On Russell Martin and the Differences Between Evaluating Baseball and Hockey Contracts

Today, the Toronto Blue Jays signed Canadian Catcher Russell Martin to a huge 5 year, $82 million contract. I’m no expert on baseball analytics, but I know enough to be able to find concepts to apply to hockey where possible. I have, however, seen many people making fun of this as a massive overpayment. They’ve called it “McCann Money” with the implication being that Martin is by no means the player that Brian McCann is. Now I don’t know how big the gap between the two players is, and frankly I don’t have the time nor the will to find out, but there is one factor fans – especially those who primarily follow hockey and thus appear on my feed – may not be taking into account that I’d like to address.

Hockey has its similarities and differences to baseball, and one of the most important differences is the salary cap. Hockey’s hard cap is an important differentiating factor because it levels the playing field amongst teams, for one, but it also changes contract evaluations because the deal has to be evaluated (at least for cap teams) based on whether it brings the best possible return for the team in a $70 million world.

Baseball is different not just because the teams spend different amounts of money, but because the amounts teams spend are variable, and can be influenced by the very return they procure from that money. A successful team can lead to playoff revenue which means the team can afford a higher payroll. A successful and marketable player can lead to additional ticket and concession sales, which again leads to more available cash.

With Martin this is particularly important because he’s a Canadian boy. More than that, he’s a Canadian star. Russell Martin may not be Brian McCann, but by catcher standards, he’s a star. And it’s not like the Jays are crawling with stars. Martin will undoubtedly very rapidly take over the team lead in jersey sales, will be a poster boy, will attract Canadians to the ball park, will do advertisements. That all brings revenue to the team, which helps offset the cost of his contract in a way that, say, the Montreal Canadiens signing Daniel Briere never could. The Canadiens didn’t get to spend to a higher cap because a Briere brought in additional revenue, but the Jays can.

So this is a caution – without too much in-depth knowledge of the situation – to Toronto fans who may be used to the hockey way of thinking. There’s more to contracts in baseball, and ultimately, whether or not Martin is a $15 million/year player, this contract will probably prove fruitful for the franchise.

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