Jays From the Couch brings you the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays Highlights & Lowlights. This time, Russell Martin
Throughout the season, there’s one player for each team we’re forced to watch on every play: the catcher. Of course, this makes the player an easy target for armchair analysis, with their every set-up, pitch call and defensive position scrutinized. Our game is slow in comparison to others, and with the sheer amount of time we spend watching the game, it’s a forgivable flaw. The man that received the brunt of the cirticism this season was Russell Martin, who many thought had a disappointing season. To start, let’s take a look at his offensive output:
|162 Game Avg.||162||644||555||78||141||26||1||18||78||11||5||74||112||.254||.350||.404||.755||103||224||19||10|
For a catcher, that’s pretty good. Martin remains a catcher in the top third of production in MLB. However, a few things stick out. In 2016, Martin was asked to give the Jays eight more games and 28 more plate appearances. On one level, this shows some outstanding consistency on the part of the veteran catcher. If you could promise the team another 130-game season in 2017 – I’m sure they would take it. However, in that extra time, none of Martin’s counting stats saw a bump. In fact, declines were seen in HR (-3) RBI (-3), steals (-1) and doubles (-7). Again, consistency, but no improvement. Perhaps most troubling here is his higher strikeout totals – Martin K’d 42 extra times in 2016.
When it comes to catcher, health is key. The Blue Jays managed to get 137 games out of Russell Martin in 2016, sixth-most in the major leagues. The minimum requirement for a starting catcher is to provide innings behind the plate with minimal negative consequences on the lineup. Not only did Martin meet these expectations, we can argue that he exceeded them.
While we won’t get into any defensive metrics in this post, Martin still remained impressive behind the plate in 2016 with raw fielding ability. His athleticism was well on display in the ALDS sweep of the Rangers, especially on the Baltimore chop from Ian Desmond:
That was a truly difficult play, yet Martin managed to call off his pitcher, position himself with his throwing arm trailing and cradling the ball in his glove, and fire an absolute missile to 1B Edwin Encarnacion. It was a brilliant play and one many forget when piling on the high-priced catchers shortcomings.
Unlike a lot of catchers, Martin surged through the hot summer months, slashing 262/398/446 with a 844 OPS through June and 292/425/431 marks in July for an 856 OPS. Through those two months, Martin banged out four HR, 9 2B and 25 RBI, good for almost a quarter of his overall production in 2016. If the Jays coaching staff and Russell Martin can find what brought him back to his career norms this summer, he could be well on his way to reestablishing himself as an elite MLB catcher.
So at minimum, Martin provided quality defense and average offense. That’s not to mention the intangibles that a leader like Martin brings to the clubhouse:
While you’ll hear plenty about how great so-and-so is as a clubhouse presence, it’s hard to argue against that narrative in regards to catchers. They need to be on the right page with their pitchers at all times. If not, things get messy. Catching is truly the most difficult job on the field, and Martin succeeded at managing a pitching staff while providing value both defensively and offensively in 2016.
Aside from the precipitous fall in defensive metrics, Martin also saw a decline in batting and baserunning. At 33, though, this is to be expected. Martin was a non-factor offensively in the playoffs, going 3-for-33 over 9 games with 14 strikeouts. As was mentioned above, Martin saw plenty of declines, both in counting stats and through advanced metrics. A fair amount of Martin’s decreased value can be attributed to a higher-than-average strikeout rate of 27.7%. In his recent career, Martin has been in the 15-20% range. When looking into his plate discipline, it is shown that he’s not chasing pitches, but a decline in Contact% (that’s all contact on all swings) from 79.5% to 72.2% shows that maybe he’s having trouble catching up to the ol’ heater.
|Total||– – –||21.30%||62.10%||40.70%||61.20%||87.50%||80.30%||47.60%||56.80%||8.00%|
Aside from that, there’s not a whole lot we can glean from his plate discipline that explains a dip in his 2016 numbers. If you see something, please mention it in the comments section for further discussion.
Until we get better at discussing “framing” or pitch receiving, I’m going to avoid going to deep into an analysis on Russell Martin. I’ve caught baseballs from behind the plate for the majority of my life and and the very least, I can tell you that Russell Martin is a good catcher. At the same time, though, we’re seeing the waning phase of his career. Remember that the Jays signing of Martin was a win-now move, and those moves often provide you a couple of peak season (like 2015) but also bring you into a player’s decline. More often than not in baseball, you are paid for what you did – not what you’ll do. Would they have made the ALCS in consecutive seasons without Russell Martin? I’m inclined to answer that with a hearty “no.”
Martin fell short of projections in 2016 and will look to improve this season. Luckily for the Jays, the projections over at Fangraphs seems to feel the same. Between Steamer, Fans and Depth Charts, the models suggest Martin to bring his power numbers back up: 18-20 HR and 61-63 RBI. His K-rate is expected to drop from an anomalous high of 27.7% in 2017 to a somewhat more manageable 24%. All told, we’re looking at a WRC+ season of 98, similar to what Martin provided in 2016.
Hopefully, though, Martin will have some help in 2017. The Blue Jays have been hamstrung by the 25th spot on the roster being burned by Josh Thole for years, and they may finally have some flexibility to not have to run Russell Martin out for 80% of their games. Even a below-average offensive replacement in AJ Jimenez can be expected to provide better value than Thole did. There’s still time to bring in a solid free agent catcher to supplement Martin’s time. But Russell will likely be The Man in Toronto for the length of his contract, ending in 2019. Martin remains a key component to the Blue Jays baseball club, and his production in 2017 will likely determine the ultimate faith of the team this season.
*Featured Image Credit: Keith Allison UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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