The Toronto Blue Jays surprised many of their fans in November by signing Russell Martin to a mammoth contract for $82 Million over five years. It was unexpected given that the Blue Jays seemed to have many more pressing holes to fill at the time including left field, centre field, and second base as well as the bullpen. Catching seemed stable in the near term as Dioner Navarro provided a surprisingly solid 2014 season where he hit .274 with 69 RBIs in 139 games. Granted, his defence and game calling skills weren’t that good, but overall he performed as at least an average catcher. Opinions of him were pushed even higher by the nightmare season had by his predecessor in 2013 (we all know who I’m talking about), by his ability to get “clutch hits” (although many baseball fans cast aside clutch hitting as a matter of luck, it seems that they still judge players on this metric even if its subconscious), and by the sheer joy of watching him run the bases.
Important: This is not in slow motion
So when Martin came to town, the main aspects of his play that justified his contract were the skills that he had shown behind the plate in his career: His ability to handle young pitching staffs and mold them into playoff caliber squads, to keep balls in front of him, to control the running game, and to steal strikes through pitch framing. His offensive side was more of an afterthought other than the obligatory “He’ll probably get on base and hit some homers.” A big reason for this viewpoint was that Martin’s career numbers were hard to interpret and therefore it was hard to know what to expect from him. Also, the Jays have their share of elite hitters that stole the spotlight whenever the conversation turned to offense.
Russell Martin’s numbers over his big league career, via baseballreference.com
Clearly, last season, Martin had some pretty attractive numbers. He had career highs in average and OBP while having his highest slugging percentage since his 2007 season. His wRC+ was a beautiful 140. All of his numbers seem to have dipped after his first couple years and bounce around a bit with no real trends until his big 2014 season. So let’s dig a little deeper.
His BABIP for 2014 was .336. His BABIPs for the previous 4 years were 0.287, 0.252, 0.222, and 0.266. This may make it seem as though Martin’s 2014 was helped by some good fortune. Citing his inflated BABIP, many projections (including Steamer) had him regressing to having a wRC+ of 110.
It didn’t start well this year for Martin as he stumbled out of the gate and some fans who still haven’t heard of sample size dubbed him Russell Clarkson ( a reference to the giant disaster that was the David Clarkson signing by the leafs). Well… joke’s on them. Martin picked it up and currently has a big time wRC+ of 137 with 7 home runs after just 46 games. Here’s how he ranks among catchers in some key categories (min. 100 PAs)
Now that his nice offensive numbers have spread into this season, we are left wondering whether last year’s success might have been the start of an important new trend rather than just a lucky blip. Because that would be awesome and it would have major positive implications on the Blue Jays offense until 2019.
Last year, David Schoenfield of ESPN wrote about how Martin said that he had changed his two strike approach to become a tougher out. The new approach was borrowed from fellow Canadian Joey Votto, who is arguably the best on base guy in baseball. Martin began shortening up and trying to make contact above all else in two strike situations. As a result, he hit .229/.337/.276 with 2 strikes in 2014 as opposed to .137/.250/.288 in 2012 and .129/.241/.219 in 2013. It’s certainly possible that this increase in production with two strikes was to some degree, a consequence of his new approach. His numbers with two strikes this year indicate that this is somewhat continuing and again contributing to his offensive success. His BABIP for two strike counts are .333 for 3-2, .304 for 2-2, .321 for 1-2, and .412 for 0-2. That .412 average on 0-2 counts is Martin’s highest for any count other than 3-0 counts which is pretty unexpected. Compared with pre-2014 splits, Martin is getting more done with two strikes. Although luck may be partly responsible for his high BABIP (.327) again this year, his two strike approach may have elevated his true normal BABIP compared to where it’s been in the past.
Will Russell Martin’s awesome offensive production over the past 200 games continue going forward? Well he probably won’t be quite this good forever, but his improved approach at the plate means that perhaps he won’t be as far off as most predicted.
P.S. It’s unrelated, but Josh Donaldson is God.