Archive for Russell Martin

Jul
14

Second-half storylines

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Mercifully, the All-Star break is over and Yankee baseball is back.  It has been a tumultuous season so far, featuring serious injuries to several important contributors and maddening underperformance with runners in scoring position, but also plenty of pleasant surprises.  Despite everything that has gone poorly for the Yankees this season, they are in great position to make a playoff run.  At 53-33, the Yankees own the best record in the majors, despite playing in a division where no team is below .500, and they are eight games up on their nearest competitor.  They lead the league in home runs and wRC+, though they are only 6th in runs scored.  Despite injuries to Michael Pineda, Andy Pettitte, and CC Sabathia, they are 2nd in the league with a 3.71 xFIP, largely driven by the pitching staff’s 8.45 strikeouts per 9 innings.  With this strong first half in the books, I figured I would take a look at some of the storylines to watch for the second half, which will play an important role in determining if the Yankees can hold on to their division lead.

MVP candidate Cano

Robinson Cano is having a monster season for the Yankees so far, and is well on pace to eclipse his career highs in a number of offensive categories.  He has slugged 20 home runs with a wRC+ of 150, and his fielding is significantly improved according to UZR (small sample size warnings apply).  All this combines to make Cano the 7th in the majors with 4.3 fWAR at the midway point.  If the season were to end today, Cano would be a strong candidate for AL MVP, along with usual suspects Josh Hamilton and David Ortiz, and rookie phenom Mike Trout.  Cano’s 2012 production has been very impressive, and it will be interesting to see if he can sustain this form going forward.  Recent history suggests that it is difficult for a Yankee player to win the award unless he is far superior statistically to his competition, and right now, Cano is not in that position.  Nonetheless, if Cano continues to mash and some of his competition begins to fall off (such as Trout) or get hurt (Hamilton), Robbie would be in good position to win his first MVP.

Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova: for real?

Coming into the season, significant questions abounded about Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova, and whether they would be able to stick in the rotation as consistent contributors.  Michael Pineda’s Spring Training shoulder injury weakened the Yankees’ rotation depth, and put increased pressure at least one of the Hughes-Nova duo to emerge as a solid mid-rotation starter.  Hughes got off to a poor start to the season, and both players have had serious problems surrendering the long ball, but of late, both have settled in.  They’ve shown the ability to strike batters out (8.31/9 for Hughes, 8.16 for Nova) and limit walks (2.08 for Hughes, 2.69 for Nova) a combination that limits the numbers of runners on base when the inevitable longball comes.  Both have been able to pitch deep into the game, which is important for keeping the Yankee bullpen well-rested and effective.  Hughes and Nova have shown that they can pitch in the low-4 ERA range, and with the Yankee offense, they will win a lot of games.  However, it remains to be seen if they can improve their statistics by cutting down on the home runs.  They were surrendering them at an unsustainable pace earlier in the year, but have improved in that area recently (particularly Hughes).  While both have looked very good of late, Hughes in particular has teased Yankee fans throughout his career with strong performances only to regress significantly, and hopefully he can avoid that outcome.

What will Joba bring to the table?

While most of us gave up on Joba Chamberlain being a 2012 contributor after his awful trampoline-related ankle injury, his impressively quick recovery has him in position to return to the Yankees sometime in August.  Chamberlain, looking noticeably svelte, was recently clocked as high as 97 in his first outing in the Gulf Coast League, a sign that his velocity has returned following Tommy John Surgery.  The velocity bodes well for his ability to be a successful bullpen contributor this year, but command could be a big question.  Joba never had pinpoint control to start with, and it is often said that command is the last thing that comes back to a pitcher who has had Tommy John.  Joba’s willingness and ability to use his devastating slider is another question that he will have to answer.  The pitch is his primary 2-strike weapon to earn strikeouts, but often pitchers who have Tommy John will cut down on their slider usage, to avoid putting additional strain on their elbow.  If Joba does have to throw fewer sliders, he may need to have another offering to flash so hitters can’t just sit on the fastball.    I don’t expect Joba to be back to his old self right away, but the good news is that in a bullpen with Rafael Soriano and David Robertson, he won’t be relied upon to pitch in high-leverage situations immediately.  If he earns those innings with his performance, great, but if he has some struggles as expected, they will hopefully be in fairly low-pressure situations.

