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A Tale of Two Halves: Russell Martin

Those who drafted this Jays catcher expected something like his 2015 season, and certainly hoped he would at least be a top-10 catcher. In the first half he was much much worse than that. The break must have done wonders for him, because he has been on fire since. What is going on here?

Minnesota Twins v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The catcher position in 2016 has been an offensive wasteland. Shortstops have long ago surpassed them. For example, the #10 SS on ESPN’s player rater has a value of 6.71 (it’s shockingly Carlos Correa, but that’s a whole nother story). The #10 catcher, Yasmani Grandal, is at 1.41. The first SS below that number is Wilmer Flores at #32! The top catcher, Jonathan Lucroy, is at 5.46. The next highest #1 at any position is shockingly Daniel Murphy as a first baseman at 10.67! Who saw that coming? Both the fact that Murphy leads all first basemen and that first base is the position with the second lowest top dog. Jose Altuve (2B), Jonathan Villar (SS and 3B), and Mookie Betts (OF) are the other positional leaders.

Anyway, that’s all just to show that catcher has been very bad. Basically it’s been one third to one half as good as the next best position. Russell Martin has certainly contributed to that disaster. But he’s trying to fix it.

Martin hit 0.249/0.329/0.458 in 2015 with 23 homers. Those are great numbers from a catcher. He even threw in four steals. 2016 has been a little bit different. For reasons that should be obvious, I have split his 2016 numbers into first and second half in the table below.

1st Half 284 0.228 0.314 0.341 29.60% 9.50% 7 11.90% 0.308 15.30% 34.10%
2nd Half 127 0.299 0.409 0.598 22.80% 13.40% 8 25.80% 0.343 9.70% 39.70%

That’s a huge improvement in a short period of time. His second half wRC+ sits at 170, which is not something he’s going to keep up, but his wRC+ last year was 115 and sits at 106 for this season, so he could easily exceed that 115 for the rest of the year and bring up his season-long numbers to match or exceed last year.

Let’s dissect what has changed for him in the second half. His first half swinging strike rate was a dismal 11.4%. That’s down to a more respectable 10.1% now. Also, look at his infield fly ball percentage (IFFB). Those are basically automatic outs, like strikeouts, so reducing those has a direct impact on average and slugging. He’s cut down on those in the second half by 6%.

Let’s also throw in his general strike zone improvement. He’s cut down on strikeouts (most likely due to fewer swings and misses) and increased his walks. To add to that, his out-of-zone swing % is down from 22.9% to 19.7%. That’s all good news for his average, slugging, and OBP.

As a slow-footed catcher, he is hurt significantly by shifts, even though he doesn’t pull the ball that much. His average on non-shifts this year is 0.342. It is 0.219 on shifts. The good news is he has only been shifted on for 33 PA all year, so it shouldn’t be much of an issue.

From all the evidence, it seems clear that Martin has made a clear effort to cut down on whiffs, be more selective at the plate, and make better contact. His hard hit percentage was already very good in the second half, but wasn’t leading to good results. In the second half, it is even higher and it’s working. Yes, his HR/FB in the second half is absurd and will probably end up at 15% or so, but the rest of the power is very real.

If you prefer Statcast data, Martin’s exit velocity sits now at 90.5 mph, which is in the top third of the league. He hit 61 balls over 95 mph in the first half (21% of PA) and 37 since (29% of PA).

No matter how you slice it, Martin is much better now than in the first half and if, for some reason, he is available in your league for the stretch run, grab him now. Seriously. He could be big down the stretch this year with so many terrible catchers. He is the #24 player among all hitters in the past 30 days on the ESPN player rater. That is quite something for a catcher in 2016. Tschus!