Russell Martin’s leadership might be ephemeral, but it’s real
The baseball world is abuzz with the scramble to quantify clubhouse chemistry. We can’t even prove that it’s a real thing yet, but we know that the players wearing the uniform can’t simply be reduced to numbers on the page.
Yadier Molina is rightly held up as one of the best catchers in the game. Since 2006, he has accumulated nearly 30 fWAR. We measure his five tools (hit, hit for power, run, defense, and throw) and his performance, and then assign a value. Russell Martin, since his rookie year in 2006, has actually accumulated more fWAR than Molina, at just over 30.
We can debate endlessly about the comparison between these two men. However, the entire discussion might miss a universe of value. Scouts, executives, managers and coaches look at the “makeup,” all the attributes that fall outside the physical bucket. Intellect, emotional armor, accountability, likeability, work ethic, mental flexibility, and, of course, leadership all qualify.
Russell Martin is a leader.
As a rookie catcher, Martin was tasked with calming Derek Lowe, a man who had banked 400 innings and a World Series ring. Martin recalls walking out to the mound to check on an obviously flustered Lowe.
“Hey, buddy. We need you right now. Calm down. Let’s go to work.”
If these words seem generic, it’s because they are. I played with (and love) Lowe. Knowing him, he didn’t require a doctoral dissertation. Generic was the right move for Derek, and Russell properly identified that.
“Some guys are more inclined to respond to fire," he told me. "With them, I’ll use some fire. Some guys need a pat on the back. I’ll pat them on the back. There’s all different types of personalities. It’s almost like I’m a psychologist, sometimes.”
Martin says he read in the paper the following day that he had correctly assessed the situation. Lowe trumpeted his praise for how Martin handled the situation to the media. The power of teammates’ authentic endorsement cannot be overstated. Ask any man in baseball worth his salt; he’ll tell you there is nothing more powerful than the respect of the men in the clubhouse.
Rookies are not often the ones influencing veteran players. They have to spend their mental bandwidth adjusting to big-league life and their own performance. Martin viewed his job differently.
“My job is to take care of the pitching staff,” he told me, as he mused about his rookie year.
Their teammates refer to men like this as “an extra coach on the field.” In some ways, a man like Martin can be superior to members of the coaching staff. As a hitter, I knew my swing well by the time I reached the majors. I certainly had my mechanical flaws, but what I truly desired in my hitting coach and manager was an intellectually and emotionally developed teammate. I depended upon these men to raise my performance through encouragement and confident pushback. While I didn’t find these often in field-staff members, I discovered them in Jason Varitek. Martin, like Molina and ‘Tek, possesses this ability to lead.
These men have all built impressive offensive résumés. The lack of a quick acronym should not lead people to overlook the impact they have on their teammates. Is it perhaps reasonable to think that Martin raises the performance of a pitcher by one-fifth of a win over the course of a season? If he works with 15 pitchers, he’s added three wins to his club. Whoa, that’s a badass bump.
You can insert your own values into this equation. If you want to be extremely conservative and halve that number, 1.5 wins on top of his offensive and defensive contributions is still a significant addition.
Martin is now the established presence in the Pirates clubhouse and has years of elite catcher performance under his belt. He is currently zeroed in on winning a world championship. Nothing short will mollify.
“I’ve been to the postseason quite a bit, but I’ve never been to the big dance.”
If all goes well for the Pirates and Cards, Martin and his men will square off against Yadi and his in the NLCS. Both Martin and Molina will be assessed based on their contributions in the box score. We will keep digging; eventually the WAR equation will include intangibles, and our beloved stat-lines will tell us even more.