Russell Martin was the Pirates’ big free agent addition over the winter, signing the largest major league free agent contract in club history. While his Pirates career his started slowly offensively, he has helped the club defensively; FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan looked at the impact that Martin has had with his pitch framing skills and noted a big change for the Bucs. However, as good as Martin could be defensively he will soon need to offer something at the plate in order for him to have value to the club.
Martin’s hitting .103/.205/.154 over 44 plate appearances with just two extra base hits (both doubles). His .177 wOBA it the third lowest on the team, which produces a park and league adjusted wRC+ of just 7, only hitting better than Clint Barmes (.150 wOBA, -12 wRC+) and Pedro Alvarez (.140 wOBA, -18 wRC+). Needless to say, Martin’s had a poor start offensively; although it is too early to make Rod Barajas comparisons.
A closer look does provide a lot of hope for a turnaround. He’s struck out just five times (11.4 K%), so the slow start is largely luck related. Batting average on balls in play is the statistic that many cited when looking at Martin’s potential at surpassing his .211/.311/.403 batting line in 2012. While his .222 BABIP was low last season, it’s made to look lucky by his .118 BABIP so far this season. However, one of the reasons why Martin’s balls in play average is so low is that he’s shown very little power. When balls have left the infield, Martin has failed to show even warning track power:
Martin’s BABIP is going to regress towards the mean; although it was always likely to be on the unlucky side given that he’s not had an above average batting average on balls in play since 2008. What Martin has not done in an effort to hit his way out of the early season slump is expand the strike zone; in fact he’s shown remarkable plate discipline given his lack of success at the plate, only swinging at a couple of bad pitches:
Martin is rarely swinging the bat (36.6 Swing%) – only ten hitters among those that would qualify for the batting title at this point of the season have swung the bat on a less frequent basis. His selectivity at the plate is further seen in his whiff rate as Martin has swung and missed at 3.8% of pitches seen (only 14 hitters have whiffed less frequently). However, Martin is also seeing fewer pitches than usual; he’s currently seeing 3.59 pitches per plate appearance, which would be a career low (although this statistic is more than 100 plate appearances from beginning to stabilize). All of this is over the small sample size of the season so far, so it will be interesting to see if Martin's current approach alters at all once his statistics begin to trend upwards.
While Russell Martin’s Pittsburgh Pirates career has begun slowly at the plate, the positive is that he is at least helping defensively. Regardless of Michael McKenry’s performance in the backup role, Martin’s salary means that he should see the majority of time behind the plate in any case. Nonetheless, with the low BABIP and controlled strike zone then it’s likely that Martin will soon see a turnaround in fortunes; although he will really need to show more power in the process.