Mr. Indispensable
By Arden Zwelling in Toronto
Mr. Indispensable
By Arden Zwelling in Toronto
There are plenty of players the Blue Jays would rather not lose. There's only one they can't live without.

No one in the Blue Jays clubhouse wants to have this conversation. They shake their heads, nervously avoid eye contact and change the subject as quickly as possible. The Blue Jays aren’t short on good talkers and thoughtful minds, but if you want to see a bunch of confident men clam up, walk around that clubhouse and ask them what would happen if Russell Martin got hurt.

“What would happen?” echoes Kevin Pillar, nervously scanning for wood to knock. “I don’t even like to think about it.”

Martin has been behind the plate for more than 72 percent of the team’s innings this season, calling and catching each pitch, keeping an eye on baserunners, scrambling after pop flies, holding his ground as baseballs ricochet off bats directly into his torso, counselling pitchers in tough spots, giving defensive alignment instructions to infielders, dialoguing with umpires about the strike zone, assessing the microscopic tendencies of opposition hitters, executing plays at the plate—oh, and every few innings, excelling at the not-difficult-at-all task that is hitting major league pitching.

“It’s definitely the hardest position to play in the game,” says Dioner Navarro, a fellow catcher. “Look, no disrespect to anybody, but if you’re playing third base, you just have to think about third base. If you’re playing shortstop, you just have to think about shortstop. But as catchers, we have to think about third base, shortstop, second base, first base, the pitcher, everything. Really, no one on the field has to think and do as much as us. And there’s not many guys who do it all as well as Russ.”

Everyone agrees there’s no replacing Russell Martin. Here’s why.

Much has been made of the Blue Jays’ starting staff this year, which has led the American League in ERA for practically the entire season. Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ have reinvented themselves as dominant forces in their 30s; Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez have stepped into the majors and had immediate success in their early 20s. And Martin’s been behind the plate, calling practically every pitch, for all of it.

“To have the best starting ERA with the starting pitchers we have—no knock on those guys, but just look at the names,” Pillar says. “A lot of it comes from the confidence they have in the catcher throwing down the right signs and being able to block pitches in the dirt.”

Even on days when he’s not playing, Martin’s been known to relay information to pitchers between innings about what he’s seeing from the bench. “That’s big,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons says. “He’s got such a good feel for if a hitter’s opening up a little bit at the plate or if he’s diving—little subtle things like that. That information can be key.”

Blue Jays pitchers have a 3.75 ERA when Martin is in the game this year, tops in the American League. Kansas City’s Salvador Perez is the next highest, with an average nearly half a run higher.

“Sometimes he comes to the mound and he says, ‘Hey, I want to throw this pitch in this situation,’” Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman says. “And I’ll be like, ‘Nah, I’m kind of feeling this other pitch.’ And he’ll just look at me and be like, ‘Dude, this is the better pitch. This has had better break on it the entire game. This guy at the plate can’t hit this pitch.’ And I kind of have to remind myself, ‘Oh yeah, he’s been through it all. I should probably side with Russ here.’ His experience and knowledge of the game are off the charts.”

All catchers prepare more than fans will ever know. Most of them start early in the afternoon, as they pore over scouting reports, spray charts and video of the hitters they’ll be facing that night. But Martin often begins planning with his pitchers days in advance of their starts. If a pitcher throws a bullpen between outings, Martin will ask what was working and what wasn’t. In the weight room or over dinner, Martin will reflect with pitchers about what was effective their last time out and what wasn’t. He’ll watch video with pitchers and compare notes, looking for tendencies in future opponents and sequences that kept hitters off balance.

“We don’t just go out there and go through the motions and pick whatever pitch we want to go with in the moment,” Stroman says. “We’ve been talking about these hitters for a while.”

“This year I followed Russ and got to make the All-Star Team. That was pretty awesome.”

Many Blue Jays starters can tell you about times they’ve wanted to throw a pitch Martin disagrees with, and how the catcher presented his case quickly and clearly but ultimately sided with them because its their numbers that will be affected by the success or failure of the choice. That’s not always the case with other catchers.

“Sometimes, there can be a lot of ego involved with pitch selection—for both pitchers and catchers. We all think we know what’s right. But Russ is good at putting that aside and if a pitcher really wants to do something, he’ll let them do it,” fellow Blue Jays catcher Josh Thole says. “If the guy is really set on a certain pitch, he’ll show them he has the confidence in them to execute it. He’ll put his own feelings aside. That, to me, is what makes him who he is. He doesn’t get caught up in the moment.”

Of course, just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to disagree with Martin. “I feel like most of the time—” begins Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada before pausing to rephrase. “Actually, pretty much all the time, he’s 100-percent correct on the pitch. You know he’s done his homework. He’s so mentally prepared to go out there and battle for you and give you his best. It’s really in your best interests to try to follow him as best as possible.”

