Thursday, January 26, 2012

How To Keep The Russell Martin Revival Tour Going

2011 was an important year for Russell Martin.  After two All Star-caliber seasons for the Dodgers in 2007 and 2008, he was basically cast aside like an old mitt after experiencing serious decline, much of it likely injury-related, in 2009 and 2010.  The Yankees were happy to pick him up off the scrap heap for $4 million and install him as their bridge between the Jorge Posada and Jesus Montero Eras behind the plate in 2011.  A funny thing happened on the way to that plan, though, as Martin bounced back this past season, regaining some of his All Star form and making his way back onto the All Star team.  The Yankees rewarded Martin for his 2011 with a 1-year/$7.5 million deal on Tuesday, in the process implying that they may still not be 100% sold on Martin as a long-term fixture behind the plate, even with Jorge and Jesus out of the picture.  In looking at Martin's 2011 numbers, there are a few things that he could do in 2012 that could keep his upward momentum going and instill some more confidence in the organization to extend him beyond this season.

Martin's final line of .237/.324/.408 with a .325 wOBA in 2011 was a step in the right direction from where he had been trending the previous two years, but still not up to the standard he set in '07-'08.  After a torrid start in the season's opening month (.293/.376/.587, .420 wOBA) Martin cooled off considerably and was up and down at best for the remainder.  The first two numbers that stand out to me when trying to explain Martin's 2011 are his BB and K rates.  Martin has shown from Day 1 in the Majors that he has a very good eye at the plate.  Even in 2009 and 2010, his BB rates didn't decline with the rest of his production, but in 2011 he posted a 10.5% BB rate, the lowest value of his career since the 9.6% he put up in his rookie season of 2006.  Martin coupled this lower BB rate with a career high 17.0% K rate, certainly not something that qualifies him as a hacker, but nonetheless greater than what he's traditionally shown.

A contributing factor to those changes could certainly be Martin's career high Swing Rate in 2011, 43.5% according to PITCHf/x, as could his career high 8.3% Swinging Strike rate.  But deeper than that, the numbers that concerned me the most were the number of pitches Martin was seeing in his plate appearances.  In 2011 Martin averaged 3.74 pitches per plate appearance, below what was his 3.89 career average and even further below the P/PA values in the high 3.90s that he had in his career years.  Paired with the increased swing rates, these numbers suggest that Martin was being a bit too aggressive in his approach at the plate and putting himself in too many unfavorable counts.  When in those type of counts, a hitter will tend to take more defensive swings, generate less contact and less good contact, and in Martin's case, fail to capitalize on his strength of his great batting eye at the plate.  This would certainly explain the low batting average and increased K rate.

Also concerning were Martin's contact rate splits to left, center, and right field in 2011.  Martin's track record in these categories shows that he tends to hit a lot of his ground balls to the left side and back up the middle, and starts to elevate the ball more as he goes to right.  But in 2011 these splits became even more extreme:

- LF: 18.0% LD, 61.3% GB, 20.7% FB
- CF: 18.3% LD, 49.5% GB, 32.1% FB
- RF: 22.8% LD, 17.7% GB, 59.5% FB (*29.8% IFFB)

Combined with Martin's wOBA splits of .457 to left, .239 to center, and .261 to right, these values above suggest that there are differences in Martin's swing depending on where he tries to hit the ball, and not helpful ones.  It would be one thing if he had these contact splits and was productive across the board when hitting to all fields.  But the low wOBA values to center and right tell me that he's not making a lot of quality contact on those swings, and the majority of his ground balls up the middle and fly balls to right are turning into outs.  Interestingly enough, while Martin had his lowest LD and FB rates to left field, he did hit 14 of his 18 home runs in 2011 to left. So he certainly made the most of the solid fly ball contact he did make to left field.

So what does Martin need to do in 2012 to keep his production moving in the right direction.  For starters, he should take more pitches.  His career BB and K rates show that Martin has a very good batting eye, good plate discipline, and and an above-average ability to put the bat on the ball.  If he cuts back on his swings, particularly early in the count, he can better maximize those strengths and put himself in better situations to get good pitches to hit.  He can also give himself a better look at what the pitcher is offering up to him, where the pitcher is trying to pitch him, and adjust his approach accordingly in his subsequent at-bats.

Secondly, Martin needs to work with Kevin Long on shoring up the holes in his swing that could be causing these increasingly drastic GB/FB splits to the three sections of the field.  Martin is clearly an effective pull hitter, both for average and for power.  But there is something going on with his plate coverage and/or his swing mechanics when he tries to take the ball the other way because he's hitting too many balls in the air that are turning into outs, and way too many balls in the air that aren't leaving the infield.  Martin's .252 BABIP in 2011 was low by anybody's standards and a career low for him by 32 points, and there was almost assuredly some bad luck that was a contributing factor.  But with the major deviation in his wOBA to left compared to his wOBA to center and right field, it certainly seems like there are some fundamental flaws in his swing that are contributing more to the results than just luck.

Martin will turn 29 next month, so he's clearly still in the prime of his career.  He has already shown the ability to be an effective hitter to all fields, at least more effective than he was in 2011, so what changed this past season?  My theory is that Martin got a little too amped up by the early success and power surge he had out of the gate last April and started to develop some bad habits, being a bit more aggressive than he traditionally is and losing some of the balance in his stroke.  The effects of small flaws like that can be magnified when combined with the wear and tear that a starting catcher endures over the course of the season, and the flaws were probably never addressed as the more important focus day to day was keeping Martin healthy and on the field.  Martin has already been working out for some time to get back into game shape for 2012, and hopefully he puts in time with Kevin Long before the season starts and in training camp to improve his overall approach at the plate.  If he does, and we see his offensive production continue to trend upward this season, Martin could secure himself that long-term deal and settle the Yankees' catching situation for the foreseeable future.

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