Blue Jays: On Russell Martin’s second half, contracts, and exhaling
Amid the many worrying narratives through the first half of the Toronto Blue Jays’ season, both fact and fabrication, one player’s struggles drew a curiously hushed level of panic from fans and those around the team.
Russell Martin has since proven that any doubt would have been misguided, too, but for the first three months of the season, the 33-year-old catcher was falling short of the high performance bar that he’s set for himself with a 2.0+ Wins Above Replacement in nine of ten seasons between 2006 and 2015 (he’s now eclipsed that in 2016 as well).
Over the first three months of the season, Martin hit .217 with a .306 on-base percentage and an OPS of .632. He was also striking out more than usual, and while his six home runs in three months is fine by most catcher’s standards, he was capable of more.
Since then, he’s been one of baseball’s most valuable players behind the plate. He began to show signs of this with a very strong July where he walked 13 times in 18 games. Seeing the ball as well as he was, Martin posted a .425 on-base percentage that month and has continued his roll since.
In 46 games played since July 1st, Martin is hitting .283 with a .387 on-base percentage and a .929 OPS. His power has received a jolt, including a six-game stretch in August where Martin hit six home runs.
This is significant for the Blue Jays as they enter the postseason run from a strictly performance-based standpoint with all contracts and ages aside. Toronto needs Martin’s bat and defensive capabilities, which are also showing themselves more as the season rolls on, and his ability to provide a secondary level of offence beyond the loaded top half of the order is what will make the Jays lineup dangerous come October.
With contracts and age considered, though — as they should be — Martin’s recent turnaround is an even better sign. Following a $7 million salary in 2015 and a $15 million salary this season, Martin jumps to $20 million hits in 2017, 2018, and 2019. That fifth year, when Martin will be 36, played a large role in convincing him to sign with the Blue Jays.
Paying 36-year-old catchers $20 million is not a common daily practice in Major League Baseball. With a position so tough on the body, regression can move quicker that it does for, say, a third baseman. Much can happen between now and then — don’t forget Martin’s ability to play other positions — but the Blue Jays will be working around contracts such as Martin’s and Troy Tulowitzki’s as they build their team for the coming handful of years.
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Martin’s game does have some factors that suggest he’ll buck the regression trend, at least to some extent. His plate approach and on-base tool should age very well, and with a defensive game as strong as his, even a moderate regression would leave him as an above-average catcher when considered in the league-wide landscape.