Blue Jays: The Russell Martin Conundrum

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 2: Russell Martin
TORONTO, ON - APRIL 2: Russell Martin /

It’s no secret that Russell Martin has been struggling at the dish. In fact, his struggles have been so pronounced that the Jays have even opted to lean on Luke Maile for offensive production early on this season. But the question is, is it that lack of playing time that is a possible cause for his rough start?

There’s no way to sugarcoat it, Russell Martin has not had a good start to his season. Sure, he’s been his normal, defensively excellent self behind the plate, putting up a 0.6 dWAR, but he’s had his issues with the bat.

So far this season, Martin has slashed an awful .140/.283/.280 with two home runs and 16 strikeouts in 50 at-bats, coming into Wednesday’s tilt against Boston. He’s 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position and has made mostly weak contact, often grounding out lazily.

Luckily for the Jays, backup catcher Luke Maile has suddenly emerged as an unusual offensive threat, slashing .414/.485/.552 in 29 at-bats, with nine RBI and four doubles. After being one of Toronto’s worst hitters last season, Maile has been surprisingly clutch for the Jays as their starting catcher continues to be in a treacherous slump.

The thing is, Martin’s loss has been Maile’s gain. Maile has appeared in eight games thus far, totaling 33 plate appearances, whereas Martin has appeared in 15 games, totaling 60 plate appearances. At this time last year, Martin had played 16 games, with 67 plate appearances, while Jarrod Saltalamacchia, last year’s backup, had played just nine games with 22 plate appearances.

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While not huge in magnitude, Martin has seen his playing time decrease on account of Maile’s success compounded with his struggles. This brings to light an interesting question, could some of Martin’s struggles be related to his lack of playing time?

A casual fan would tell you that’s nonsense, but a statistically inclined fan would tell you there’s some substance to that theory. Last season, Martin’s average didn’t surpass the Mendoza line until his 28th game of the season, which came in late May. Regression toward the mean is a genuinely valid principle to apply here, especially when considering the unequal distribution of at-bats this early in the season.

Through 50 games in 2017, Martin’s average was well over the Mendoza line. He sported a solid OBP of .374 and had seven dingers and a .756 OPS in 206 plate appearances.

As frustrating as it may be to watch, maybe it’s just best to let him ride out this slump. More at-bats will lead to more productive plate appearances, which in turn should make for a more dangerous hitter. Even though his performance last year was underwhelming, he still managed to finish with an OBP over .340 and ended up striking out in just 22% of his plate appearances.

Whatever the case may be, we can only hope that this confused approach at the dish does not become the new norm for Russell Martin. With one more year left on a rather large contract, he’ll need to be productive to make him worth what the Jays are paying him.

Next: Blue Jays: Takeaways from Round 2 Against the Yankees