Estrada continues: “This year I followed Russ and got to make the All-Star Team. That was pretty awesome.”

“I think we take Russell for granted around here,” says Gibbons. “Just the way he moves around behind the plate, blocks balls, some of the acrobatic plays he makes. You know, he’ll go flying into dugouts after foul balls. There’s no fear at all. I think when you see one of your own players do that so often, you end up kind of expecting it. But when you see somebody on the other side who doesn’t make those plays, it reminds you that the guy you’ve got is pretty special.”

If you watch enough Blue Jays baseball you’re likely going to see Martin throw himself into a dugout or two. There was the time in Houston this August when he lunged over a waist-high railing and found himself fully upside down, a pair of Astros coaches the only thing stopping him from face planting on the dugout floor. There was another at Rogers Centre later that month, when he had to log roll along the visitors’ railing to avoid cracking his skull off the wooden bench at the top of the dugout steps. And you must remember the one against the Red Sox in September, when he tried to reach up and over the dugout for a ball he thought was going to land on the roof, leaping from the top step to do so and crashing to the concrete floor.

“On that one, I probably went a little bit too far. I tend to do that,” Martin says. “I’m not trying to be reckless. But I’m not thinking about being cautious out there. I play an aggressive style of baseball. It’s the only way I know how.”

It takes a special kind of competitiveness—some would say a special kind of crazy—to take such a grave physical risk for the sake of a lone, unlikely out. “You cringe every time he does it, no doubt about it,” says Gibbons. “But he’s trying to make a play. And it’s tough to stop a guy from doing that.”

Not that Martin would listen if they tried. The 33-year-old says it’s just a part of his job—that outs don’t come easy in this game and if he can sacrifice his body to go get one, he’s going to do it every single time. Ninety-nine percent of catchers watch those balls drop and no one criticizes them for doing so. Martin’s the one percent. “I hope nobody expects me to be jumping over no fences, I’ll tell you that,” Navarro says. “Russ, that’s just how he approaches the game. He’s a little crazy.”

Five-tool player
Outstanding athletic ability is only part of what makes Martin one of baseball's best catchers. Time and again, his teammates point to his intelligence and near-crazy drive—whether he's chasing the perfect game plan or a ball in the seats.

One of the most thankless jobs a catcher performs is blocking pitches. Think about it. You have to literally throw the most tender areas of your body—the stomach, the groin, the thighs—in front of a projectile travelling anywhere from 80 to 100 mph. You don’t get a stat for it. You don’t get a free base like when a batter gets hit by a pitch. And when one gets by you, you’re left to frantically scamper after it then walk solemnly back to your position while the home crowd grows restless or the road crowd cheers your mistake. And it isn’t even your mistake! If the pitcher had thrown the pitch properly, it would have ended up in your glove, not bulldozing into the layer of plastic you wear to protect your reproductive organs.

Gibbons says Martin is better at it than anyone he’s ever seen. “I’ve never seen a guy block so many balls in the dirt. He gets to them more than anybody I can remember,” Gibbons says. “And that takes its toll. He gets real beat up back there.”

Blue Jays starter Francisco Liriano agrees. “He’s maybe the one guy who I feel like I can throw any pitch in any count to,” Liriano says. “Guy on third? Doesn’t matter. I can throw any breaking ball and I know he’s going to go down there and block it. That’s a real difference-maker.”

Martin hasn’t been to the disabled list since he became a Blue Jay in 2015. In that span, he’s caught more than 70 percent of the team’s defensive baseball—1,936.1 innings, the second-most in the American League in that timeframe. The only instance of Martin missing time due to injury as a Blue Jay came this July, when he passed out in the shower after an aggressive sauna session and hurt his knee. He sat out just three games. “He’s a warrior,” Pillar says. “He played through a bad hamstring last year; he hurt his knee this year; I don’t even know what else is wrong with him. But he shows up every day and he straps it on.”

He takes more than his fair share of abuse in the batter’s box, as well. Martin’s been hit by a pitcher 17 times as a Blue Jay—that’s tied for the most of any other MLB catcher and among the top-25 most-hit players in baseball over that span. In fact, since he entered the league in 2006, Martin has been hit more than any other catcher. He’s worn a pitch 84 times, and never missed an at-bat after one.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Russ, it’s that he’s never coming out of the game,” Thole says. “When we first got him, every time he got banged up in a game, I was thinking, ‘I’m about to go in.’ I’d start stretching and stuff. But I don’t even bother getting loose anymore. Because I’m never going in. It never happens. I’d start warming up, and every single time they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s fine.’ Every single time.”

Sometimes, because he can, Martin plays second base. When John Gibbons runs out of infield options due to injury or an extra long game, he turns to his starting catcher to serve as the team’s emergency utility infielder. Martin’s played five innings at second since becoming a Blue Jay, and even logged one at third this season.

