getting good results, you start feeling better about yourself, then you go out there and you start gaining that confidence. And once you start gaining that confidence, you just kind of reaffirm the belief that you are good. And that's what happened. We showed some glimpses early on, then there came a point in the season where we showed up every day and expected to win."

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