Is Russell Martin this bad?

Russell Martin’s offensive production has fallen off across the board compared to 2011, and he is currently batting below the Mendoza line with an anemic .181 average.  After being exactly league average in 2011 (100 wRC+), Martin has fallen to being 20% worse than the average hitter (80 wRC+).  Outside of a strong couple of games against the Mets, Martin really hasn’t put together a strong stretch this season that might give hope that he is starting to come out of it.  The unfortunate sign is that Martin’s struggles have actually lasted longer than this season.  He started strong in 2011, but his numbers dipped dramatically after the first two months.  When we see a player struggle for this long, there is always concern about whether the player is in decline or injured.  While the 29 year-old Martin seems too young to be over the hill, the physical toll of catching every day could accelerate this decline.  I am hopeful that Martin can improve, but not optimistic that he will.  If there is any consolation here, it is that his contract is up at the end of the 2012 season, and the Yankees caught a break by having Martin turn down their 3-year extension offer in the offseason.  This also means that the Yankees will likely be in search of a new catcher for the 2013 season.

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During the next few days we’ll take some time to review the first half of the season and look at which Yankees are meeting expectations, exceeding expectations, and falling short of expectations. What else is the All-Star break good for?

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Although the Yankees have the best record in baseball, they have yet to really fire on all cylinders. They have a number of players who have not produced as expected so far, including some high-profile guys in prominent roles.

Alex Rodriguez
Father Time catches up to everyone, even players who were once historically great. A-Rod was able to avoid the DL in the first half thanks to Joe Girardi‘s plan of regular rest, but the production has not improved as hoped. Alex is hitting just .269/.357/.436 with 13 homers overall, on pace for what will likely become the worst season of career after setting a new low-water mark a year ago. His strikeout rate (22.0%) is his highest since 1996, his walk rate (10.3%) his second lowest since 2001, and his ISO (.167) his lowest ever.

Obviously there’s a lot going on here. A-Rod will turn 37 later this month, so age-related decline as already set in. Numerous lower body injuries in recent years — torn hip labrum and knee surgery chief among them — have impacted his ability to incorporate his lower half into his swing, resulting in the power decline. He’s more of an arms hitter than ever before. His struggles with runners in scoring position (.215/.354/.367) only exacerbate the problem. There’s no BABIP correction coming (he’s at .318 right now) and the power is unlikely to re-emerge. A-Rod is not a superstar anymore, get used to it.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Mark Teixeira
Teixeira’s offseason and Spring Training work drew lots of attention as he focused on hitting the ball the other way to beat the shift and improve his declining batting average. Everything looked fine during the first two weeks of the season, as he hit a solid .288/.354/.508 through the team’s first 15 games. Teixeira fell off in a big way after that, hitting just .135/.185/.220 in his next 16 games. He got hot a few games after that, but then Girardi decided to sit him for three games due to an ongoing cough that has since been diagnosed as nerve damage to his vocal cords.

The rest helped the cough and at some point during those three days, Teixeira decided to abandon everything he’d been working on and get back to being a pull-happy slugger. What he was doing before just wasn’t working. The early returns were positive — four homers in his next seven games — but Teixeira’s production soon slowed down once again. Through the team’s first 85 games, their first baseman is hitting .250/.334/.473 after putting up a .248/.341/.494 batting line last year, the second worst of his career outside of his rookie season.

Teixeira’s production has been better than league average but again, below his normal standards even if you were expecting him to simply repeat last year. His 15 homers are well behind his usual pace — he had 25 at the break last summer — and his walk rate has dipped from 13.1% in 2010 to 11.1% in 2011 to 10.7% in 2010. A ten-point boost in BABIP from last year hasn’t helped his average much, unsurprisingly. The big problem right now is that not only has his average and OBP suffered, but he’s not hitting the ball out of the park as often either. His defense is still all-world, but Teixeira’s production at the plate has declined for the fourth straight season.

(Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

Nick Swisher & Russell Martin
The Yankees can survive a few sluggish bats because they have a deep lineup, but even the production from lower down in the order has suffered. Swisher is in the middle of a contract year but is hitting just .262/.336/.477 so far. The power production is obviously fine, but his 10.1% walk rate is the second lowest of his career and well below his 13.3% career average. Swisher’s strikeout rate (22.0%) is up slightly compared to recent years, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s swinging at 23.6% of the pitches he sees outside of the strike zone. Last year it was just 17.5%. He’s doing damage when he makes contact, but a big part of Swisher’s value is his ability to be get on-base in ways other than a hit. He hasn’t done much of that in 2012.

Martin, on the other hand, hasn’t done much offensively at all. His .179/.300/.348 batting line is below average even for a catcher, and although he’s shown signs of breaking out on occasion, it never lasted. Martin will have a good game or two every once in a while then slide back into a prolonged slump. He’s striking out way more than usual (20.2% strikeouts this year, 14.6% career) despite swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone (15.4%) than ever before. His .193 (!) BABIP should improve in the second half just by pure luck, but the quality of Martin’s contact has not been good all year. You really can’t understate how awful he was in the first half.

Freddy Garcia
Although he just turned in a damn fine start against the Red Sox in Fenway Park, Garcia has been a disappointment overall. His first four starts in April were a total disaster, I’m talking a 20 runs in 13.2 innings kind of disaster. The Yankees shipped him off to the bullpen where he worked sparingly in low-leverage situations, then reinserted him into back into the rotation once CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte hit the disabled list. Freddy has pitched well in his two starts back, but that doesn’t wash away the stench of April. Overall, Garcia has pitched to a 5.23 ERA (4.16 FIP) in 43 innings. Here’s to a much more successful second half.

(Al Messerschmidt/Getty)

Eduardo Nunez
When the season opened, the Yankees planned to give A-Rod and Derek Jeter time at DH against left-handed pitchers while Nunez filled in on the infield. They did just that for a few weeks, but Nunez’s defense — four errors in 20 games plus several other botched plays — became such an issue that he had to be demoted to Triple-A in early-May. He was hitting just fine, especially for a utility infielder (.294/.356/.373), but the glovework just could not be tolerated anymore. Nunez committed two errors in four Triple-A games before being placed on the DL with a thumb injury. He had a chance to really step up and force his way into the team’s long-term plans this season, but now he doesn’t even have much trade value.

Cory Wade
For the first two months of the season, Wade was absolutely lights out while David Robertson and Mariano Rivera were on the DL. He also threw a lot of innings and made a lot of appearances, and that may have contributed to one of the worst pitched months in recent Yankees history. Wade has allowed 25 hits and 18 runs in 10.1 innings since the calendar flipped to June, earning him a demotion to Triple-A. His ERA climbed from 3.34 to 6.48 in his last three appearances alone (13 runs in 3.2 IP). It’s all about command with him; when he missed his spots with his soft stuff, it got hammered. Wade was tremendously useful last year and at the start of this year, but now the Yankees have to be wondering if he’s even salvageable.

Categories : Players
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Just four questions this week, and they’re all geared towards potential roster moves. Use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar whenever you want to send us something.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Matt asks: Given his current performance, do you think the Yankees are going to re-sign Russell Martin (and, should they)? If so, what kind of contract do you think he’s going to get?

I wrote about the catching situation yesterday and how the Yankees should look for an upgrade behind the plate, but that’s obviously easier said than done. I don’t think Martin’s true talent is a .178/.297/.347 batting line, he’s probably closer to a .225/.320/.380 guy. That’s not great but it’s at least tolerable, you can live with it behind the plate as long as he’s solid defensively and hitting eighth or ninth. I think that Martin’s back may still be bothering him, which would at least help explain the recent dreadful production.