“Guy on third? Doesn’t matter. I can throw any breaking ball and I know he’s going to go down there and block it. That’s a real difference-maker.”

Everywhere Martin goes, he wins. If the Blue Jays reach the post-season this October, it would be the sixth consecutive year Martin has gone to the playoffs, and the ninth time in his 11 seasons. That would be a remarkable feat if Martin played for a dynasty that won its division every season. But Martin’s done it with four different teams, and they haven’t all been powerhouses. In 2013, Martin’s first year with Pittsburgh, the Pirates reached the post-season for the first time in 21 years. Then, unbelievably, he helped Toronto end its 22-year post-season drought in 2015. “At some point, it’s not a coincidence anymore,” Thole says. “You look at those Pittsburgh teams he took to the playoffs—they weren’t rolling out ace pitchers every day. But with him, their pitching staff was as good as it’s ever been.”

Blue Jays setup man Jason Grilli has pitched for nine teams during his 14 years in the majors. He’s thrown to 30 different catchers in that time, including 13-time Gold Glover Ivan Rodriguez, who’s caught him more than anyone else. And still, Grilli says Martin, a former teammate in Pittsburgh, is the best he’s ever worked with.

The 3.35 ERA Grilli boasts when throwing to Martin is the lowest mark he’s posted with any catcher with whom he’s worked more than 50 innings, and the 326 hitters the duo have faced are batting just .198. “I’ve worked with so many guys—I’m pretty familiar with the process of building that pitcher-catcher chemistry,” Grilli says. “Sometimes, it takes a few outings to figure that out; sometimes, it takes the whole season. But with Russ, it was right away. We were just on the same page immediately.”

A lot of pitchers say this about Martin—that he has a knack for quickly learning what they like to do, and how to think along with them. “I remember when I met him in spring training my first year with Pittsburgh,” says Liriano. “Right away, you could tell this guy was very smart. He really knew what he was doing behind the plate.” Liriano hasn’t been around as long as Grilli, but he’s still played for four teams and pitched to 19 catchers in his 11-year career. The 3.10 ERA he has pitching to Martin is the best of anyone who’s caught him more than twice.

Some players spend their entire day trying to get better at hitting—studying video, taking extra swings in the batting cage, working with coaches. Catchers don’t have time for that. They have to help devise their pitching staff’s attack plan; they don’t have much spare energy to worry about how they themselves might be attacked.

That’s why it’s so remarkable that, despite being one of the game’s best defensive catchers, Martin is one of its best offensive ones, too. He has the second-most home runs of any catcher in baseball since he became a Blue Jay. His .765 OPS and 5.4 wins above replacement in that span are second to only Buster Posey among qualified backstops. His 10.8 percent walk rate in that time isn’t just tops among catchers—it puts him in the top 30 of qualified hitters at any position.

No qualified catcher in the MLB has swung at less pitches outside the strike zone than Martin, who’s chased just 22.1 percent of the time he’s been thrown a ball. That puts him among the top 10 hitters in all of baseball this season when it comes to laying off pitches outside the zone.

You probably remember the deep offensive funk in which Martin started this season. It bottomed out on May 11, 30 games and 104 plate appearances into his season, with Martin hitting .160/.221/.170 with 39 strikeouts and six walks. He had just 15 hits at that point, 14 of them singles. In fact, he didn’t manage his second extra-base hit until May 25, a full 40 games and 139 plate appearances into his year.

Since then, Martin has been one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball. He swatted two home runs in that game on May 25, and from that point through the end of August, he hit 13 more to go along with his .286/.392/.538 batting line in 68 games. He pulled his numbers up so significantly that he tied Salvador Perez for the second-best OPS among American League catchers. “And despite his horrible offensive output early in the season, he stayed the same,” Pillar says. “He went out there and called a good game and worked on his hitting in the cage and didn’t let his personal failures at the plate affect him in calling a good game and getting us wins.”

“I think maybe the biggest thing Russ can do for a pitcher,” Grilli says, “is make balls turn into strikes.”

Martin earns plenty of praise for his ability to frame pitches, vacuuming balls that are just outside the strike zone back into it and presenting them clearly for umpires to call as strikes. According to StatCorner, Martin has gotten 7.6 percent of the pitches he’s caught outside the strike zone this season called as strikes. “For me, it’s the borderline ones. He’ll get those pitches,” Grilli says. “He’s been around for a while, so umpires know that he’s going to be really keyed in to what honestly is a good call and what’s a bad call. He understands the zone so well. And I think because of that, he’ll get you pitches that you might think you’re not going to get.”

That's more like it (and himself)
After a shaky start at the plate this season, Martin turned things around in late May. Between a two-homer outing on May 25 and the end of August, he posted a slash line of .286/.392/.538 in 68 games.

