Martin Catches Fire At Right Time To Save Season

The New York Yankees have reached the end of the regular season as champions of the American League East and they have the best record in the league. It was not easy but they are now ready for the playoffs. It is time to look at the players that got them there and give them grades for the season.

CATCHER – RUSSELL MARTIN (21 HRs, 53 RBIs, .211 BA)

If you were judging Russell Martin’s first half you would say that it was a foregone conclusion he would not be back with the Yankees after this season.

At the midway point, Martin had eight home runs, 21 RBIs and he was hitting an anemic .184. Though the Yankees love his defense behind the plate they also realize having a catcher that unproductive hurts the offense. Opposing pitchers were using Martin to escape from innings with men on base.

But what a difference a second half makes.

Martin,29, found his lost stroke as the season progressed and he hit 13 home runs, drove in 32 runs and batted .242 in the second half. In his first season with the Yankees he hit 18 home runs, drove in 65 runs and batted .237. So it is safe to say that Martin may have saved his job with his good work in the second half.

Martin was particularly good when it counted most – in September. From Sept. 1 on Martin batted .258 with seven home runs and 17 RBIs. It was, by far, his best month of the season.

September is usually the time where catchers wear down from all those games behind the plate and all the nicks and bruises they incur during the season. But for some reason Martin just got better as the season progressed. He saved his best for last.

Compared to his 2011 season, Martin was quite durable. He started 116 games behind the plate and caught in 128 games overall.

His defense, as advertised, was very good.

He nailed 24 percent of the runners attempting to steal on him. That was down from his career average of 30 percent but it was still very respectable. He committed only six errors though he did have a a high total of nine passed balls.

His overall fielding percentage of .994 was the same as the Rays’ Jose Molina, who is considered the best defensive catcher in the league.

But a lot of Martin’s game behind the plate goes unquantified.

His agility and cat-quick reflexes prevent a lot of wild pitches by the way he blocks pitches in the dirt. Though the Yankees traded A.J. Burnett, they still had a lot of pitchers who test a catcher with nasty breaking pitches such as Freddy Garcia, Hiroki Kuroda and Boone Logan.

Catching such a diverse staff is no day at the beach but Martin handles it exceptionally well.

He also is able to communicate with his pitchers and he calls a great game. He commands the respect of the pitching staff and he is smart enough to help pitchers get out of jams.

He certainly helped Kuroda’s transition to the American League since he caught Kuroda when he played for the Dodgers. At the same time he helped in the development of rookie right-hander David Phelps.

Martin’s contract with the Yankees expires after the season ends. Martin had sought to sign an extension before the season began but it never happened. With the Yankees looking to trim payroll it unclear whether Martin will be offered a new contract or will be allowed to become a free agent.

If it were based on his first half, he would be gone. But his second half and performance in the playoffs could save him.

It helps that a some of the Yankees’ catching prospects were hampered by injury or are a few years away.

MIDSEASON GRADE: C-

SECOND HALF GRADE: B

OVERALL GRADE: C+

BACKUP – CHRIS STEWART (1 HR, 13 RBIs, .241 BA)

Chris Stewart came to the Yankees in a trade with the San Francisco Giants made on the last day of spring training. Because Stewart was out of options, Francisco Cervelli lost his job as Martin’s backup and was shipped off to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

So Stewart was replacing a very popular player in Cervelli. But he handled it well and won over some Yankee fans with his exceptional work behind the plate.

Backup catchers are not paid to hit. They are paid to call a good game, play defense, deter the running game and block pitches in the dirt. Stewart did all of those things well.

Stewart, 30, also became the “personal” catcher for CC Sabathia throughout most of the season and he seemed to have built a great rapport with the ace left-hander.

Stewart started 46 games and caught in 54 games overall.

The only red flag in his defense was that he committed a career-high eight passed balls in 395 innings, But that may have been a fluke because Stewart nailed 23 percent of the base-runners who tried to steal and committed four errors for a .990 fielding percentage.

