News broke earlier that the Pirates agreed to a three-year contract extension with Francisco Cervelli. It’s an easy enough story to analyze in isolation, but to really add depth, you can compare and contrast Cervelli and Russell Martin, who was Cervelli’s predecessor. When Martin left the Pirates, it seemed like it ought to have delivered a massive blow, but if anything Cervelli has been the superior catcher since. This year in particular, they’ve shot off in completely opposite directions.
Cervelli’s not someone who’ll hit for power, but in 2016 he’s reached base nearly 40% of the time. And the defense is there, so the Pirates are pleased. The Blue Jays like Martin, and there’s no question he’s one of their leaders, but — well, maybe you haven’t noticed this. I don’t know which things you have noticed. Russell Martin has been one of the worst hitters in baseball. Like, worse than you’d believe. Did you know Erick Aybar has a wRC+ of literally 7? That’s a 7, where a 100 would be average. Martin’s all the way up at 11. The next-worst mark: teammate Ryan Goins, at 22. The Blue Jays don’t have a good record yet, and while that’s because of a number of things, Martin has been horrible. He’s made it tough to be successful around him.
A short while ago, Sean Dolinar dramatically improved our presentation of player charts. Let’s look at a couple of those. Martin this year has appeared in 33 games, so here’s a rolling-average plot for Martin’s career, showing wRC+ in 33-game stretches:
Martin has never been this bad, this long. He was pretty awful toward the end of 2013, and maybe that’s encouraging. There was an even worse stretch than that around the middle of 2011. Martin, obviously, has had slumps, but this is a beast of a slump. Martin hasn’t yet hit for any power — he has, and I’m serious, just one double — but the whiffs are conspicuous. Here’s the same plot, but for strikeout rate:
Again, worst strikeout stretch of his career. Again, you do notice the end of 2013. Martin was an excellent player the following season, so he has shaken this kind of stuff off. But back then, Martin had a whole winter. And, who knows what the problem was? Doesn’t mean it was the same problem as now. Right now, Martin is a 33-year-old catcher. You worry more about 33-year-olds than about 30-year-olds.
What’s the deal with present-day Russell Martin? It’s time to put on my speculation hat. Here are some snapshots from fairly ordinary Martin swings in 2015. They weren’t chosen totally at random, but I didn’t throw any images out.
A trick I learned a while ago is that it can be useful to look at someone’s follow-through, be it a hitter or a pitcher. I am very much not a mechanical expert, but I can at least study pictures of mechanics. With Martin, I want you to look at his front foot (his left one). When Martin swung a year ago, he’d lift part of that foot, or roll onto it. He did it pretty much every time, and what that suggests to me is a forceful swing. Enough power in the swing to transfer Martin’s weight. Probably more strength coming from the lower body.
That stuff isn’t any good without a comparison, so now, here are images of Martin swinging in 2016. I’m not going to show you all the images I have because that would be too many. Just trust me that these are representative.
Look at the same thing as before. What I see is that Russell Martin has been swinging a lot more flat-footed. On rare occasion, he would transfer more strength into that foot, but this has been more the norm. That front foot has barely moved after it’s come down from the leg kick, and what that suggests — again, to me — is reduced force. There’s less going into the swing, so as Martin wraps around, his lower body isn’t so inclined to follow him.
I don’t know why Martin would choose to cut down on his swing. There wasn’t a problem with his swing before, so given the change and given the problems with contact, I’m inclined to think that Martin has been playing while physically compromised. Toward the end of April, he did miss some time due to neck spasms. I don’t know if you’ve ever hurt your neck, but it makes it impossible to do almost anything. That doesn’t explain earlier April, although maybe it’s a longer-standing issue. Maybe there’s been something else. Hip? Back? Everything goes into a swing, when a swing is good. The swing here has not been good.
More promisingly, Martin might be coming out of this. After striking out almost half the time in April, he’s down to a normal 19% in May. There’s been a corresponding improvement in contact rate, and here are a couple Martin swings from the past few days:
Martin hasn’t been a successful hitter in May, but those images there look more familiar. It looks like the force is coming back to his swing, and if that proves to be true, then at some point the results should follow. You’d want to make sure he’s not just trying to overcompensate. And you’d want to make sure he keeps this up — any discomfort might reappear. If he’s just randomly felt good for a few days, and he’s going to feel bad again soon, clearly that’s an issue. No one here is out of the woods. No one could ever be considered out of the woods with an 11 wRC+.
And it should go without saying that maybe I’m just full of crap. Wouldn’t be the first time. I’m just guessing at what’s been the matter, but we at least do know that something has been the matter. My guess, based on the evidence, is that Martin is starting to feel better, and pretty soon he’s going to hit a few dingers. When that finally happens, there’s going to be great relief. Today, as I write this, no one has yet felt relieved.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.