He may not be a generational talent behind the plate, but Russell Martin is indeed a rare commodity. He’s an elite player at the most physically demanding position on the diamond whose wealth of skills benefits his team in various ways.
And now that team just so happens to be the Toronto Blue Jays.
When it comes to catchers that have adorned the Blue Jays uniform, Russell Martin truly breaks the mold. The club hasn’t really possessed a defensively sound backstop with a plus bat since the early 90’s with Pat Borders and the 80’s with Ernie Whitt.
While it’s true that Martin may have been more of a “want” than a “need” for the roster, but by signing Russell Martin, the Blue Jays upgraded at catcher in virtually every way … and perhaps some aspects they didn’t even expect.
Having a catcher that’s a true offensive threat like Buster Posey is extremely rare and a pipe dream for most teams. The Blue Jays are not only getting a solid bat for a catcher in Russell Martin, but they’re also receiving a great offensive threat.
Offensively speaking, Martin was the seventh best catcher overall during the past four seasons (according to FanGraphs). And over the course of the past two seasons, Russell Martin was the third base offensive catcher.
Although his batting average and power numbers have experienced several peaks and valleys over his nine year career, Russell Martin has a great eye at the plate and possesses great pitch recognition.
He missed the 502 at bat cutoff to qualify, but nonetheless Martin’s .403 on base percentage ranked fourth in all of baseball in 2014; just a tick below Jose Bautista’s .404 OBP.
If Melky Cabrera does in fact sign with another team, Russell Martin projects to fit in well as the Blue Jays’ new number two hitter in front of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Alternatively, Martin could slot in to hit fifth as he did with the Pirates last season.
Offensively speaking, Martin is coming off of the second best season of his career. So one wonders if playing in a hitter-friendly park like the Rogers Centre might even negate any sort of offensive regression Russell Martin might experience.
To some, pitch framing might seem like the black arts, but many noted baseball minds are suddenly giving a lot more credence to this aspect of the game. More weight is suddenly being placed on a catcher’s ability to steal strikes and also take runs off the scoreboard.
Thanks to data from Statcorner, it’s evident Russell Martin has consistently ranked as one of the best pitch framers in all of baseball the past eight seasons.
In 2014 alone, Martin converted an estimated 88 pitches out of the zone for strikes, which led to an average of 11.7 runs saved for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Conversely, Dioner Navarro’s pitch framing actually cost the Blue Jays 150 calls and led to an estimated 20 extra runs being scored by the opposition. Using those numbers, upgrading from Navarro to Martin essentially gained the Blue Jays about 32 runs.
Just for fun, I looked at Russell Martin’s best season statistically when it came to pitch framing, and in 2008 with the Dodgers, he received an extra 232 calls which saved his team a staggering 30.8 runs.
Unlike offensive production, there is no indication this aspect of Russell Martin’s game will decline in the foreseeable future.
It’s not even the starting rotation that should be excited about this contract; everyone on the Blue Jays pitching staff stands to benefit from having Russell Martin behind the plate, especially those guys who like opt to throw pitches in the bottom half of the strike zone.
This is one of the more difficult aspects of the game to quantify, but ask virtually anybody in baseball about Russell Martin’s game-calling ability, and they’ll likely give a glowing review of the Blue Jays’ new backstop.
Pirates Prospects has a tremendous article focused on the chemistry (and game-calling) Russell Martin provided for Pittsburgh’s pitching staff the past two seasons. There’s no question his game-calling had a positive impact on several of their key pitchers.
For example, take guys like A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez; all of them experienced a career renaissance as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and many of them credit Russell Martin’s abilities for their turn-around.
If Martin helped worked wonders with the veteran-laden Pirates pitchers, then just imagine what he could do for the Blue Jays’ young starters like Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison, Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris.
There has to be something in a pitcher’s ability to unequivocally trust their catcher. Mark Buehrle has done it for years, and very rarely shakes off his catcher. Buehrle doesn’t overthink things; he just waits for the sign and throws.
Because Russell Martin does such an incredible amount of research and preparation for his pitching staff, he’s able to scout a batter’s tendencies and is very good at calling the right pitch at the right time.
That kind of trust between batterymates is something that’s extremely rare in baseball, and if Russell Martin’s track record is any kind of indication, the Blue Jays stand to benefit a great deal from his game-calling ability.
The past four seasons, Russell Martin leads all Major League catchers with 133 runners caught stealing which translates to a 45% caught stealing percentage. So Martin virtually shuts down the running game, catching nearly half of all baserunners since 2011.
Among all active catchers, Russell Martin currently ranks 12th overall in caught stealing percentage at 32.15%.
Again, using this past season’s starting catcher as a comparison, the past few seasons Martin has been one of the best in baseball at nabbing baserunners; whereas Navarro has been just barely better than league average.
Blocking & Passed Balls
Not to continually rag on Dioner Navarro, but he isn’t exactly the most athletic catcher, and dare I say he can appear to be a bit lazy behind the plate when it comes to blocking balls in the dirt.
If the numbers are any indication, when comparing career totals, Russell Martin is only a slight improvement in the pitch blocking department; which was somewhat surprising. Last season alone, Navarro was actually marginally better than Martin at blocking. Go figure!
This is one area which I expected Russell Martin to be much better at, but he’s an elite defender in nearly every other way, so it’s almost forgivable.
In regards to passed balls, the difference between the two backstops is negligible, but Russell Martin was slightly better at limiting passed balls (3 total in 107 games) compared to Dioner Navarro (7 in 112).
The numbers certainly don’t lie when it comes to Russell Martin’s tangible skills, but what about intangibles? Depending on who you ask, this is either the most overrated or underrated area of a player’s skill set.
Typically, the Toronto Blue Jays haven’t really focused on bringing in “leaders” per se; instead, they assembled a solid team on paper. However, in years past the Blue Jays have had arguably the best team on paper, and that didn’t seem to change results very much.
In Russell Martin, the Blue Jays are getting a bona fide leader. Martin is highly revered around the league, especially by former teammates, coaches, and even opponents.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle offered high praise, stating Russell Martin was just as important to their team as Andrew McCutchen was, which indicates not only did the club lean heavily upon Martin’s on-field contributions, but his off-field influence as well.
Not to mention, Russell Martin has been to the postseason in seven of his past nine seasons and offers a great deal of playoff experience to a roster that collectively has very little.
Russell Martin may not have been brought in for the sole purpose to change the clubhouse culture or assume a leadership role with the team, but if he does … it’s just one more way the Blue Jays made an upgrade to their team this offseason.
Image courtesy of the Blue Jays