Anyway, looking for an upgrade and potentially re-signing Martin after the season are two different thing. I’m sure Russ is kicking himself to turning down that three-year extension before the season but then again the catching market is weak. After Mike Napoli, Martin will be the best free agent catcher this offseason. Someone may and probably will overpay. If the Yankees could bring him back on one of those one-year, “re-establish your value” contracts, wouldn’t that be a pretty decent stopgap option until that 2014 payroll plan takes effect? Pair him with Austin Romine as a veteran caddy, they could do worse as long as they actually split time behind the plate.

Gabriel asks: What about trading for Kelly Shoppach as a back-up? I just read on MLBTR that the Red Sox were thinking of dealing him. Red Sox-Yanks deals are always tough, but what do you think?

Shoppach can hit a little, though he’s not really a .267/.359/.522 hitter like he has been this year. His primary value comes against left-handed pitchers, who he’s tagged for a .249/.348/.465 line over the last three seasons. That’s a useful platoon guy and would be a clear upgrade for the Yankees. The problem, as you know, is the whole Red Sox-Yankees thing. I can’t see those two teams getting together for a trade unless Boston just completely falls apart and decides to sell before the deadline (or even during the waiver trade period in August). I think they would have to get a real prospect in return as part of the trade, otherwise the negative PR from “helping the Yankees” probably isn’t worth it. He’d be a fit, he knows the division from his time with the both the Sox and Rays, but I just don’t think he’s actually obtainable.

Alex asks: According to Jayson Stark, the Angels are willing to give up Peter Bourjos in a deal for the right bullpen piece. Given that David Aardsma and Joba Chamberlain will be back this summer, would it be worth dealing Rafael Soriano to pick up an outfielder for the next few years?

(Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

No, I don’t think so and for a few reasons. For one, the goal is still to win this year and trading Soriano for Bourjos decreases the team’s chances of doing so. Aardsma just had his setback and despite all his progress, we have no idea what the Yankees will get out of Joba until he’s actually on a mound for them. They can’t start counting their chickens before they hatch.

Secondly, I’m just not a big Bourjos fan. I know he’s young and cheap and under control for the next half-decade and all that, but I’m just not a fan of defense-first players. We’ve — well not me specifically, but the baseball analysis community in general — come a long way with advanced defensive metrics but I still don’t have a ton of faith in them. That doesn’t mean I think Bourjos or Brett Gardner are bad players, just that I don’t think WAR accurately grades out their value. Plus could you imagine those two in the outfield at the same time? Even with Curtis Granderson the Yankees would still be lucky to get 45 homers out of their outfield.

The Bombers do need to add some kind of young outfielder for the long-term, but not enough to trade Soriano for him unless you’re getting a Mike Trout or something. Soriano may opt-out after the season and sign elsewhere and leave the Yankees with nothing to show for his tenure, who knows, but the best chance for the Yankees to win this season — before Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, CC Sabathia, etc. get a year older — is with him in the bullpen closing games.

Joe asks: What is Shin-Soo Choo’s contract status and do you think he would be a viable candidate to play right field and therefore let Nick Swisher walk?

Choo is making $4.9M this season and will be under team control one more time as an arbitration-eligible player next year. He’ll be a free agent after 2013. The Yankees would have to trade for him and any kind of extension would probably be in the range of whatever Swisher gets this winter. Choo’s a year or two younger, better defensively, and more of a on-base/gap power/stolen base guy that someone who hits the ball over the fence. Similar players and the difference between the two really isn’t worth arguing.

I think rentals are generally undervalued; there’s nothing wrong with giving up prospects for one year or even half-a-year of a player if he improves your chances of winning that year enough. Choo falls into that category but I’m not sure if the Indians would actually make him available, and if they did the price would be pretty high since he’s their like, franchise cornerstone guy. Him and Carlos Santana. He’d be a perfect fit for the Yankees but as always, it comes down to the price.

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Jul
05

The Catching Problem

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(REUTERS/Gary Cameron)

I think we all knew that the post-Jorge Posada era would be a shock to our system, at least initially, but I’m not sure we expected it to be this bad. Posada was one of the greatest offensive catchers in history and as of right now, the Russell Martin-Chris Stewart catching tandem has combined for a .204/.295/.340 batting line. That’s a combined 73 wRC+ which ranks 23rd among the 30 clubs. Catchers across baseball are averaging .247/.315/.398, which seems Ruthian compared to New York’s backstops.

