Los Angeles Dodgers backstop Russell Martin is in the midst of one serious power outage. The last time Martin went deep? Try September 26th, 2008 against the San Francisco Giants. While the 26 year-old Canadian has never been known for possessing immense strength in the batter’s box, he did reach the double-digits in dingers in each of his first three seasons in the majors.
Making his big league debut back in 2006, Martin slugged .436, with a .154 Isolated Power and 10 home runs in 468 plate appearances. The following year, he popped 19 homers in 620 plate appearances. Martin slugged .469, and his .176 ISO placed 4th among qualifying catchers.
In 2008, Martin took a step back in the power department, with a .116 ISO, a .396 slugging percentage and 13 jacks in 650 plate appearances. While that output seemed disappointing given his work the previous season, it looks downright Josh Gibson-like compared to his tepid line in 2009.
With a microscopic .050 ISO, Martin bests only San Francisco’s Emmanuel Burriss among qualified hitters. He’s shown less punch than Emilio Bonifacio (.053 ISO), Jason Kendall (.053) and Luis Castillo (.054), for crying out loud. Martin’s eye remains sharp (13.9 BB%), but the utter lack of extra-base hits has sapped his offensive value. After posting a .368 wOBA in 2007, Martin has seen that figure dip to .351 in 2008 and just .321 this season.
So, what in the name of Vin Scully is going on here? Since that high-water mark back in ’07, Martin has increasingly become more of a groundball-oriented batter:
2007: 48.4 GB%, 1.42 GB/FB ratio
2008: 51.1 GB%, 1.73 GB/FB
2009: 52.8 GB%, 2.03 GB/FB
When Martin broke into the big leagues, he was an exceptionally athletic catcher. In many respects, the converted third baseman resembled an early-career version of Jason Kendall: he had on-base skills, some degree of lightning in his bat, and was surprisingly fleet of foot. Martin posted a Speed Score of 5.3 as a rookie in 2006, and a 5.2 mark in 2007 (the major league average hovers around 5.1 to 5.2). In 2008, that mark fell to 4.0, and sits at just 3.6 in 2009.
So, Martin is chopping the ball into the dirt with greater frequency, while not showing the same set of wheels that he possessed a few seasons back. Martin’s speed did not manifest itself on groundballs hit during the 2006 campaign (.199 batting average on grounders, compared to the .234 N.L. average), but he beat out quite a few worm-killers in 2007 (.275 AVG on groundballs; .245 NL average) and 2008 (.281 for Russell, .231 NL average). This season, Martin has a .240 average on grounders, while hitting them at the highest rate of his career (.236 NL average).
Donning the tools of ignorance, Martin’s body takes a beating each and every night he squats behind home plate. Despite his relative youth, LA’s catcher is closing in on 4,000 career innings at the position, with 459 games under his belt.
That’s quite the workload. According to Baseball-Reference, Martin is one of only four catchers 26 years old or younger to appear in 400+ games during the first three seasons of his career (Kendall is also on the list). Kendall, you’ll recall, saw his power peak in his mid-20’s (with slugging percentages of .473, .511 and .470 from ages 24-26 during the 1999-2001 seasons). Since then, he has topped the .400 mark just once. His Speed Scores followed a similar arc to Martin’s: downright blazing in ’99 (7.3 Speed Score), Kendall was down to the four range by 2001, and dipped into the three’s by the time 2003 rolled around. His groundball rates increased as well.
None of this is to say Martin is doomed; Kendall turned in a couple of valuable seasons in 2003 and 2004 with a similarly keen batting eye. Also, his loss of speed could have been influenced by a nasty ankle injury suffered in ’99 on top of the heavy workload as a youngster. But the two do share some interesting similarities, in terms of being abnormally agile for the position, enduring a heavy workload at a young age, and subsequently losing that extra gear on the wheels. Martin is just entering what are typically the peak years of a player’s career, but might we have seen his best already?