The Disabled List is dangerously long in Toronto. It includes an MVP candidate at third base, two key members of the rotation, a five time All-Star shortstop, and the team’s best speed weapon in Dalton Pompey. However, of all the pieces this team is currently missing, Russell Martin might be the most problematic.
Of course that’s not completely true. Russell Martin’s injury isn’t considered serious. He went on the DL on May 8 with nerve inflammation in his left shoulder and is eligible to return as soon as Thursday if the team elects to push things. Leg injuries for infielders like Donaldson and Tulo or an arm injury for a pitcher like Happ have a greater potential to linger and cripple a season.
However, if there’s one player the Blue Jays can’t afford to lose for an extended period of time, it might just be Russell Martin. No, Martin is not the team’s best player. He doesn’t bring the explosiveness of Donaldson, the defensive theatrics of Tulo or the ability to single handedly stamp a game every five days the way a quality starter does, but he’s invaluable nonetheless.
The reason for this is what lies behind Martin. Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins have done about as much as you can ask from them in filling in for Donaldson and Tulo, and Biagini now gives the Jays a sixth starter option beyond Estrada, Stroman, Sanchez, Happ and Liriano that may not have been obvious a month ago. But when you look for production behind Martin, you’ll find a barren wasteland, particularly in the batters box.
Below is a chart that shows the (lack of) production the 2017 Blue Jays have gotten from the catcher position when anybody not named Russell Martin has played there.
Blue Jay backup catchers have come to the plate 63 times this season and have two hits. Two! Now that Luke Maile was hit by a pitch over the weekend, they’re almost as likely to get hit as they are to get a hit.
I watch a lot of National League baseball, and right now pitchers across the league are batting .120 / .157 / .147 (.304 OPS) on the season. In other words, when the Blue Jays put somebody other than Russell Martin behind the plate this season, they’ve gotten less production offensively than you’d expect from the average pitcher. This isn’t just a black hole in the lineup, it’s a supermassive black hole (they’re real things ya know).
Combined, these three catchers have accounted for -1.1 rWAR. Now, to the team’s credit, they’ve actually been able to work around this the last five games. They’ve done enough offensively elsewhere in the lineup to score enough runs, and the pitching has made that stand up.
And in the name of fairness, Maile has looked very solid behind the plate. When a catcher’s work behind the plate is easy to ignore, that’s actually probably a good thing, and there has to be a reason the Jays have given him almost every start since Martin went down.
Still, the level of futility when Maile and every other backup catcher stand alongside the plate instead of behind it is striking. When the Blue Jays parted ways with Josh Thole after last season, it was reasonable to assume that they were going to get an offensive boost from the backup catcher spot because ...... well, how could anybody be worse than Thole’s line? I mean, .169 / .254 / .220 (474 OPS) is about as bad as you can get right?
We’re getting an answer loud and clear and it’s not pretty. The Jays have no other real options here either. The closest true catching prospect to the majors right now is Reese McGuire, and he has a .684 OPS in Double-A New Hampshire and has been on the DL for nearly two weeks now. Unless the club goes outside of the organization for help, alternate options just aren’t there right now.
The Blue Jays have managed to win five games in row without Martin, but I’m not sure this is a road that’s going to keep being so kind. They need Martin’s bat back in the lineup soon because if nothing else, it removes what amounts to an automatic out from the lineup.
The Jays need Russell Martin to get healthy and stay healthy. There’s no way around it.