As the starter, Martin gets the majority of the blame. He proclaimed that he was “starting to feel dangerous at the plate” after hitting two homers (including a walk-off) in a game against the Mets last month, but he’s followed up that statement with four (!) hits and four walks in his last 58 plate appearances. He hasn’t reached base in his last 27 (!!!) trips to the plate. That’s dragged his season line down to .178/.297/.347 through 81 team games, a lowly 77 wRC+. Dating back to May 25th of last season (an admittedly arbitrary endpoint), Martin is hitting .203/.330/.353 in 554 plate appearances. This isn’t a small sample.

Stewart has hit an empty .270 as Martin’s backup, slapping singles off infielders’ gloves and dunking bloops into shallow left seemingly once a start. He doesn’t walk or hit for any power, which is why his batting line sits at .270/.295/.311 in limited playing time. For all the talk about his clutch hits, Stewart has six singles in 29 plate appearances with runners in scoring position this year (.222/.214/.222). The guy has never really hit before, hasn’t hit this year, and there’s no reason to expect him to hit in the future. He is who he is.

Offense is obviously not the team’s strong point behind the plate, but defense supposedly is. Stewart has allowed the fifth most passed balls in the league (five) despite being a backup, and he’s only thrown out four of 14 attempted basestealers. That’s a league average 28.5%, hardly what you expect from someone touted as a defensive standout. Stewart seems like a classic Nichols Law of Catcher Defense guy, frankly. Martin has allowed four passed balls of his own and has only thrown out 12 of 51 attempted basestealers (below average 23.5%). The Rays showed him no respect by stealing seven bases (in seven attempts) over the last two games. Anecdotally, I consider the two to be about average or maybe even slightly above averageon defense, underwhelming compared to expectations and reputations.

I can’t remember the last time a team won the World Series without an above average offensive catcher. I suppose the 2006 Cardinals with a young Yadier Molina, but then you have to go back to the Joe Girardi era mid-1990s Yankees. It’s not early anymore, the season is officially halfway complete and the Yankees have gotten little production from their catchers. You may disagree and feel Martin and Stewart have been very good on defense, but I have a hard time believing their glovework has made up for the limp bats. I don’t think calling up Frankie Cervelli — 86 wRC+ in Triple-A — is the answer, but he’d probably be an upgrade at this point. Either way, the Yankees need to serious consider going out and addressing their catcher situation at the trade deadline. These two aren’t cutting it at all.

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Russell Martin left tonight’s game in the eighth inning with a stiff back. Dewayne Wise pinch-hit for him before Chris Stewart took over behind the plate. David Robertson was bouncing breaking balls all over the place in the eighth, but who knows if that caused/contributed to the problem. Martin was likely to get Sunday off anyway with CC Sabathia pitching, but we’ll see what they say. Check back for updates.

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(Al Bello/Getty Images)

Russell Martin knew it would be a big year. Not only was he set to hit free agency after the season, but a fellow catcher had just set the market with a five-year, $75 million contract. While Martin isn’t held in the same regard as Yadier Molina, it seemed clear that with a repeat of 2011 he’d be in line for a bit more than the three years and $20 million the Yankees reportedly offered him.

A rough start has certainly changed the situation, at least temporarily. At the end of May he had just a .187 average. While his .333 OBP did help matters a bit, he still wasn’t hitting with much power. Those issues were clearly visible, though. What might not have been so apparent to us was Martin’s work with the pitching staff. As it turns out, that might have been a problem equal to his one at the plate.

As David Waldstein of the New York Times recently reported, Joe Girardi called Martin into his office before the game on June 2nd in Detroit. The gist: Martin wasn’t doing a great job of calling pitches. Girardi said that he could do better, and Martin agreed. Despite the wealth of talent, both in the rotation and the bullpen, the staff sported a 4.13 ERA at the end of May. Being above league average just isn’t acceptable for a team with the Yankees’ aspirations.

