Programming note: For complete coverage of the Giants-Pirates Wild Card game, watch Yahoo SportsTalk Live tonight at 5:00 and 11:00 on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.
PITTSBURGH – The obvious place to begin analyzing any one-game playoff is with the starting pitchers. The action begins with them. They kick and deal and get the whole thing started. Madison Bumgarner and Edinson Volquez will set the tone.
But the action will begin earlier than that on Wednesday, when the Giants and Pirates put their twin 88-74 seasons and +51 run differentials on the line in the NL Wild Card game at PNC Park.
A pitcher can’t throw until the catcher flashes a sign, right?
Buster Posey is a former NL MVP with two World Series rings, and you know all about him right down to his twins’ names and his favorite energy drink.
Russell Martin, more understated but no less an understudy, performs the same function for the Pirates.
If you were to write a scouting report on them, you’d use many of the same words: athletic, good actions, good footwork, arm strength, smart, competitive.
John Barr knows this, because he has.
“On my report, that’s what I wanted him to do – to catch,” said Barr, the Giants’ scouting director.
He was reminiscing about drafting Martin, not Posey
Barr was one of the Dodgers’ crosscheckers in 2002 when he recommended Martin, whom the team drafted with a 17th round pick out of Chipola College in Florida.
Martin caught 20-odd games there when a backup got hurt. Barr happened to see one of those games, and when area scout Clarence Johns signed Martin, there was a feeling the Dodgers had gotten a steal.
After a half-summer playing third base and second base in rookie ball, the Dodgers brought Martin to instructional league and asked him to try on a chest protector.
“The bat was there, and you just looked at the way he approached the game, at his hands, and his feet – it just all worked,” Barr said. “His arm worked. He just looked like a catcher.”
Martin recalled the moment he bought in.
“The first bullpen I caught was Jumbo Diaz,” said Martin, smiling at the memory of being 19 years old and looking out, petrified, at a 6-foot-4, 300-pound monster on the mound. “He was throwing 100 mph, and that was it. As soon as they saw I could catch 100 mph, they were convinced I could be a catcher.”
Martin grinned. “I’d like to think I would have made him look good wherever I played.”
Said Barr, told of that story: “Ohhh, I didn’t know they made him catch Jumbo. That wasn’t me! had nothing to do with that! But really, I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do.”
It was the mid- to late-round finds like Martin and Matt Kemp that made Barr stand out to the Giants as they entered the post-Barry Bonds malaise after the 2007 season.
Ownership gave GM Brian Sabean a directive to restructure his amateur scouting operation. They had spent a half-decade punting draft picks to prop up a roster of veterans around Bonds. Partially as a result, the Giants had gone two decades without drafting a developing an All-Star position player.
Barr was hired to be their bats guy.
In his first draft with the Giants, he was fortunate enough to have the fifth overall pick. He did not whiff on it. He took Posey.
“Similar thing,” Barr said of Posey. “He was an athlete, especially the feet. And he had the makeup. He had arm strength, and because the feet were good, it was usable arm strength.”
As solid as Posey’s skills are behind the plate, and as accomplished as he has become as a hitter, Martin’s impact on the Pirates is just as significant.
Martin led the majors by throwing out 37 attempted base stealers this season. His 39 percent success rate trailed only the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina among all catchers to start 100 games.
He had a .402 on-base percentage, and if he hadn’t finished 42 plate appearances short of qualifying, he would’ve joined teammate Andrew McCutchen as the only NL players to finish above .400.
He hit .360 with runners in scoring position, which helps explain how he collected 67 RBI on just 110 hits. He is the co-architect, along with underrated pitching coach Ray Searage, of a pitching staff that is inducing a crazy number of ground balls at a rate not seen in the majors in nearly a decade.
“He brings everything, and not to sound cliché, but he’s basically our Derek Jeter out there,” said Pirates backup catcher Chris Stewart, a former Giant. “He takes care of the pitching staff, and at the plate, I don’t know if there’s a better guy to have in a clutch situation.”
Stewart knows about Posey’s impact, too. Stewart became the club’s regular catcher in 2011, after Posey fractured his ankle in a collision at the plate that ruined both the remainder of his season and the Giants’ opportunity to repeat as World Series champions.
And now, on the banks of the Allegheny, either the Pirates or Giants are about to run out of opportunities. Martin, who spent all season managing a sore left hamstring, missed the final two regular season games. He won’t miss this one.
“This is why you play the game,” the 31-year-old Canadian native said. “There are no excuses. The last couple days have helped out. I should feel pretty good tomorrow.
“We have to earn our way. We did it last year. I definitely think we can do it again.”
Barr is here in Pittsburgh, and the correlation between the two starting catchers hadn’t occurred to him before a reporter mentioned it. You could hear his smile through the phone.
“The correlation is they are both athletes with good feet, and they were competitors,” Barr said. “You knew they would both be leaders behind the plate, and that’s exactly what they are.”
He saw the signs before the starting pitchers. Before anyone.