What is really behind Russell Martin’s offensive struggles?

MLB insider Jeff Passan tells Tim and Sid when the Jays call up top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr., it’ll be because he can hit the ball very hard and very far, and their playoff chances are much higher with him in the lineup.

When a batter hits below .200, seamheads refer to that dubious feat as hitting below the Mendoza line, a reference to Mario Mendoza, a banjo-hitting infielder from the ’70s and early ’80s who still managed to hit .215 in his lacklustre career.

In 2018, Russell Martin is making Mario Mendoza look like Ty Cobb.

Only two American League players with 100 or more plate appearances have undercut Martin’s ghastly .167 batting average this season; one of those is Kendrys Morales, whose league-worst .154 mark makes you wonder if the term designated hitter is some cruel joke.

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Martin’s best offensive skill has always been his ability to work deep counts and draw walks, not hit for a high average — he’s a lifetime .251 hitter and has hit above .250 just once in the past nine seasons. Still, when Martin’s hitting safely this season less frequently than Madison Bumgarner has in his career (and far less frequently than Mendoza did in his) you know something’s not right.

So what’s causing Martin’s struggles so far this season? A combination of bad luck, and some worrisome signs of possibly eroding skills.

Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) tracks exactly what you think it does — the frequency with which a ball hit in play that’s not a home run falls safely for a hit. The league average this season for BABIP sits at .295. Martin’s career mark is .284. This year, he’s at .175, the second-lowest figure among all AL hitters, ahead of only Morales. (Aledmys Diaz ranks third-to-last. If you’re a Jays fan looking at this list…ugh.)

When it comes to balls in play landing for hits (or ending up in a fielder’s glove), there’s a strong element of luck and random variance in play. Bloopers sometimes fall for singles. Scalded line drives sometimes land in fielders’ gloves.

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That said, we’re also better equipped than ever to measure the quality of contact generated in every at-bat. Dig a little deeper into Martin’s batted-ball data and other gauges, and some red flags emerge.

First, consider Martin’s line-drive rate. Line drives land for hits far more often than groundballs or flyballs, so batters naturally want to hit a lot of them. Martin’s 10.6% line-drive rate ranks dead last among all AL hitters this year. Meanwhile, his groundball rate has spiked to a career-high 54.4%, seventh-highest in the junior circuit. Also alarming: He’s making soft contact on 29.4% of batted balls put in play, by far the highest mark of his career…and yes, also the highest number for any AL hitter this year.

Now here’s where things get weird. The advanced batted-ball metrics tracked by MLB’s Statcast system, considered some of the best publicly available evaluation tools anywhere, say Martin’s doing just fine. Better than he has in a few years, in fact.

Balls are flying off Martin’s bat with an average exit velocity of 91.4 mph, his highest mark since Statcast’s introduction in 2015. Despite his jump in soft contact, Martin’s also making more hard contact than at any point since ‘15, with a 48.4% hard-hit rate. If it sounds like a contradiction for a hitter to be making both more frequent soft contact and hard contact, note that Martin’s making what’s labeled medium contact far less often this year.

Statcast also measures how often hitters make contact on the sweet spot of the bat, also known as the barrel. Here, Martin’s results look similar to what we saw in 2015 and 2016, and better than last year. The same goes for Martin’s launch angle, which tracks the trajectory of batted balls; it’s down a tick from 2015 and 2016 levels, but still better than what we saw in 2017.

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Meanwhile, Martin’s trademark patience at the plate remains fully intact. If anything, it might actually be improving. Witness Martin’s career-low swing rate on pitches out of the strike zone (only Joe Mauer has been better at laying off those pitches) and his swinging strike rate dipping to its lowest level in three years.

Add it all up, and Martin does indeed appear to be suffering through some bad luck. Include all those batted-ball indicators and we’d expect a batting average of .207 — still pretty ugly, but far better than the .167 atrocity we’ve seen to date. The same goes for Martin’s overall production, measured by an all-in-one hitting stat called Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA). His expected wOBA number this year is .318, right around league average. In reality that number sits at .290, with a bunch of hard contact getting spoiled by bad luck.

In short, Martin might not be falling off a cliff at age 35, despite some horrifying surface stats. Rather, he’s a low-batting average, high-walks hitter with better-than-average power for a catcher, which translates to about league-average offensive levels if and when he starts winning Lady Luck’s favour a little more often.

A league-average bat, combined with Martin’s typically strong defence and pitching staff management skills, makes him an asset for the Blue Jays. Maybe not a $20-million-a-year asset, but still a valuable lineup regular who can help the Jays in their quest to get back to the post-season in 2018.

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