That talk seems to have been the turning point for the staff. Since then they’ve pitched 89.2 innings to a 2.11 ERA. It looks even better for Martin, too. He doesn’t catch CC Sabathia, and Sabathia has turned in two poor starts since then. In fact, if you subtract the 14 innings and seven earned runs Sabathia has allowed in his last two starts, the staff, under Martin, has thrown 75.2 innings to a 1.67 ERA. Might it be time for Girardi to give up on the personal catcher thing and have Martin start catching the team’s most important pitcher?

As Waldstein notes, neither Girardi nor Martin has been very forthcoming with the specifics of the talk. But Martin did let one tidbit slip. “He said, ‘I think you need to start doing a couple of things; I think you need to start throwing inside more.'” As the old baseball adage goes, if you can’t establish your fastball inside you can’t get major leaguers out. Why Martin neglected this earlier in the season I’m not sure, but his adjustments have shown in the results.

The talk might have done more than boosted Martin’s performance behind the plate. Before the talk Martin was hitting .187/.333/.333. Since then, in the admittedly small sample of 34 PA, he has gone 9 for 31 with two doubles and four homers, for a slash line of .290/.353/.742.

Of course, we can’t be 100 percent sure that the pitching staff has improved because of Martin’s adjustments. Correlation, causation, and that whole thing. But there’s no denying the correlation. Girardi gave Martin something to think about, and he has seemingly responded in kind. The pitching staff is now pitching to its capabilities and then some — and that’s without Sabathia pitching like an ace. Just imagine how they’ll look once he gets back on track. Perhaps a run with Martin behind the plate would cure what ails him.

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(Al Bello/Getty Images)

The Yankees finished off the sweep of the Mets yesterday thanks to not one, but two homers — including the walk-off dinger — by catcher Russell Martin. He’s hit .319/.418/.681 in his last 15 games and .261/.369/.545 in his last 29 games dating back to the start of the Royals series in Kansas City. Sure, his first homer on Sunday was a total Yankee Stadium cheapie that hit off the top of the wall and took a fortunate bounce, but a few weeks ago Russ wasn’t even able to hit the ball to right field.

“I felt like I was getting tied up inside and I felt like I was starting to pull off the ball early with my stride,” said Martin after yesterday’s game. “Now I kind of just evened out my stride, and I feel like I’m ready to drive the ball the other way more with more ease. I was fighting to do it before.”

Hitting coach Kevin Long expanded on the idea of Martin evening out his stride, saying he’s backed off the plate a bit and is now able to turn on the inside pitch. “He was frustrated a little bit, but he kept believing that all his hard work — everything he’d done through the winter and up to this point — was going to pay off,” said Long. “It’s starting to show real good signs, especially this month. He’s been on fire.”

Martin was offensive dead weight for the first six or seven weeks of the season, carrying a .173/.321/.318 batting line into the recent West Coast trip before really turning things around. He was walking enough — 13.5 BB% this year — to keep from being a complete back hole offensively, but he lacked impact when he actually swung the bat. As you can see, he’s gone from constantly beating the ball into the ground to actually getting some loft and hitting it to the outfield…

Green is grounders, blue is fly balls, red is line drives.

This recent hot streak has Martin sitting on a 116 wRC+, the tenth best mark among catchers with at least 150 plate appearances. His .348 OBP ranks eighth. Russ is never again going to be the monster he was earlier in his career with the Dodgers, but the Yankees aren’t exactly asking him to be that guy. It would be nice if he was, but it isn’t imperative. He’s hitting mostly ninth in the lineup and like so many nine-hole hitters before him, he just has to be something more than an automatic out. Martin’s recent adjustment has him driving the ball to right — five of his eight dingers have gone the other way — and have helped him take advantage of the short porch.

