So What Are We Going To Do About Russell Martin?

I realize that, with the Dodgers flying along with the best record in baseball, this is just going to sound like I’m looking for something to complain about. But it’s not that at all; this is a serious problem facing the team that’s not really getting a lot of play because of how well the team is doing. Because believe me, if Russell Martin was hitting .236 and the team was below .500, he’d be getting a lot more heat. While Martin being productive might not be a requirement to win the division, you can’t have him being a black hole in the playoffs – and worse, this is hardly something that just started on Opening Day this year. Though he had a quietly effective May, he was bad in April – and has been hideous in June (just 4 hits this month), after yet another 0-fer last night.

You don’t need me to specify that Martin’s been lousy this year; you watch the games, and you know. But you might be surprised - I know I was – to see just how bad he’s been. You might want to take small children out of the room for this, because this is going to be Juan Pierre 2007-level bad.

OPS!
Martin is at: .625
Which puts him: 160th in MLB (of 172 qualifiers)
Behind the likes of: Howie Kendrick (just demoted to AAA), Jhonny Peralta (just benched), and magical pixie elf David Eckstein (is David Eckstein).
And that means… what’s worse, that he’s hitting worse than guys who are losing their jobs, or that he’s less potent than David Eckstein? The truly scary part here is that his .347 OBP is still pretty respectable thanks to the walks he draws, which means that when you look at just his slugging percentage…

SLG!
Martin is at: .278
Which puts him: 169th in MLB (of 172 qualifiers)
Behind the likes of: Just about everyone who’s not the 38-year-old corpse of Brian Giles or just-demoted Giant Emmanuel Burriss.
And that means… it means he’s the least dangerous hitter in baseball, basically. Let me put it this way; it’s about 35 points lower than the worst season Juan Pierre ever had, ever. Think about that for a second. Russell Martin looks at Juan Pierre and says to himself, “man, I wish I had his power.”

VORP!
Martin is at:
-2.6
Which puts him: 47th among MLB catchers (min. 50 PA)
Behind the likes of: Nick Hundley, Koyie Hill, Chad Moeller, Wil Nieves
And that means… 47th among MLB catchers? 26th for NL only? Remember, there’s only 30 MLB teams, 16 in the NL. Right now, Russell Martin isn’t worthy of a starting gig.

And as I said, this is hardly a 2009 thing. Over the last calendar year, here’s his line – in 145 games, he’s got a .250/.359/.334, with 7 homers for a .639 OPS. By comparison, Juan Pierre’s career OPS is .721 – nearly a full 100 points better.

I don’t know if I can possibly repeat that enough for emphasis: Russell Martin has been worse than Juan Pierre over the last year.

It’s not just us stat dorks, either, judging by what an anonymous scout told Baseball Prospectus:

Dodgers catcher Russell Martin: “You talk about a young player growing old before our very eyes. His bat is slowing down, and he’s not moving very well behind the plate. I don’t know what’s wrong with him.”

Ugh; is there anything more depressing than hearing the phrase “getting old before our very eyes” about a guy who’s just 26?

So, what exactly is his problem?

Is he making less contact?

Yeah, that’s part of it. His 19.8 K% is higher than it’s ever been, but it’s also not an astronomical jump from his usual range of 13-16% - and it’s still below the league average of 20%. It’s not a good sign, to be sure, but it’s also hardly enough to be causing what we’re seeing.

Is he hitting fewer line drives?

Surprisingly, no. His line drive percentage is eerily consistent – at 19.4%, it’s no different than his career average of 18.9%. Other than a slight dip in 2007, he’s been within the 19% range his entire career.

Is he hitting more ground balls?

A few, but not a whole lot more. 52.4% of the time in 2009, not too much different than his career average of 50.1%. When he came up in 2006, it was 50.4%, so it’s more, but not hugely more.

Is he just unlucky?

Partially. His batting average on balls in play is .294, which is the lowest of his career. However, the league average is .300, so that’s hardly a disaster.

Is he swinging at bad pitches?

We saw earlier that Pierre’s resurgence was caused in large part by his becoming more choosy in his at-bats, swinging at fewer balls out of the zone that he couldn’t get solid contact on. But none of this applies to Martin; his ratios of swings at balls out of the zone (19.4%), in the zone (60.6%), and overall swings (39.3%) fall right into his career averages.

Okay, you’ve told us everything it’s not. When are you going to tell us what it is?

Well, the fact that he’s striking out more and hitting more groundballs certainly contributes, but, there’s no one stat that has popped out that really goes to explain what Martin’s issue is. Let’s go back to what the scout said earlier:

Dodgers catcher Russell Martin: “You talk about a young player growing old before our very eyes. His bat is slowing down, and he’s not moving very well behind the plate. I don’t know what’s wrong with him.”

martinvsmarlins.jpgFocus on the part about his bat slowing down, and you’re on to a big part of the problem… Martin is getting blown away by fastballs.

Over at FanGraphs, they’ve been able to assign a run value to the production on each type of pitch a batter sees, and then converted it to a rate. For example, if you look at Albert Pujols against fastballs, he’s been pretty consistently at 2-4 runs per 100 fastballs above average over his career, though he’s beating even that this year. In 2007, Martin’s first full (and best) season, he produced 1.69 runs above average every 100 fastballs. Last year, in which he was still decent but nowhere near as good as in 2007, that fell to 0.59. This year? Down to just 0.14.

It’s hardly a foolproof method – he’s also down on sliders, as well – but it certainly makes sense, doesn’t it? You’ve got a heavily used catcher who’s striking out more, grounding out more, is having a hard time catching up to fastballs, has had his “Speed” score drop four years in a row (it’s a 1-10 ranking scale that uses several speed-based stats, and Martin’s gone from 5.3 to 5.2 to 4.0 to 3.3), and has a scout saying he looks old.

Is it possible that all the vitriol we directed at Grady Little in 2006 and ’07, and Joe Torre in 2008 (especially with the ridiculous “third base days off”), for overworking him is coming home to roost much much quicker than we thought it would? To his credit, Torre’s been better about resting him this season (though when Brad Ausmus is outproducing him it’s probably not a hard decision to make any more) but is that simply too little too late? Did all of the extra work he received the last few seasons sap the energy out of him? You hate to say that at 26, but the evidence is pretty glaring.

The real question is, what to do? I’m not ready to give up on him just yet; he’s been too important to this team over the last few years, but also because A) there’s no one really worth replacing him with and B) the large division lead allows you some leeway in letting him work things out.

But if this doesn’t turn around at some point soon…