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Top 60 All-Time Greatest Blue Jays: #46 Russell Martin

Philadelphia Phillies v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Russell Nathan Coltrane Martin | C | 2015-2018

Russell Martin was born February 15, 1983, in East York, Ontario, and spent much of his youth in Montreal. The Expos drafted him in the 35th round of the 2000 draft, but he decided to go to college instead. In 2002 the Dodgers chose him in the 17th round (Brandon McCarthy was taken with the pick just before him, they were the only two from that round to have a significant MLB career).

He made it to the majors with the Dodgers in 2006 and had a very good rookie season, hitting .282/.355/.436 with 10 home runs in 121 games. He finished 9th in Rookie of the Year Voting. He played 5 seasons with the Dodgers, winning a Gold Glove and making two All-Star teams.

Before the 2011 season, he signed with the Yankees as a free agent. He made another All-Star team with them but didn’t hit as well as he had with the Dodgers, .224/317/.405 in 258 games over the two seasons.

Next, the Pirates signed him as a free agent. In his two-season there, he hit .256/.362/.401 with 26 home runs in 238 games.

Up to that point, he played on seven teams that made the playoffs in nine seasons. Between that and that he got good marks in the fairly new pitch-framing stats, Martin was a sought after free agent in his third shot at it.

In 2014 the Blue Jays had a perfectly adequate catcher in Dioner Navarro, who hit .274/.317/.395, and had a 2.5 bWAR. He was under contract for 2015, so most of us figured the Jays off-season would be centered on filling more urgent needs. As Alex Anthopoulos tended to be a ‘ninja’ when it came to player moves, we were surprised when he signed Martin.

Martin signed a five-year, $82 million contract, which was back loaded. He was to get $7 in 2015, then $15 million and $20 million a year for the next three season (I see in a post I suggested Max Pentecost would be “looking for playing time” by the third year of the contract. It wasn’t the first time I was wrong).

The press conference announcing his signing was peppered with the words leadership, chemistry, and ‘changing the culture.’ About 10 days later, Alex would trade for Josh Donaldson. There were several moves that winter. Adam Lind was traded for Marco Estrada. We picked up Justin Smoak. Anthony Gose was traded for Devon Travis. And J.A. Happ was shipped to Seattle for Michael Saunders.

There was a lot of discussion about the signing. Giving a five-year contract to a 32-year-old catcher struct some as unwise. But I think most of us were happy to get a good Canadian boy to lead the team. Our poll ran 66% liked it, 15% hated it, and 20% neutral.

Minor Leaguer and I and some friends went to Montreal for the Jays spring training game in Olympic Stadium. The games were a love-in for Russell. He got a standing ovation every time he came up to the plate, and his father played the national anthem on saxophone before the first game.

In 2015, Martin hit .240/.329/.458 with 23 home runs (a career-high) in 129 games. good for a 3.2 bWAR (FanGraphs liked him more, 4.5 WAR). He made the All-Star Game for the fourth (and last) time in his career. Beyond the offense, he threw out 44% of base stealers, and he looked athletic behind the plate. His framing stats weren’t at the level they had been in the past, but then he was catching a few pitchers who had little idea where the ball was going when they threw it. It is easier to frame a pitch when it hits the target.

In the trivia portion of our write up, Martin caught Jeff Francis on April 19th to become the first All-Canadian battery in team history.

And he did this:

Whether it was leadership or just good play, the Blue Jays made it to the playoffs for the first time in a depressingly long time. Russell didn’t have a great time with the bat. He went 3 for 15 in our 5 game win over the Rangers and 1 for 11 (with 3 walks) in our 6 game loss to the Royals.

And he started the most unusual play most of us have ever seen, in the top for the 7th inning in game 5 of the ALDS. I’m sure you all know the story. Throwing the ball back to pitcher Aaron Sanchez, the ball hit Shin-Soo Choo’s bat and bounced away. Rougned Odor came into score from third. The plate umpire called a dead ball, but legally that wasn’t the right call. Fans went nuts. It looked like we would lose the series on a bizarre play (how’s that for the Reader’s Digest version of the story). Fortunately, the Rangers forgot how to play baseball in the bottom of the inning, and the Jays won the game and the series.

Martin didn’t have as good a 2016 with the bat. He hit .231/.335/.398 with 20 home runs in 137 games for a 2.0 bWAR. His strikeout rate took a big jump, 27.7% from 20.9 in 2015. He started the season with a sore neck, and he ended it in a bit of a slump, likely brought on by the general aches and pains a catcher has to live with.

And he seemed to have forgotten how to throw out base stealers, going from 44% in 2015 and 15% in 2016, but beyond that, he seemed to continue to be a good defensive catcher.

Again, he didn’t have a great time with the bat in the playoffs. Counting the Wild Card game, he had a total of 3 hits (with 1 home run) in 33 playoffs at-bats.

In 2017, he played fewer games, just 91, and hit .221/.343/.388 with 13 home runs. His pitch-framing numbers took another step down, but he did throw out a few more base stealers, 20%. He also played 77 innings at third base.

2018 saw Martin take a step back from being a full-time catcher. He only caught 71 games (Luke Maile caught 66, Danny Jansen 29, and Reese McGuire 11). But he played third in 21 games, short in 3, and had a game left field.

But he could still make a spectacular play in the field.

He hit .194/.338/.325 with 10 home runs. Baseball Reference had him at a 1.3 (a career-low). At 35, he was looking like an old catcher. Back when he signed, I said that a smart GM would backload all big free agent signings, knowing that odds are that he will no longer be in the role by the end of the contract (I can occasionally be right).

The Jays had Martin manage the last game of the season. He’s 0-1 career as a manager.

After the season, with one year and $20 left on his contract, the Blue Jays sent Martin to the Dodgers (along with most of the $20 million, with Ronny Brito and Andrew Sopko (don’t bother to look them up) coming back.

Russell hit .220/.337/.330 in 83 games for the 2019 Dodgers, making it to the playoffs again.

In his four seasons with the Jays, Martin hit .225/336/.399 with 66 home runs in 447 games.

Career he has a .248/.349/.397 line with 191 home runs in 1693 games (presuming his career is over). He also played 58 playoff games, hitting .191/.306/.327 with 6 home runs. He never made it to the World Season.

There are depressingly few catchers on our list (I’m hoping there is at least one catcher currently in the system who will make the list in the future). And not many Canadians on the list.

Alex signed Martin to get the Jays into the playoffs, and we got to the playoffs. So it was a success. And I loved getting to watch him play.

He and a lot of the players on those playoff teams aged quickly. I’m hoping there isn’t some parallel there with the George Springer signing. I mean, I’d be happy with making the playoffs. I’m just hoping that the last 2-3 years of his contract aren’t a write-off.

Martin and his girlfriend have a daughter.

Russell Martin’s place among Blue Jays hitters:

OBP: 21st, 336

Slugging: 39th, .399

Games: 50th, 447

Runs: 38th, 224

Home runs: 33rd, 66

RBI: 43rd, 211

Walks: 30th, 223

Hit by Pitch: 13th, 32