Russell Martin’s Enigma of a Season

Monsieur Martin

Just when you thought Russell Martin couldn’t get any worse after the first half of the year, he’s officially hit rock bottom in July.  This month, he’s hit .152 with 2 home runs and 4 RBIs in 51 plate appearances, good for an abysmal 46 wRC+ and .246 wOBA.  He had posted wRC+ no lower than 85 in the first three months. Much of this can be attributed to an 0/15 start of the month, that continued off an 0/14 to end June.

There are a few reasons to hold out some hope for the catcher to turn it around the rest of the way.  First, his BABIP is an atrocious .189, which has really brought down his batting average that stands at .184.  He’s still hitting line drives slightly above his career average: 19.7% vs. 19.5%.  All other batted ball types are +/- 1% from his career norms, so it seems like there is a pretty decent amount of bad luck hampering Martin.

Want more evidence of bad luck? Martin is just 9 for 90 when he hits a ground ball this year (.100). Yet, for his career, he’s a .221 hitter on grounders. It seems like many of his grounders are either not finding holes or fielders are making nice plays to steal hits. Let’s bump up his amount of hits on ground balls this year to 18 (.200) making him closer to his career norms. He goes from 44/239 on the season to 53/239, which spikes his overall average to .222 from .184, much more respectable.

Now, Russell isn’t a guy who normally hits for a good batting average (not since his early Dodgers days, at least), but he certainly doesn’t deserve to be this far below the Mendoza line. ZiPS, an unbiased projection system we’ve discussed in a previous post about Ichiro, agrees that Martin is due for a turnaround. ZiPS foresees a .231 batting average the rest of the way. In fact, since that 0/15 to start July, he’s batted .235, right in line with ZiPS projections.

Sometimes as fans, we worry about batting averages a bit too much. Let’s take a look at two concerning downward trends.

Martin’s strikeouts have been on the rise the past two seasons. Last year, he fanned 17% of the time, and this year he’s at 19%. However, his career mark is 14.5%. Why isn’t he seeing the ball as well? First, he’s swinging at just 1.5% less pitches in the zone this year compared to his career. This may not seem like much, but take into consideration how many pitches a batter sees per year. What’s worse is that he’s making less contact on pitches that are strikes: about 2% less than his career rate.

The good news is that he’s not chasing bad pitches. He’s only swung at 16.5% of balls compared to 19.7% career. What this may have led to, however, is pitchers being more aggressive in the zone with him, since he’s not making as much contact on strikes and swinging at them less. His monthly trends agree: After walking 16.2% and 13.4% of the time in the first two months, he’s only walked 8.1% and 9.8% of the time in June and July respectively. Often times, a player may become too aggressive in a prolonged slump, but Martin does not fit the bill here. Perhaps he needs to change his approach and go after some pitches earlier in the count.

In terms of swing mechanics, I think that stride may be an area to watch. Look at this video of a double he hit vs Atlanta last month. At :32, you can see how Martin strides forward. I’m no expert, but this can lead to issues on breaking balls, because a forward stride causes a hitter to transfer his weight forward early. This is fine for a fastball, and you can see Martin hasn’t had a problem with fastballs here, here, and here. But when that off speed pitch comes, the weight transfer happens far too soon. In fact, just 2 of his 11 home runs this year have come on non-fastballs. His stride could also be causing difficulty to make contact in the zone compared to his career, leading to a higher strikeout rate. Now take a look at this home run last April vs. Clay Buccholz on a curve ball. His stride is straight up and then down to the ground, causing no weight transfer until he recognizes the pitch. His April in 2011? .292 with 6 homers and 19 RBIs.

Lastly, we must not forget that Russell has dealt with back issues for quite some time. How much this takes away from him simply cannot be measured. Ultimately though, with some better luck and maybe some work on his stride, we may see Martin’s standard batting line return to respectability.

Photo By Keith Allison [CC-BY-SA-2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

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