While some choose to give Russell Martin a failing grade for his 2018 showing, that is rather shortsighted
Russell Martin just finished his poorest season as a Blue Jay, an observation that’s not really up for debate. In their end-of-season write-ups, both TSN and Sportsnet assigned him a terrible grade. TSN went all in with an F, while Sportsnet gave him the worst grade one can get without failing (D-). In both cases, only one statistic was mentioned: his .194 batting average.
While I don’t use batting average much, I don’t begrudge other people doing so. It’s a classic stat that every baseball fan is familiar with. That said, using only batting average when grading a guy’s entire season is absurd. It would have been absurd ten years ago, when OBP was an increasingly common stat. It’s even more absurd today, when we have an abundance of interesting ways to measure a baseball player’s performance.
For one thing, walks are good too! Russell Martin has always been particularly adept at racking them up, producing a double-digit walk rate in each of his MLB seasons, save for his rookie year, when he produced a 9.6% mark. This season, he set a career-high, securing a walk in 15.9% of his plate appearances, the eighth-highest mark in the majors (minimum 250 PA).
If we combine his poor batting average and his exceptional walk rate, we end up with a .338 OBP. For perspective, the MLB average across all positions was .318 this season. Among catchers, the average OBP was .305, so Martin’s mark stands out even more.
Given the variety of ways a batter can produce at the plate, it makes a lot of sense to use a holistic stat to compare different players. The standard holistic stat these days is wRC+. It allows you to compare guys that are good at putting the ball in play with guys who are good at getting walks with guys who are good at hitting for power with guys who combine these traits in various ways. Plus, it controls for league and park factors, making it an even better stat for apples-to-apples comparisons.
Russ produced a 91 wRC+ this season, the third-lowest mark of his career and worst since 2010. He started his Blue Jay career with a 115 wRC+, following that up with a 101 wRC+ in each of 2016 and 2017. This season, the average major leaguer produced a 97 wRC+, suggesting that Russ was a slightly below-average hitter league-wide. Compared to other catchers (84 wRC+), Russ was actually slightly above-average.
Russ produced a .325 xwOBA this season, down from .345 in 2017 (he produced marks of .332 in 2015 and .328 in 2016). In 2018, the average hitter produced a .326 xwOBA. This suggests that, based on his strikeouts, walks and contact quality, Russell Martin’s underlying performance at the plate was league-average. Just as was the case with wRC+, when compared to the average catcher (.316 xwOBA), Martin’s hitting this season was above-average.
Martin’s performance behind the plate was also above-average. In terms of defensive runs saved (DRS), his +6 mark put him in a tie for 13th among catchers. In terms of fielding runs above average (FRAA), his +7.9 mark ranked 15th.
Now, I’m clearly a little more positive about Martin’s season than most. But hell, if you want to justify a failing grade for him, there are other stats besides batting average to go to.
Martin had a down year in terms of power. His .131 ISO was the fourth-lowest mark of his long career, and the lowest ISO he’s produced since 2010. While bad luck explains a small part of the story—based on his contact, Statcast had him producing a .146 xISO this season—his power certainly took a step down from recent years—he had produced xISO marks of .180, .185 and .176 since joining the Blue Jays in 2015.
A pessimist could also justifiably point to his baserunning this season. Russ produced -4.5 base running runs below league average (BsR), tied for the lowest mark in his career. This mark was driven mainly by two things. One, he was thrown out three times trying to steal a base against zero successful steals. Two, as captured by his career-low -2.6 UBR, he wasn’t as effective in normal base running situations as he has typically been.
The point of this post is two-fold. First of all, Russell Martin did not produce a failing (or close to failing) performance this season. His batting production was only a bit below-average for a position player and a bit above-average for a catcher. He also produced his trademark excellent defence behind the plate.
Secondly, if you do want to give him a poor grade, go for it, it’s your right after all. But at least support your stance with a few different numbers. Using only one (narrowly focused) stat to evaluate a player’s entire season is just lazy.
If a C+ is average, I think giving Russ a C for the season is a fair reflection of the good and bad sides to his 2018 season. If you think a C- is more accurate, I’m not going to fight you on it. He’s not the all-star catcher he once was, but he still produced roughly league-average hitting and above-average fielding at the most premium position. That is not a failed season.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.