Blue Jays Struggles: What’s Up With Russell Martin?

Jays From the Couch looks into the early struggles of Toronto Blue Jays catcher, Russell Martin.

 

According to Fangraphs, in 71 plate appearances, Martin has just 9 hits; 8 singles and a double. His line sits at .141/.211/.156, .016 ISO, and -1 wRC+. He’s also striking out at a 43.7% clip, or 2.62 times his career rate. To say that his start to the 2016 season is a disappointment is an understatement. Manager, John Gibbons, will tell you that they are willing to sacrifice a little offense to have Martin’s defensive capabilities behind the plate. And, when your backup option is Josh Thole, Martin is not in danger of losing his job any time soon.

Some of the issues with swinging the bat can be chalked up to having neck spasms and needing to take time off to treat them. Obviously swinging a bat can be a problem if your neck is impeded. But, does that explain some of the issues we find when we dig into Martin’s struggles?

Another possibile explanation for a lack in offense is that Martin could just be a slow starter. So, I went to Fangraphs and looked at his monthly splits. Last April, he had 3 HR, 2 doubles, 13 RBI and 15 walks. His average was .197, which isn’t great, but we can say that his start was better last season. For his career, Martin is a .247 hitter. He basically has a season and a half’s worth of April games (give or take) and has put up 26 HR, 35 doubles, 108 RBI and 178 hits. If we divide that by his 11 years, it is a fairly good average. It certainly is not enough to say that he is a slow starter. No, this year feels different.

Take a look at how pitchers are handling Martin thus far:

Screenshot 2016-05-03 at 6.54.39 PM

 

For the most part, they are keeping the ball down and away from him. You’ll see a good example of this in the gif below:

MartinK2

This whiff came on an almost 89mph change up from Matt Barnes that ended up down and away. It came on a 3-2 count. What is interesting is his whiff rate on the offerings in this location:

plot_h_profile

 

Martin is actually whiffing on the pitches that are in the zone more than you’d expect. Though, if we were to split the zone into 4 quadrants, we’d see a tendency to whiff at the down and away. With 2 strikes, he sees a healthy diet of pitches in this location:

plot_h_profile

 

In those situations, the whiff rate remains higher in the low and away 4th, but becomes more frequent with offerings in the zone:

plot_h_profile

 

In fact, he has whiffed on every pitch that has been dead center, as evidenced below:

MartinK3

This strike out came on a nearly 75mph, 3-2 slider from Michael Pineda. You’ll note the pitch ends up just about dead center. It can be frustrating to watch a good hitter flat out miss hittable pitches like the one below:

MartinK

This strike out, the most recent of the three, came from Jose Quintana. It was another 3-2 offering, this time a 92mph heater up in the zone.

Location plays a big part in a batter’s success. Russell Martin is having trouble with the ball low and away, but that is not really unusual. A lot of batters do, right Kevin Pillar? What makes the above more interesting is the variety of pitches thrown. If he were getting the same pitches down and away, or down the middle with 2 strikes, things would be easier. What is more telling is the pitches thrown.

Take a look at the frequency and types of pitches Martin has seen in April: Hard: 56.52%, Breaking: 33.44%, Offspeed: 10.03%. This mix is backed up by in game anecdotal observations. He is seeing a steady diet of hard and breaking stuff in a combination that is resulting in him being fooled by the offspeed. That is further supported by his whiff rates: Hard: 15.38%, Breaking: 15%, Offspeed: 26.67%. He’s seeing the offspeed stuff far less frequently, and when he does, he is missing it at a much higher rate.

For example, with 2 strikes on him, he has swung at every change up he’s seen in April. Every one of them. And, he’s missed 60% of them. Now, that is a sample of 5 pitches, which means he missed 3 of them. But, the other 2, he fouled off. He has not been picking up the change up. If we look at his success vs the change in any count, we see he’s offering at 40% of them and missing 20%. In total, Martin is whiffing on over half of the offspeed pitches he swings at- 53.33%.

Aside from the pitch location and type of pitches Martin is seeing, I wanted to check the type of contact he’s making. Fangraphs says that he’s making more soft contact than he did last season (up 5%), he’s pulling the ball way less than last year and is taking the ball up the middle much more. As well, his line drive rate is up by 13% and is mostly to opposite field. When he does make contact with that change up for a hit, it has been to opposite field. He’s not been able to hit a slider out of the infield in 2016, according to Baseball Savant. All of this is comparing a month of 2016 to all of 2015, so things will have time to revert. We shouldn’t get too worked up about it. All of this is just a look at what’s going on thus far. It certainly is not predictive.

By the looks of things, Russell Martin is having a year that does not really fit with how he has started seasons in the past. He is having trouble with offerings low and away. His whiff rate is high when he sees offspeed stuff, which has been his nemesis thus far, especially with 2 strikes. He’s been battling neck issues, which have to have a negative impact on his swing. There is nothing in his track record that suggests that he won’t adjust his pitch recognition, or any other issue, for that matter. There is no reason to doubt whether Martin will come out of this funk. The question really is when.

 

Also from Jays From the Couch: Blue Jays Smart to Pass on David Price, Discount Shopping is Paying Off Early

 

 

 

*gifs via Baseball Savant, and charts via Brooks Baseball

 

 

*Featured Image Credit: Keith Allison UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0 cropped from original

 

 

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Shaun Doyle

Shaun Doyle is a long time Blue Jays fan and writer! He decided to put those things together and create Jays From the Couch. Shaun is the host of Jays From the Couch Radio, which is highly ranked in iTunes, and he has appeared on TV and radio spots.