TORONTO – Russell Martin’s first-hand experience catching a knuckleball amounts to 13.2 innings spread over seven Charlie Haeger appearances during the 2009 and ’10 seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Despite the small sample-size, the new Toronto Blue Jays catcher fully expects to regularly handle R.A. Dickey’s starts during the 2015 season.
Whether or not he’s able to do so successfully will determine just how feasible GM Alex Anthopoulos’s plans are of retaining incumbent starter Dioner Navarro to serve as Martin’s backup, bumping Josh Thole to triple-A Buffalo.
“I’m preparing that it’s going to be my job,” Martin said Saturday prior to Baseball Canada’s annual awards banquet. “Really, I don’t know why I shouldn’t. If I can catch the guy and be in the lineup, put me in the lineup, you know?”
No catcher is as experienced with Dickey as Thole, who has caught 121 of the knuckleballer’s 162 big-league games since 2010. There’s a comfort and a bond there.
But with the Blue Jays unwilling to dump Navarro simply to free up his $5 million salary, and the switch-hitter bringing far more to the table offensively than Thole, having Martin catch Dickey with Navarro as his backup is the optimal roster configuration.
Still, save for one forgettable outing with J.P. Arencibia and 12 games with Henry Blanco, no one but Thole has caught Dickey in Toronto.
Martin is unconcerned.
“Really, I’m just going to work at it,” he said. “If I’m not good at it when I first try, I’ll work until I am good at it, that’s the bottom line. You can’t practice catching another knuckleballer, every knuckleballer probably has different velocity, it dances differently, so I’m just going to have to put in the time with R.A. There’s really nothing he can vocally communicate with me, I have to go through the actual physical action of catching the ball, got to do a lot of repetitions. I’m going to put in the work and do the best I can.”
Working in Martin’s favour is his athleticism, past as an infielder and strong receiving lower in the strike zone, all factors the Blue Jays feel will help him be effective.
There are also those 13.2 innings with Haeger to draw upon, an experience he described as “different – it’s a challenge.”
“I don’t think you’re ever really comfortable, you do the best you can to catch the ball,” he added. “The receiving component of it kind of goes out the window, your thoughts are, ‘Just catch the ball.’ Really, there’s no framing the pitch, or making it look good, it’s a cross-mix of a first baseman’s glove and a catcher’s glove, it’s a bit bigger, and you just try to centre the ball in a good part of the glove.”
Dickey, of course, is far more challenging than Haeger given that his knuckleball at 76 m.p.h. averaged an extra five m.p.h.
“(Haeger) He threw a hard knuckleball, not quite as hard as R.A.’s, and I’m sure it didn’t dance as much or else he’d have a Cy Young, too,” Martin quipped. “There’s a reason why R.A. has won a Cy Young and it’s probably because he has a nasty knuckleball. I’m going to have to go to work on that.”
In need of learning an entirely new pitching staff, Martin said he plans to balance his work with each of his teammates on the field unless he physically believes he needs to spend more time with someone specifically.
Watching video of all his pitchers, Dickey included, is something he expects to do soon.
“There’s plenty of time in spring training to get that stuff done,” said Martin. “I had the same scenario when I was with the Yankees and came from the Dodgers (in 2011), it was really my first time meeting a whole new staff. I definitely was nervous about it then, just because you don’t know what to expect and it’s a lot of work to do, but I enjoyed it. Knowing I’ve done it in the past, that experience makes me realize it’s not the end of the world, it’s not too hard to do, and … I definitely know spring training is long enough. I can’t stress that enough.”
MARTIN HONOURED: Baseball Canada made Russ Martin its seventh inductee to its Wall of Fame, a group that includes Larry Walker, Justin Morneau and Joey Votto.“It’s an honour,” said Martin. “There are only seven guys on that wall of excellence and pretty good company. It’s definitely gratifying, any time you get an award that you’ve put your heart and soul into, you definitely appreciate it. … I’m proud and excited to be part of the Baseball Canada family.” Martin said his time with the junior national team “was the trampoline that put me on the map as far as getting noticed, getting me the opportunity to go play in college, I got recruited (at Chipola) out of the world junior championship in Edmonton back in 2000. It’s been amazing.”