Stewart drew praise for his defensive work even from opposing teams’ TV announcers. That means his good work was being noticed.

Martin started of the season hitting better than Martin. He was hitting .270 with nine RBIs at the season’s midpoint. Some fans even suggested Stewart replace Martin.

But Stewart ended up with one home run, 13 RBIs and he hit .241 on the season.

He hit just .220 in the second half, which is more in line with his career average of .217. So Stewart won’t be replacing Martin. But he complimented him well in 2012.

MIDSEASON GRADE: C

SECOND HALF GRADE: C

OVERALL GRADE: C

The Yankees catching depth was reduced a bit this past winter when they traded 21-year-old prospect Jesus Montero to the Seattle Mariners for right-hander Michael Pineda. The Yankees were not convinced Montero would develop the defensive skills to be able to play the position regularly.

So they sent his potent power bat to Seattle and he hit 19 home runs and drove in 74 runs and batted .267 in his first season in the majors. But he only started 55 games behind the plate. So maybe the Yankees were correct about his defense.

But the Yankees will miss his power and production.

Cervelli, 26, spent the entire season at Scranton despite the fact he was the team’s backup catcher in 2010 and 2011.

Cervelli hit .246 with two home runs and 39 RBIs in 99 games with Scranton. He was recalled to the majors when the roster expanded but he did not get much of a chance to play.

Though Cervelli is a bit better with the bat than Stewart, the Yankees have not been a big fan of Cervelli’s throwing behind the plate. He only nailed three of 27 base-runners (11 percent) in 2011 and he committed a lot throwing errors.

At Scranton this season, Cervelli committed only five errors but he was charged with 15 passed balls. Though other parts of Cervelli’s defensive game are good, manager Joe Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena (both former major-league catchers) believe Stewart was superior defensively.

Cervelli likely will look to improve his skills to stick next season or he could be shipped to another team. But as long as Stewart is around, Cervelli’s path back to the major leagues is blocked.

The Yankees had hoped their young catching prospect Austin Romine would make an impact in spring training. However, Romine was an early casualty when he succumbed to back spasms and he did not catch a single inning this past spring.

In fact, the Yankees cautiously held him out of game action for most of the season to allow his back issues to subside.

He caught only 17 games at Scranton and 31 games overall.

Romine, 23, hit .243 with four home runs and 15 RBIs. Though Romine will never hit like Montero, the Yankees believe he is capable to being an excellent defensive catcher in the major leagues right now. Next spring, he will push Stewart (if he is re-signed) and Cervelli for the backup catching job.

But with the Yankees always erring on the side of caution, Romine could end up at Scranton and the Yankees would monitor his back as the season progresses.

The Yankees are very lucky to have two very good young catching prospects in J.R. Murphy and Gary Sanchez.

Muphy, 21, hit .231 with four home runs and 16 RBIs at Double-A Trenton this season after advancing from Class-A Tampa, where he played in 67 games and hit .257. Murphy can also play third base and he has above-average defensive skills behind the plate.

Sanchez is currently the team’s No. 1 rated young prospect and with good reason. Sanchez, 19, hit a combined .344 with 18 home runs and 85 RBIs in 116 games between Class-A Charleston and Class-A Tampa this season, Unlike Montero, Sanchez does have some defensive ability behind the plate. He has a plus arm but his other defensive skills took a step backward this season.

But with his booming bat and his overall potential, Sanchez appears like he could eventually surpass Montero when he reaches the majors. His future is ultra-bright.

OVERALL POSITION GRADE: C

With Martin unsigned, this position will be in state of flux unless the Yankees decide to offer Martin a contract to remain with the team.

Considering the fact that Stewart is only considered a backup and Cervelli is looked upon the same way, Martin’s chances of returning are pretty good. Good free agent catchers are scarce and throw in the fact that Romine has had recurring back issues and you have a very compelling case for the Yankees to keep Martin.

But Romine, Murphy and Sanchez do point to a bright future ahead for the position. It is still a strength of the team to have this much depth at the position despite the trade of Montero.

 

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