2011 Season Preview: Russell Martin

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As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will be going up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

For the first time since 1999, the Yankees will have someone not named Jorge Posada behind the plate on Opening Day. Former Dodger Russell Martin was inked to a one-year, $4M contract in the offseason, pushing Posada to designated hitter and (presumably) Frankie Cervelli to the backup role. The move was made not in hopes that Martin would recapture his 2007 magic (though that would be welcome), but that he would simply solidify the defense behind the plate.

The Yankees assumed risk in this move (just like all them), though perhaps more than usual. Martin is on steady decline offensively, particularly in the power department. He missed the end of the 2010 season after suffering a hairline fracture in his hip when he stepped on home plate awkwardly, though the good news is that he did not damage the labrum. His pre-signing physical revealed a partially torn meniscus that required minor surgery. The Dodgers know Martin better than anyone, and they chose to walk away from an expected salary around $7M in 2011 plus another year of control in 2012 (via arbitration-eligibility) by non-tendering him.

That said, Martin just turned 28 years old, so he’s theoretically in prime baseball playing age. Things could go well, things could go poorly, or it could end up being a mix of the two. Let’s explore…

Best Case

There is no more demanding position in the game than catcher. The physical abuse from squatting behind the plate, foul tips, and miscellaneous bumps and bruises often lead to short peaks, and Martin’s workloads over the last three seasons have been excessive. He started no fewer than 133 games behind the plate every year from 2007 through 2009, and he was on pace to start another 135 in 2010 before the hip injury ended his season in August.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

A winter of rest and a manager willing to play his backup catcher twice a week helps rejuvenate Martin’s career, and he gets back on the path that he appeared to be on after 2007. Hitting coach Kevin Long makes some minor tweaks that bring back Martin’s power stroke (.095 ISO over the last three years), along with an assist from Yankee Stadium. Coupled with 11.4% walks (his rate over the last three seasons, removing intentional walks), the 2007 All-Star resurfaces, and Martin gets on base more than 37% of the time and pops close to 20 homers with double-digit steals out of the eighth and ninth spots of the lineup.

With the hip and knee fully healed, Martin’s mobility behind the plate is a non-issue, and he’s blocking A.J. Burnett breaking balls in the dirt and framing Phil Hughes cutters on the corners with aplomb. His 33.9% success rate at throwing out basestealers over the last two years proves to be no fluke, and Martin posts the best throw-out rate by a Yankees starting catcher since before the Posada era. The entire package adds up to a four or five WAR pace and a player in high demand at the trade deadline.

Worst Case

That heavy workload has taken just too much of a toll on Martin’s body. His power is completely gone and Yankee Stadium’s friendly confines are no help despite his tendency to go the other way into right field. The downward trend of his contact skills (6.4% swinging strikes in 2008, 6.8% in 2009, 7.1% in 2010) not only continue, but are exacerbated by battle tested AL East pitching staffs. Without the pitcher hitting behind him, Martin is finding walks harder to come by.

The hip and knee issues sap agility and quickness behind the plate, rendering Martin a slightly better version of Posada when it comes to blocking balls and moving around. Elite burners like Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Rajai Davis, and Jacoby Ellsbury expose Martin’s throwing arm, showing that anyone can appear to be good at gunning down base stealers when the biggest speed threats in your division are Chris Young, Tony Gwynn Jr., and Dexter Fowler.

With little defensive value and offense that makes fans pine for Cervelli’s .315 wOBA of a year ago, Martin barely keeps his head above replacement level and ends up in the pile of cast-offs with Kelly Stinnett and Todd Pratt and Chris Widger after the season.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

It’s clear that Martin is no longer the budding superstar that he appeared to be in 2007, when he hit .293/.374/.469 (.368 wOBA) with 19 homers and 21 steals while piling up 5.8 fWAR, but the Yankees don’t need him to be. He was brought in to solidify the defense behind the plate and be something more than an automatic out at the bottom of the lineup, rather modest expectations. The knee and hip injuries are a legitimate concern, though Martin has already done catching drills in camp and so far all is well.

Offensively, Martin should benefit from a move into Yankee Stadium. He does a solid job of going the other way towards right field, and about 74.4% of his balls-in-play in that direction are non-grounders (about 55% pure fly balls). He’ll definitely hit a cheapie homer or five this season. The walk rate has consistently been in double-digits throughout his career, peaking over the last three seasons, and it’s not like he’s been facing crappy pitching in the NL West. The intentional walks won’t be there to inflate Martin’s on-base percentage, but anything over .335-ish with solid defense is an upgrade for New York.

Ultimately, Martin is just a role player for the Yankees. He’ll hit in the bottom third of the lineup and be asked to shut down the opponent’s running game first and foremost. It’s a dirt cheap contract and the Yankees have the ability to retain him in 2012 as an arbitration-eligible player, so if Martin proves useful, they’ll have plenty of option with regards to his future. Quality catching is at a premium around the league, so teams will come calling if he’s just decent.

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  • http://jukeofurl.wordpress.com Juke Early

    I have the highest hopes for Russell Martin to reclaim his skills. But I will continue to ask – why so many good young players getting hurt so often. Is it all due to substance abuse of some sort? and subsequent withdrawal from the influence? The amount of young pitchers to have Tommy John surgery before they’ve even hit the bigs, is staggering. I’d forgotten Mo Rivera had it prior to full time service w/the team. Could explain his longevity; though so many having TJS is still something needs investigating.

