A look at Russell Martin, potential bounceback candidate

Russell Martin is a Dodger again for the first time since the year before I could legally consume alcohol. The Dodgers traded for the soon-to-be 36-year-old catcher last Friday, and Dustin wrote about the transaction.

While I’m definitely in the “batting average is useless” camp, it’s tough to buy into a .194 average and a .325 slugging percentage. Martin is a definite downgrade from Yasmani Grandal and possibly not even an upgrade from Austin Barnes. However, there’s some stats that point towards a positive regression.

After the trade broke Friday, FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan wrote a quick post about it. Here’s an excerpt:

But, I swear to you, we don’t need to overthink this. We don’t need to give this 1,500 words, and we don’t need to try to figure out what secret thing the Dodgers might see.

Bet.

Martin arguably had the worst offensive season of his career in 2018. A catcher with just shy of 13,000 innings caught in his career falling off offensively shouldn’t shock anyone. His .194 average was nearly 20 points lower than his previous career-low. His .325 slugging percentage was also a career-low, as was his 0.6 fWAR. Martin posted the second-highest strikeout rate of his career (23.3 percent). His 91 wRC+ was his lowest since his final two seasons in his first Dodger stint, and he played in the fewest games of his career (90) as the Blue Jays preferred to play Luke Maile and Danny Jansen down the stretch. I know, you guys are already sold.

But the catcher position, as a whole, has declined offensively. Last season, 21 catchers had 350 or more plate appearances. Of those, Martin’s 91 wRC+ was still the 12th-highest, ahead of other catchers that were potentially available this offseason (Jonathan Lucroy, Martin Maldonado, Tucker Barnhart). It was even ahead of Salvador Perez, who will for some reason be an All-Star every season until we’re all dead. Martin’s wRC+ was above-average for the catcher position (84), despite his down year.

His down year could have been a byproduct of him not being a capable offensive player anymore, or it could have been an aberration. Martin’s .234 BABIP was the second-lowest among those 21 catchers and the sixth lowest among all players with more than 350 plate appearances. As Sullivan points out in his post, Martin’s average exit velocity was 90.6 MPH. Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Xander Bogaerts, Yoan Moncada and Randal Grichuk also averaged 90.6 MPH exit velocities.

As Sullivan notes, Martin’s issue was launch angle, as he was the worst player in baseball with at least 200 plate appearances at hitting the ball with an ideal launch angle, between five and 35 degrees. Martin’s infield fly ball rate of 19.4 was the worst of his career and the fourth-worst among all hitters with 350 plate appearances. Martin also hit ground balls 51.2 percent of the time, the 22nd-most among hitters with 350 plate appearances. Martin hit into seven double plays in 352 plate appearances last season. Only five Dodgers hit into more double plays last season, and four of them are no longer Dodgers. Manny Machado hit into 12 in only 296 Dodger plate appearances, which seems really tough to do.

That flaw is relevant because the Dodgers have built a reputation with fixing launch angles. It’s obviously harder to do with a 35-year-old than a younger guy, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see Martin make some more quality contact, especially considering the new hitting coach. Combine that with an above-average exit velocity, and there’s reason to believe he won’t be a sub-Mendoza line hitter again.

Martin’s ability to get on base should translate next season. He posted a career-best 15.9 percent walk rate, which was the eighth best among hitters with 350 plate appearances last season. As Sullivan notes, Martin’s chase rate was the best in baseball by a decent amount. Martin swung at pitches out of the zone 14.1 percent of the time. The next-best chase rate was obviously Joey Votto, who chased 17.2 percent of the time. That list has some of the best hitters in baseball on it (Votto, Alex Bregman Mike Trout, Mookie Betts). It also has Logan Forsythe on it, so do with that what you will.

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The Dodgers lost one of like seven actually good offensive catchers and are attempting to replace him with two catchers whose combined wRC+’s was only 43 points higher than Grandal’s. Martin grades out well defensively (albeit in limited playing time behind the plate last season), and he and Barnes should provide consistency behind the plate. It could be consistently bad, but that’s still consistency imo.

The Dodgers (so far) have refused to give in to Miami’s asking price for J.T. Realmuto, who is probably the best catcher in baseball right now. Instead, they went the cheap route, trading a couple prospects for Martin. The Blue Jays are paying $16.4M, which makes Martin a 1-year, $3.6M acquisition for the Dodgers. That won’t count against the luxury tax for the Dodgers, as Martin’s luxury tax number for 2019 is $16.4 million due to a backloaded contract signed in 2014.

Considering the cost, Martin was a shrewd pickup by the front office that won’t block Keibert Ruiz or Will Smith, both of whom could be close to ready in 2020. It’s a downgrade from what the Dodgers had in 2018, but a better situation than they had a week ago. They were betting on one rebounding catcher or the Marlins having realistic trade expectations. Now, they’re betting on one of two catchers rebounding. It might be a total train-wreck, but a few tweaks could make Martin an above-average catcher next season. It’s not the sexy move that we all assumed was coming and no one should be renewing season tickets because Martin is back, but it makes a ton of sense and makes the team better than they were a week ago.

About Alex Campos

Alex Campos
I've been writing about the Dodgers since I graduated from Long Beach State, where I covered the Dirtbags in my senior year. I'm either very good or very bad at puns.