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Russell Martin’s place in Blue Jays history

Where he stacks up among other franchise stalwarts

MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been just under a week since the page was further turned on the ALCS years of 2015-16 with the trade of Russell Martin. We’ve looked at some of the indelible moments in which he was a part, so I want to take a chance to take a high level view of his place in franchise history.

Having “only” four seasons with the Blue Jays with the last two abbreviated (2018 artificially so) limits his counting totals, especially as catcher max out around 120 games started in the first place. Martin’s 1759 plate appearances rank just 47th in Blue Jays history, just behind Frank Catalanotto and Orlando Hudson and just ahead of Barry Bonnell and Colby Rasmus.

Despite that, his 8.0 fWAR ranks 30th in franchise history, showing the extent to which he punched above his weight on the field. His 66 home runs rank 31st, though that’s as much a reflection of the era as he plays than truly having plus power. On the flip side, among the 115 players with at least 500 PA with the Jays, Martin’s .336 mark ties him for 36th despite playing a low OBP era. It’s double as impressive considering his .225 batting average ranks as the 5th lowest (below Ryan Goins!).

There’s also a strong argument that fWAR underrates him significantly, as their defensive metrics do not consider one of his most valuable skills in pitch framing.. Martin is credited with +25 defensive runs, but that’s all due to the positional adjustment, and their defensive metrics measure him at -3.5 runs (including his run at third base which was slightly negative).

In my view, the gold standard for defensive metrics is Baseball Prospectus’s FRAA, which not only includes pitch framing but does so in a very sophisticated way. The BP metrics measure Martin as having been worth just over 35 runs defensively, on the back of +40 framing runs. The net difference of 39 runs to Fangraphs suggests both systems see his other skills (blocking, controlling running game) similarly.

That makes a significant difference, as adding in those runs adds about 4 WAR, which would bump Martin nine spots to 21st all-time in the franchise. But I think the chart below does a better job of showing the difference, which basically disaggregates WAR into its two components of pure productivity and playing time:

Martin history overall

Without adjusting the defensive metrics, Martin averaged about 3 WAR per 650 PA. That’s a level of productivity matched by only about 25 others with the Jays, but as the chart shows, hardly singular. It leaves his tenure on par with Hudson, Paul Molitor, and Otto Velez (the three dots close to Martin’s red triangle).

But if we substitute in the BP metrics with the framing runs, Martin moves into more rarified air, roughly 50% more productive at just under 4.5 WAR / 650 PA. That makes him one of only eight Blue Jays to average significantly more than 4 WAR per full season, on par with Scott Rolen (840 PA), Roberto Alomar (3,105 PA), Devon White (2,956 PA), and Jose Bautista (5,272 PA).

It’s also worth considering where he stands in terms of catchers in franchise history:

Martin history catchers

It’s safe to say that Ernie Whitt remains the pre-eminent figure, with more than twice as many plate appearances as anyone else at a high level of productivity. But Martin sits very comfortably in my view as the next best. If one doesn’t buy into the pitch framing, then Martin is comfortably above the productivity levels of Gregg Zaun and Darrin Fletcher with a little less time on the field. Zaun was a pretty good framer in his own right, credited with about +40 runs with the Jays, so including framing would lift those two well above Fletcher. For me, Martin’s roughly 20% higher level of productivity offsets Zaun’s 10% more PA, but Zaun would be a pretty close third.

(For those wondering, the dot around 4 WAR with few plate appearances is Charlie O’Brien, who posted huge defensive seasons in 1996-97 even without framing).