    • pat

      I’d venture to guess that the arm surgery rate hasn’t changed that drastically over the past few decades, but the exposure the minor leagues has received has increased exponentially. The minors are scrutinized more than ever nowadays.

    • Big Juan

      I think a lot of it has to with the fact that kids play so much more baseball now than ever before with AAU, Legion, longer college seasons, fall baseball and etc.

      The other thing is that the ability to detect and fix these injuries are greater than ever before, so a lot of these issues can be found and fixed earlier rather than later.

    • vin

      Technically, Mo didn’t have TJS. He had a ligament re-inforcement procedure. Others have had it as well, but I’m drawing a blank on the names.

  • stunna4885

    russell martin 280 360 400 12hr and 65rbi

    • I am not the droids you’re looking for

      NFW.

      That is all.

    • Mike

      He hasn’t come close to a .280 avg, .360 OBP, or .400 SLG since 2008. I wish I was that optomistic, but I expect something more like .265/.350/.380.

  • Rey22

    Another thing going for Martin is the fact that now he’ll play his home games in Yankee Stadium vs. the pretty big Dodger Stadium.

  • http://twitter.com/joero23 The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

    I’m sure I’ll get bashed as a Cashman-backer for this (which is unfair, see: my neverending annoyance with the Joba situation), but I’ve been a little surprised by the lack of credit he’s received this offseason for what he’s done for depth/role players/bench. This was a fantastic pick-up. Sure, the guy’s got his question-marks, but the Yanks were able to sign, relatively cheaply, a guy with the talent to be a really good MLB catcher (and if he doesn’t work out, it’s really not such a big loss). This move, combined with the other depth/bench moves this offseason, were all excellent in my book.

    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, as I frequently admonish others to not be surprised with the fickleness of some fans and their capacity to spin anything, especially Cashman-related, into a negative. I just find it interesting that the anti-Cashman fans have seemed, at least to me, to be the ones the last few years loudly objecting to how Cashman went about building depth/bench… And now that he went out and brought in some vets to fill some of those roles, they’re either silent about it or have done a 180 and found ways to criticize the moves anyway.

    • pat

      If Theo didn’t make it, it’s not a good move.

      • Thomas

        Just like Paul Pierce, that statement is The Truth.

    • http://twitter.com/AndrewLeighNYC Andrew

      His depth pick-ups were mostly to hedge against risk, like the risk of handing the catching job over to Montero or continuing to rely on Jorge to take a beating behind the plate. Likewise the risk that Boone Logan will pitch like he did in early ’10 pushed him to Feliciano. So key questionable areas got addressed, but it’s not enough, because fans want there to be no question marks heading into camp. So the Martin/Feliciano/even Belliard signings are overshadowed by the lack of Lee or Mr. Most People Annoy Me in the rotation and the potential presence of the dual fat guys at the back end in their place.

  • Monteroisdinero

    If Martin can keep Jesus from catching the next two years, Cash will have made a great pickup. Even one year will be great. He has value as a trade chip for a pitcher as well if Jesus is deemed ready by the brain trust.

    • king of fruitless hypotheticals

      I’ll be happy if Martin is good enough to keep Jesus at AAA for half a season (or at least the screaming for him at a reasonable volume) much less two years. How great would it be if we were in first place and Montero coming up for the first time with roster expansion?

  • MattG

    I am very bullish on Martin in all aspects, except his power. The dropping ISO scares me, but 1) he can be an asset with a .080 ISO, and 2) a mixture of a healed hip and opposite field power at YSIII might see that take a bump.

    Mark him down for .350/.380 and plus defense, which puts him in the running for #2 catcher in the American League.

  • AndrewYF

    I wonder, if Martin really has a resurgence and is hitting his career numbers with solid defense at the deadline, how willing the Yankees would be to move him if given the opportunity. The downgrade in defense from Martin to whomever would be quite severe, and you’d almost have to make Cervelli your primary catcher at that point, since it would be unfair to have all your pitchers pitch to a brand new catcher in the middle of a pennant race.

    Then again, it’s just as likely that the Yankees recognize that the importance of catcher defense is hugely overblown and just slot in Montero, accepting the downgrade in defense with the bigger upgrade in whoever Martin brings back in a trade.

  • LarryM.,Fl.

    My opinion of the acquisition and Russell Martin are both positive. I look forward to the young catcher regaining some of his flare both at the plate and keeping his defensive skills. My hopes are for the Yanks to pick up his option in 2012 on his play in 2011 and provide a vehicle for Jose Montero to get two or three games a week behind the plate in 2012 and 4 days at DH. Its a perfect storm for the Yanks as Montero grows into the position.

    I want Montero in pinstripes. Too many young prospects have left the farm with us wishing they had on the pinstripes. The Yanks have the system and ability to home grow their product on the field for years to come and reach-out when the right free agent comes about.

  • Ben

    I agree with Axisa. Martin is being asked to be a role player. He will bat eighth, while providing improved defense over Posada and even Cervelli. Unless you believe that Cervelli became Cano while training with him over the winter, Martin will be much better with the bat than Cervelli. Perhaps Girardi will see how he responds to more rest than he got as a Dodger and that will keep him fresh and more productive. I see Martin as a guy who will be under the radar all season, but will be respected by opposing teams. If he’s healthy and bounces back offensively, he can easily become the second best catcher in the AL, regaining some of his top prospect status that he had with the Dodgers.