Behind the Dish: Does Dodgers' Russell Martin Need a New Uniform?
What happened to Russell Martin?
It was only three seasons ago that the Los Angeles Dodgers' catcher was taking the baseball world by storm. He had made his first National League All-Star team, and won his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards— all in the same year.
2007 turned out to be his signature season— Martin appeared in 151 games, batted .293, jacked 19 homeruns, drove home 87 runners, had a slugging percentage of .469, and even stole 21 bases.
He was developing a reputation of having a cannon for an arm, and would-be base stealers around the league feared him— he threw out 41 total runners that year, which calculated to a nearly 34 percent caught stealing percentage.
Martin was named to another All-Star team in 2008, and although he posted very productive numbers, had a slight drop-off from 2007. His .280 batting average, 13 HR, 69 RBI and .396 slugging percentage were still among the league leaders for catchers.
His most startling statistic for 2008 was that he appeared in 155 games. That's right, 155 games.
Prior to the 2009 campaign, Russell Nathan Jeanson Coltrane Martin, Jr. (yes, that's his birth name) added the initial "J" to the back of his jersey on his uniform. It was a gesture to honor his mother, Suzanne, whose maiden name is Jeanson.
The change on his uniform didn't spark any additional production. In fact, 2009 saw the catcher's output decrease.
He batted only .250 for the year, while recording only seven homeruns and 53 RBI. His .329 slugging percentage was a drop-off of 67 percentage points from 2008, and a full 140 points from 2007. He did, nonetheless, appear in 143 total games. 2009 turned out to be his most unproductive season in the majors, by far.
At the halfway point of the 2010 season, Martin is currently batting .246 with four HR and 19 runs batted in, and it is clear his numbers are continuing to decline.
Defensively, Martin already has eight errors this year, which surpasses the total of seven that he had for the entire 2009 season.
So what's the reason for the atrophy?
Is it because he added a letter to his jersey? Probably not.
Although he hasn't put up nearly the same types of numbers since the uniform change, the primary explanation for his decline is the fact that he is entirely overused behind the dish.
His 151 games played in 2007, 155 in 2008, and 143 in 2009 are unprecedented for a catcher in Major League baseball today. And keep in mind, although he did have a handful of pinch-hitting appearances, most of these games were played behind the plate.
Whether it's the fault of management for overplaying Martin, the fault of the farm system for not having a suitable catcher to cover for him, or whether it's something that was completely overlooked altogether— is total speculation.
The irony is that in 2002, the year Russell Martin was taken in the 17th round of the amateur draft, he was signed as a third baseman. It wasn't until a year later that a scout saw him playing catcher in Rookie League for the Gulf Coast Dodgers that his career began to soar behind the dish.
However, up until now, the Dodgers haven't really experimented with Martin playing any other positions in the field.
The biggest challenge that the Dodgers' managers and coaches currently face is trying to find a way to reverse the decline.
On the flip side, despite it seeming like he's been around forever, Martin is only 27 years-old, and one would reason that all of the wear and tear of playing catcher shouldn't have caught up to him just yet.
Perhaps a change of scenery would resurrect his young career. Maybe a move to the American League where he could double-up as a designated hitter could spark his production, and also provide the rest he needs to recover from the laborious duty behind the plate.
Considering the Dodgers' current financial situation, and the types of numbers that he's putting up now, Los Angeles may decide to choose to non-tender him when his contract expires at the end of this season.
If that's indeed the case, it would make much more sense to trade him now, while he still has value and could bring in a very profitable return.
According to the Elias Rankings, which are compiled at the end of every Major League season, Martin is a type A player, and is still ranked third best among all the catchers in the National League.
However, if he continues his current production pace in 2010, coupled with his declined performance in 2009, those rankings and values will certainly drop. It may be much more sensible for the Dodgers to deal him now while he still has positive worth.
Maybe a new uniform is the answer— a different team's uniform.
Or perhaps if he removed the letter "J" from the back of his jersey, he would revert to tearing the hide off of the ball like he did in 2007 and 2008.
Sometimes superstition and mystical energy work in funny ways.
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