Has Russell Martin Changed His Approach?
Title image courtesy Kim Klement/USA Today Sports
Going back to his days with the Dodgers, Russell Martin has been known as a patient hitter. An on-base machine good for a walk rate somewhere in the vicinity of 11%, at the sacrifice of prodigious power. However, in 2015, he has changed his m/o, posting a career-best .204 ISO and career-worst 9.4% walk rate.
When we dig into his batted ball profile, we notice one glaring change: his infield fly ball rate (as a percentage of all fly balls) is more than double 2014’s rate. With a mark of 22.1% (relative to a career mark of 12.5%), Martin is popping the ball up on the infield at an alarming. Infield fly balls are known to be a very unproductive result of a plate appearance: the only way a batter can reach base is if an infielder misplays the ball, and they can sometimes be automatic outs based on the infield fly rule. Hitters like fellow Canadian folk hero Joey Votto are very adept at avoiding infield pop ups, with Votto hitting a grand total of 14 in 1061 career games.
Infield popups are not uncommon with the Blue Jays, however. Notable Blue Jays such as Vernon Wells (16.1%), Jose Bautista (14.3%), Edwin Encarnacion (13.7%), and J.P. Arencibia (13.2%), among others, all popped the ball up on the infield very frequently. As you can see, some hitters made it work, and others… were J.P. Arencibia. Current Jays shortstop stud Troy Tulowitzki has popped up at a rate of 13.9% this year, while Kevin Pillar has popped up at an alarming rate of 17.4%. With a league average of 9.4%, the Blue Jays pop up on the infield much more frequently than their opponents, leading the entire league in IFFB% by a whopping 2.5 percentage points. With the departure of Jose Reyes’ 24.4% mark, Martin leads the way at 22.1%.
These numbers contain a fair amount of talent-interactive signal. Using the Hardball Times’ hitting correlation tool, with a minimum of 450 PA, we get an r^2 value of .3516 from year 0 to year 1. Derek Carty of Baseball Prospectus found that infield flies as a percentage of all balls in play is a stat that takes just less than half a season to stabilize. Martin has hit 7.4% of batted balls for infield flies. This is a very high rate that has stabilized.
So what does this tell us about Russell Martin’s 2015 season? The contrast between his 2015 and 2014 seasons is large: in 2014, Martin popped up on the infield in just 9.3% of fly balls, and walked a whopping 12.8% of the time. This resulted in a 141 wRC+, but this was also aided by a .336 BABIP, the highest mark of his career by far. Compared to Martin’s 2015 season, in which he has popped up 22.1% of fly balls, walked just 9.4% of the time, and posted a 117 wRC+, his 2014 looks much better. Of note is Martin’s 2015 HR/FB of 17.4%; this mark is the second highest of his career, and 5.4% above his career mark.
The increased HR/FB is interesting. Perhaps Martin has embraced the transition from PNC to Rogers Center and begun swinging more aggressively? While the frequency of his swings is unchanged, Martin has hit the ball 91.34 MPH in the air in 2015. We cannot compare that to previous years as there is no batted ball velocity prior to 2015, but we can see that Martin ranks just outside the top 100, sandwiched between Buster Posey and Ryan Zimmerman. If Martin truly has decided to walk less in favor of swinging harder, his new HR/FB could be sustainable, and Russell Martin could be transitioning from OBP/defense machine to slugging/defense machine.