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Bucs' MVP may be hidden behind home plate

Overlooked for awards after career year, Martin put team over the edge

BRADENTON, Fla. -- No offense intended to Andrew McCutchen. He was a very deserving Most Valuable Player winner last year. He is the foundation of the Pirates' success, but he is not the guy who ultimately allowed them to end their playoff drought.

It took 7.2 wins above replacement from McCutchen for Pittsburgh to get 79 wins in 2012, and it's tough to improve too much on that. The 15-win jump that secured a Wild Card last season had a lot more to do with reinforcements, and in particular one very smart signing by general manager Neal Huntington. He landed catcher Russell Martin when the Yankees allowed themselves to be outbid.

Maybe the Yankees knew they were going to spend heavily on Brian McCann a year later. Maybe they just didn't think it made sense to invest further in a veteran catcher who had just hit .211 (albeit with 21 home runs). But whatever the reason for the split -- Martin recently called it "an expensive mistake'' for the Yankees -- it opened the door for one of baseball's best marriages in recent years.

Martin has been a tremendous addition for the Pirates.

"He was a very important acquisition for us," manager Clint Hurdle said Wednesday night in Fort Myers. "We needed an impact player -- not so much an impact bat, not so much an impact defender -- we needed an impact player. He turned out to be an impact player. He's an impact defender who got some big hits."

The Pirates had been searching for a catcher with presence since trading Jason Kendall in 2004, and Martin ended the search. He was so strong defensively that he delivered a 4.3 WAR, his highest since '07, and an improvement of five wins over predecessor Rod Barajas, who checked in with a -.09 WAR in '12.

Martin's arrival coincided with the Pirates' starting rotation lowering its earned run average from 4.21 to 3.50, the fourth-best figure in the National League. He does not want to take any credit from players like Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett and Gerrit Cole, but, well, he's not afraid to give credit where he feels it is due.

In regards to the Gold Glove…

"Do I think [I deserved it?]" Martin said after a recent game. "I wasn't at every game that [Yadier] Molina caught, so I don't know. Statistically, it looks like that's what it was, 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. I don't play this game to win awards.

"I know I showed up every day and played the best that I could. That's all that I ask for myself. If I get an award for it, great. If I don't … it would have been fun talking about it 20 years from now, but it's not the reason I play."

The 31-year-old Martin won a Gold Glove for the Dodgers in 2007, his second big league season. He didn't play as well that season, he said, as he did in '13. The Cardinals' Molina has taken home that award every year since.

"I do think if he played better than I did defensively last year, then, man, I don't know what I'm going to do," said Martin, who is in the walk season on his two-year, $17 million contract. "I'm going to play better, try harder, something."

It seems radical for any catcher to suggest he seriously challenged Molina, the standard for the era. But Martin was credited with 16 defensive runs saved last season, compared with 12 by Molina. He was charged with only two errors (two fewer than Molina) and four passed balls (one more than Molina).

"By far my best -- receiving, blocking, controlling the running game, everything," he said.

Martin threw out 29 of 82 runners who attempted to steal on him. But that only begins to convey his significance.

"He was a big reason for the mound success, a big reason for controlling the running game," Hurdle said. "We went from way worst to more than competitive, and he had a lot to do with it. Then it's the game-calling, the blocking, all of it. It really shortened the gap and gave us the opportunity to win ballgames late, for pitchers to dump pitches in key situations. It was a very good acquisition for us."

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
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