When the Pirates signed catcher Russell Martin to a two-year, $17 million deal in the offseason, they knew they were getting an athletic player with an above-average arm and the potential for some pop at the plate.
They also knew they were getting a catcher who would add strikes to his pitchers' performances.
A Baseball Prospectus analysis conducted last month concluded Martin ranked fourth in the major leagues in runs saved by pitch framing since 2008. By moving his glove or catching the ball using a variety of techniques, Martin can polish pitches, turning some balls into strikes in an umpire's eye.
The technique can save innings for pitchers, keep runners off the bases and runs off the scoreboard.
"Some people say that's not a big target to throw to, and I don't feel that way when he's behind the plate," Pirates closer Jason Grilli said. "He just knows where to set up at the right times and give you that target. It's like pushing cruise control in your car -- you put it in that vicinity, and he's going to make it a strike at every possibility."
The National League Central has three of the best pitch-framers in the game in Martin, Jonathan Lucroy of the Milwaukee Brewers and Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Martin especially excels in turning pitches low in the strike zone into strikes. Backup catcher Michael McKenry said he has learned a lot from Martin in that regard.
Sometimes Martin will catch the ball well in front of his body -- at its highest point as it crosses the plate. And other times, he will let the ball come a bit deeper and bring it back toward his body.
"He's probably one of the best I've seen at catching the low pitch, and that's probably the place where most guys can grow," McKenry said.
When Martin was drafted out of college, the Los Angeles Dodgers converted him from an infielder to a catcher. And in those first few weeks, minor league catching coordinator Jon Debus talked to Martin about the importance of creating the "illusion" that some balls are actually strikes.
As he learned to be a catcher, he learned how to handle certain pitches to best create that illusion. With two-seam fastballs, Martin lets the pitch come farther into his body -- as the ball moves away from the body and into the strike zone.
With a slider, it's the opposite -- he will catch the ball earlier before it moves too far off the plate.
"It's all about how you present it to the umpire," he said.
Martin's 2008 season with the Dodgers was the second most effective single season a catcher has had framing pitches since 1988, according to Baseball Prospectus. In that season, Martin saved 30 runs as a result of his pitch framing.
While he watched a lot of video as a minor leaguer to get an idea for effective techniques -- he still watches some video -- he said the best way he has learned is by experience.
"He does a great job," pitching coach Ray Searage said. "He takes a lot of pride in his job. If you're going to rate him, I'd say he'd have to be there among the top three because he does a hell of a job."
Martin said he takes pride in the little details of the game because they can often make a big difference. He likened the skill to a baserunner's ability to read a pitcher or read a ball in the dirt.
"A strike here, a strike there can really change the game, depending on the situation," he said.
Michael Sanserino: email@example.com, 412-263-1722 and Twitter @msanserino. First Published June 28, 2013 4:00 AM