He might not be his old self anymore, but excellent plate discipline and pitch framing could help fill the void left by Yasmani Grandal.
Russell Martin was recently traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team that originally selected him in the 17th round of the 2002 draft. The Blue Jays appeared eager to part with the native Canadian by accepting two low-end prospects and eating over 80 percent of the $20 million owed to Martin.
Martin only played 90 games in 2018 due to nagging injuries and and sub-par offense. The offense was not that bad, though, at least not for a catcher. Yes, he hit .194 without a lot of power, but he walked so much that he had a .338 OBP. As a result, he had a 91 wRC+ in total, which is seven points higher than the 2018 league-average backstop.
As for his defense, it remains surprisingly good for a 35-year-old. He is still a good pitch-framer whose skills was worth 7.3 runs, per Baseball Prospectus, which had him at 1.7 WARP despite only playing in just over half the season.
As rosy a picture that I just painted of Martin, you can see why the Jays were eager to part with him. He is entering his age-36 season, which is old for any player but is ancient for a catcher. Just because Yadier Molina is still able to be productive does not mean that should be the new norm.
There is upside however, as there is reason to believe that his offense will bounce back because of his .234 BABIP in 2018. Steamer projects an improvement in 2019, but the real question is how often he will be playing considering he has played only 181 games over the last two seasons combined.
The fact of the matter is that the Blue Jays are unlikely to be competitive in 2019, and there was no way they were going to re-sign Martin after this upcoming season. The Jays do have some young catching talent in the system, so focusing on their future makes sense.
Danny Jansen played in only 31 games in his debut last season, but it was a good debut, where he slashed .247/.347/.432. Prior to 2017, it did not look like he was going to be much of a major leaguer if he even got called-up, but he had an outstanding year in 2017.
Jansen started the year in High-A, and hit so well that get got promoted twice, hitting .323/.400/.484 across the three levels! He continued to hit well in Triple A last year by slashing .275/.390/.473, so the Jays really had no choice but to call him up. He is not going to win any Gold Gloves, but if he hits anything close to what he hit in the minors, the Blue Jays will have a really nice, young player on their hands. Luke Maile had his best year in the majors, too, so the Jays will probably want to see what they have with him as well.
While it makes sense for the Jays to move on from Martin, the acquisition also makes sense for the Dodgers. For some reason, one of the richest, most competitive teams in baseball did not want to beat a one-year, $18.25 million for one of the best catchers in baseball in Yasmani Grandal, so they had a need to fill.
Austin Barnes is coming off a year where he hit .205/.329/.290, and that OBP is likely inflated from batting in front of the pitcher as often as he did. Yes, he raked in 2017, but it appears to be an extreme outlier.
There is something about Martin that does not get a lot of attention: he has been a walk machine, especially for a catcher. He walked nearly 16 percent of the time last year, which was a career-best, and as Jeff Sullivan mentioned, he had the lowest chase rate in all-of baseball by a wide margin. I am a little concerned that he is becoming more passive than patient, but if he can continue walking at a high rate, he should be able to maintain an acceptable OBP even if his actual hitting does not improve.
Believe it or not, Martin has a career walk rate of about 12 percent. That is just a smidgen higher than Joe Mauer. In fact, for a full-time catcher who has played as long as Martin has, he has displayed historically good plate discipline.
I was curious to see how he compared historically in this regard, but there is no good way to do this. The Play Index does not allow you to search by walk rate, and FanGraphs does not allow you to filter by percentage of playing time at a position, so I had to improvise. I searched the Play Index for catchers during the live-ball era with at least 3,000 PA who played at least 70 percent of their games at catcher. I sorted by total walks because that was the best I could do. I then went to FanGraphs and searched for catchers with at least 3,000 PA during the live-ball era and sorted by BB%. I cross referenced these by eye as best I could.
The winner is a player that Phillies fans who are around my age or older will remember: Darren Daulton. He walked 14.5 percent of the time over 4,340 PA while catching in 83 percent of games played. Jorge Posada is lower at 13.1 BB%, but he managed to do that over 7,150 PA. Current players Alex Avila (14.2 BB%, 3,264 PA) and Chris Iannetta (13.6 BB%, 4,089 PA) look pretty good too. Russell Martin’s 11.9 BB% is a bit lower than those two, but he has done it for 6,399 PA.
A Martin/Barnes tandem can work, despite the age risks with Martin, though it is fair to say that those risks are mitigated given the low the price for Martin. However, if Martin does not work out, the Dodgers had better hope that their prospect Will Smith will be ready this year, and we still can’t rule out a J.T. Realmuto acquisition. Martin and/or Barnes can be included in any trade, otherwise Barnes can be optioned or Martin can be designated for assignment. Bottom line, LA has plenty of options.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.