Russ Martin’s Injury Could be a Blessing

Dodger fans and fantasy owners alike had plenty of reasons for disappointment with Russell Martin‘s 2009 season. The catcher saw a drop in basically every batting measure, from AVG, HRs, and RBIs to walk and home run rate. This is especially alarming for a 27-year-old hitter who is supposed to be entering his peak years. The news seemed to get worse for the club when it was revealed yesterday that Martin will miss at least four weeks with a pulled groin. But upon further review, this might be good news.

The biggest issue last year Martin was his precipitous drop in power, which can be seen through his ISO, or Isolated Power. ISO is calculated by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage, and measures raw power by looking at extra bases per at-bat. Martin’s ISO dropped from .176 to .079 over the past two years, and went from fourth best among catchers in 2007 to 2nd worst in 2009.

Martin’s ability to pull the ball with power just fell off a cliff in 2009. On balls hit to left field, Martin ran a .220 ISO or better each year prior, but last season he only managed a .119 ISO on balls hit to left. The key is a lack of home runs. He hit just four dingers to left last last year, which is seven fewer fewer than he managed in both 2007 and 2008. Adding to the issues, he hit more infield flies to the left side than ever before. With balls hit to the left side comprising over 40% of his balls in play, this was a major factor in his power loss.

There is, however, a good chance that Martin’s power sees a moderate pickup this season, as we could just be seeing some bad luck. HR/FB rates don’t tend to stabilize until after 300 balls hit into play, and Martin only hit 176 balls to left field last year. For his career, Martin has hit a homer on 6.7 percent of fly balls, but that figure was just 3.9 percent last year. That means we should expect Martin to perform closer to his career rates, although a full return to his 2007 level (9.7 percent) is very unlikely.

There has been growing speculation that Martin has been overworked behind the plate, and he led the majors with 414 starts behind the plate over the last three seasons. Some say this is the reason for his decline in production. Therefore, this groin injury could be a blessing in disguise as it should spare Martin’s knees from some unneeded wear and tear. Even before the injury, manager Joe Torre expressed a desire to limit Martin’s games played at the position. If Martin is able to come back from this injury and produce at a high level once again this year, it could be that this period away from catching was one of the reasons why.

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