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Happy Birthday Russell Martin

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

Russell Martin turns 39 today.

Martin was a 17th round draft choice by the Dodgers in 2002. He made it to the major in 2006. By 2014 he had played for three different MLB teams and had made the playoffs seven times. That will get a player (especially a catcher) a reputation as a winner.

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 spent 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 seasons (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 ten 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 games 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. 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.

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. Unfortunately, Russell didn’t have a great time with the bat. He went 3 for 15 in our five game win over the Rangers and 1 for 11 (with 3 walks) in our six 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 and the Jays won the game and the series.

Martin didn’t have as good a 2016 season 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 lives 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 appeared to continue to be an excellent 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.

He hit .194/.338/.325 with 10 home runs. Baseball-Reference had him at a 1.3 (a career-low). At 35, he looked like an old catcher. Back when he signed, I said that a smart GM would back-load 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.

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

Career, in 14 seasons, Russell played 1693 games, hitting .248/.349/.397 with 191 home runs and a 38.8 bWAR. And he played in 58 playoff games, hitting .191/.306/.327 with 6 home runs, but he never played a game in the World Series.

Happy Birthday, Russell. I hope it is a good one.

It is also Alex Gonzalez’s 45th birthday.

This is the Alex Gonzalez won played half of one season for the Jays as a shortstop, nicknamed Sea Bass for some reason, not the Alex Gonzalez who played eight seasons as a shortstop.

This Alex we signed as a free agent before the 2010 season. He hit .259/.396/.497 with a surprising 17 home runs in 85 games.

Then we sent him, Tim Collins and Tyler Pastornicky to the Braves for Yunel Escobar and Jo-Jo Reyes. The less said about Jo-Jo, the better. Escobar spent three seasons with the Jays, hitting .272/.335/.373 in 338 games before being part of an eleven-player trade with the Marlins.

Gonzalez played in the MLB for 16 seasons, 8 of them with the Marlins. He hit .245/.290/.395 with 157 home runs.

Happy Birthday, Alex.

Elvis Luciano turns 22 today.

You’ll remember that Elvis came to the Jays in the Rule 5 draft before the 2019 season. Being a Rule 5 pickup he had to spend the 2019 season with the Jays, getting into 25 games with a 5.35 ERA.

Since then he’s been in the Jays minor league system. In 2021 he made 12 starts for the Fisher Cats, with a 3.16 ERA. In 37 innings he gave out 18 walks with 34 strikeouts.

The prospect lustre has worn off of Elvis. He hasn’t shown an ability to command the strike zone, but he’s only 22. So he might work his way back to the majors yet.

Happy Birthday, Elvis.