Blue Jays’ Martin adds muscle: ‘I’m just trying to be nicer to myself’

Ben Nicholson-Smith explains why Joe Biagini could make the most sense for the fifth spot in the Blue Jays rotation.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – A year ago this time, when Russell Martin arrived to spring training for his third season with the Toronto Blue Jays, he felt great.

“I was in good shape,” he recalls. “I was lean, I felt good.”

He had worked out over the winter, done yoga, arrived with body and mind readied for another season. Before long, though, his left shoulder started acting up.

“You throw the catcher’s glove on repetition after repetition after repetition and it started fatiguing,” Martin said. “It was frustrating.

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Over the winter, Martin decided to try another approach. Arriving to spring training lean hadn’t worked. He decided to get stronger: squats, upper-body work, anything to arrive at spring training a little more solid.

“Not, like, trying to get super-swole,” Martin clarified. “But just get some strength just so I can have that confidence that I’m not going to break down.”

That’s a difficult assignment for any catcher considering the wear and tear they’re subjected to for seven-plus months per year. Then there’s the fact that Martin turned 35 Thursday. In recent years, teams have relied less on older catchers, allocating more playing time to younger backstops.

Martin hopes to buck that trend. He strengthened his body with that goal in mind. And considering that the Blue Jays have little certainty behind Martin, they need his plan to work.

Via Baseball Reference

“You back off only if you have the luxury of backing off,” Martin said. “If we have a backup that’s healthy and capable, which I believe we are going to have, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

That backup right now is Luke Maile, the 27-year-old who impressed defensively last year but posted just a .407 OPS in 136 plate appearances. GM Ross Atkins said last month that the Blue Jays will “continue to look to complement” the position, but they’ve yet to add there this winter.

Prospects Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire are expected to start the season in triple-A, and could make an impact at some point in 2018 if needed. Jansen ranked 71st on FanGraphs’ ranking of all prospects after posting a .400 on-base percentage with more walks than strikeouts across three levels in 2017. Even then, he just reached triple-A last August.

In other words, the Blue Jays will continue to rely heavily on Martin in 2018. Last year he played in a career-low 91 games because of nerve irritation in his left shoulder and a strained oblique. When healthy, he posted a respectable .343 on-base percentage, but his backups combined for a woeful .484 OPS while playing nearly as often as he did.

In 2018, Martin hopes to come to the plate more than 365 times.

“Having that foundation of strength can help you compared to feeling lean and quick and fast,” Martin said. “I just felt like you wear down easier that way. If you’re a little stronger, you can set the tone and then you can just ease your way through the season and maintain instead of having to fight to keep that mass on.”

Martin says his goal is to catch every single day, but acknowledges that’s not realistic. In fact, his best season in recent years saw him play just 111 games for the 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates. He posted an .832 OPS while playing roughly two out of every three games.

“My body felt good all the way through the season,” he said.

Russell Martin Toronto Blue Jays

Martin turned 35 Thursday. (Frank Gunn/CP)

At some point soon, Martin will meet with manager John Gibbons to map out a plan for spring training playing time. Eventually Blue Jays decision-makers will determine an approach for the season, too. There’s a case to be made for reducing Martin’s playing time strategically, but if his first three years in Toronto are any indication, the temptation to play him early and often may well arise again.

Martin says he’ll consult with fellow catchers who have succeeded at age 35 and beyond. Many of them will surely share his view that gamers should be willing to sacrifice their bodies to an extent. It’s worked this long for Martin, as evidenced by the fact that Yadier Molina and Brian McCann are the only catchers to appear in more games since his 2006 debut.

But the game has evolved since Martin debuted, and his body has changed, too. There’s zero chance he catches 155 games this year, the way he did a decade ago with the Dodgers. At 35, he’s taking the long view, hopeful that adding muscle ahead of spring training will allow for more games behind the plate this summer.

“It’s tough, man,” Martin said. “I’m still learning. I’m still learning my body. It changes through the years. I think I’m just trying to be nicer to myself. Sometimes more is not better.”

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