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Via Marc Carig, catch Russell Martin ripped home plate ump Laz Diaz following last night’s game.”He told me I had to earn the privilege (to throw the ball back to the pitcher),” said Martin, a three-time All-Star. “Even at the end of the game after I get hit in the neck. I’m like, can I throw the ball back now? He’s still like no. I’m like you’re such a (expletive). Like for real. Unbelievable. I even told him like when there’s guys on base, I like to keep my arm loose. No. I’m not letting you throw a ball back. That’s pretty strange to me.”

Terrible umpiring is nothing new, but usually it’s limited to calls on the field. I’ve never heard of a catcher being told he has to “earn the privilege” to throw the ball back to his pitcher. That’s just petty. Of course, calling out an umpire publicly wasn’t the smartest move on Martin’s part. I’m thinking he’s going to have to work a little harder to get borderline calls going forward.

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May
30

Russell Martin and pitches down

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The Yankees have gotten a 78 wRC+ out of their catching duo this season, the fifth worst mark in the American League. Russell Martin has gotten warm of late — six hits and three walks in his last six games — but he’s still sporting a .190/.333/.339 batting line (91 wRC+) nearly two months into the season. The post-Jorge Posada era is off to an ugly start.

As Jonathan Scippa explained yesterday, Martin’s biggest problem is his complete inability to hit balls down in the strike zone. In fact, he has exactly one hit this season on a pitch down in the zone, everything else has come on pitches up around his waist and above. Make sure you click the link for a heat map that really drives the point home. Scippa notes that Russ has always had trouble with pitches down, but this season it’s been taken to an extreme. There’s an adjustment that has to be made on Martin’s part, but I’m not sure how easy it will be.

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The way Martin's year has gone I bet the bat went further than the ball (Nick Laham/Getty Images)

The last time we checked in with Russell Martin he was enjoying an oddly productive start to the season. While he had just four hits, none for extra bases, in his first 10 games, he walked nine times and owned a .417 OBP. That is, while he wasn’t knocking in runners he was helping the offense by not making outs and putting himself in a position to score when the top of the lineup came up. Considering Derek Jeter‘s early season surge, that was no small consolation.

The idea then was that Martin’s walks helped him remain productive until his bat came around. Unfortunately, that has yet to happen. Even worse, Martin’s production at the plate has dipped significantly in the last two weeks. Since the start of the Twins series Martin has come to the plate 35 times and has gone 5 for 32 (.156) with just two walks (.229 OBP). He did pick up a few extra base hits, including an important home run in Friday’s win over the Tigers. But it’s hard to hang your hat on those extra base hits when Martin’s overall production has been so poor.

Might there be a hitch in Martin’s swing? It’s hard to say without first hand experience working with him, but some of the evidence points to this. He’s walking at a greater clip than ever, so perhaps he’s still seeing the ball well. But he’s striking out more often than previously in his career — 22.1 percent of his PA this year, compared to 14.3 percent for his career. That’s five points higher than his 17 percent strikeout rate last year, the highest of his career.

Martin is also beating the ball into the ground: 59 percent of his 48 balls in play have been hit on the ground. That’s a bit better than the 75 percent ground ball rate he had through 10 games, but it’s still way too high. To complicate matters, it appears that he’s not even hitting hard ground balls; his .202 batting average on ground balls is 25 points below the AL average. He’s simply not making good contact, which could suggest an issue with his swing.

Last year was quite the opposite for Martin in terms of batted balls. In his first season with the Yankees he actually hit the ball in the air more frequently than he had in the past. That helped him rediscover his power stroke, hitting double-digit homers for the first time since 2008 and falling just one homer shy of his career best 19. He also walked frequently enough, giving him perfectly average numbers — a 100 wRC+, which is very good for a catcher. His average was a bit low, but at least he’d found a way to contribute.

This year, however, he seems like a complete wreck at the plate. Drawing walks early helped him, but lately he hasn’t even been able to add that. Maybe this is one of those instances where, like many medical conditions, it gets worse before it gets better. Maybe he’s actively working on something at the plate and it’s rounding into form. For the at-home observer, though, it’s hard to see. Unfortunately, the Yankees really have few avenues to pursue here. Martin is the man for 2011. He has a lot of work to do if he’s going to turn things around after a rough April.

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