There was an in-game debate in the Blue Jays dugout this August about Martin’s style as a catcher. “He goes to block this ball, this 55-foot curveball in the dirt, and he, like, kicked his leg out as he’s going down,” Thole says. “And a few guys were saying they’d never teach you that in Little League. And I’m going, ‘Yeah, it’s unconventional. But he had to do that.’”

When you’re blocking a pitch in the dirt as a catcher, there are generally two ways to do it: either you lean backwards and try to widen your body, anticipating the ball skipping to the left or right and giving it plenty of horizontal surface area to run into, or you lean forward and keep your body as upright as possible, anticipating the ball bouncing with some height and hopefully hitting your chest. But on this particular pitch, one Marco Estrada bounced practically off the plate, Martin did both, maintaining the height of his torso while also sticking his right leg out like a goalie in case the ball skipped sideways.

Catchers are taught to get both their knees on the ground, primarily to block low breaking balls that might hit the dirt directly in front of them, but also so they can bounce up quickly and pursue the pitch if it caroms away. “I was telling guys, that pitch, if you got both knees down, it would’ve ricocheted and who knows where it ends up,” Thole says. “That’s one thing about Russ. Mechanically, you can pick him apart. He’s pretty unorthodox. But he kept that ball in front of him. He knew exactly what he needed to do to block it. That’s just instincts. You can’t teach that. He just knows where that pitch is going to go.”

Navarro’s favourite unconventional Martin block is when he doesn’t even drop to his knees. “He’s the best I’ve ever seen at blocking balls standing up. I don’t know how he does it,” the veteran catcher says. “And it’s just natural. I remember when he was a young pup, he used to do the same stuff. You couldn’t teach somebody to play like that. It’s so unique. You just know, every time you throw a breaking ball he’s going to keep the ball in front of him. It’s such a hard thing to do and he makes it look so easy.”

When Stroman struggled with his command earlier this season, allowing six or more earned runs in four of seven starts in May and June, Martin had an idea: What if Stroman merged his slider and cutter into one pitch, more distinct in movement and plane from his curveball and two-seamer. “We were having meetings all the time about me making adjustments, and he was in a lot of them, and he had a lot to say,” Stroman says. “He was a really big proponent of merging those pitches. And he really made it a focus of his game-calling.”

Narrowing Stroman’s repertoire, along with some mechanical adjustments that simplified his delivery, helped the young right-hander rediscover his feel and locate more consistently. After finishing June with a 5.33 ERA, Stroman pitched to a 3.43 ERA in his next 10 starts. “Russ just kept telling me, ‘Stro, you know you’re the guy. You know your stuff is dominant. You’re just going through a little bit of a spell. Just keep at it; keep working. We’re going to figure it out,’” Stroman says. “I never felt like his confidence dropped at all. And obviously I trusted him. Because he kept telling me from that really early point that I would get back to where I needed to be. And it worked out.”

Martin’s had a down year when it comes to throwing out baserunners, nailing just 11 of the 59 that have run on him in 2016. That’s odd, because in 2015 he led all AL catchers with a .444 caught stealing percentage, and no catcher in all of baseball has thrown out more runners than the 332 Martin’s caught since he came into the league in 2006.

The Blue Jays don’t exactly have a hard throwing staff—Stroman, Estrada and Happ all average below 93-mph on their fastballs—which means Martin has to be near-perfect to nab base stealers. Both Estrada and Happ came to Toronto with career caught stealing rates below 30 percent, while Maritn’s was an MLB-best 44 percent in 2015. “A lot of the time, it’s on the pitcher,” says Devon Travis, who catches plenty of Martin’s throws at second base. “With some of the guys who have run on us this year, there isn’t a catcher in the league who’s going to throw them out.”

Travis says Martin is the best-throwing catcher he’s ever played with, to the point where he sometimes struggles to receive the throws. He remembers one in Cleveland this August when, after retrieving a passed ball, Martin fired to second with such force and downward plane that the ball ricocheted off Travis’ glove and into right field. “It’s like this scud missile coming at me,” Travis says. “Sometimes, I don’t know if I’m catching it or blocking it. He’s incredible.”

But it’s not just his arm. Those who watch him closely say it’s also Martin’s mechanics that make him so difficult to run on. Often, Martin will come out of his crouch while the ball is still travelling from the pitcher when he senses a baserunner is on the move, nearly standing up before the ball is even in his glove. He does it while turning his body clockwise so he’s already in a strong throwing position by the time he receives the ball. That little move can cut out precious milliseconds in his catch and release. “I don’t even really understand how he does it,” Thole says. “He’ll catch balls and he’s already got his ass up and his feet planted to throw to second base. I can’t do it. My body won’t move like that. And you add the fact that he’s got a cannon of an arm on top of that, and that’s why he is what he is.”

“When he was a young pup, he used to do the same stuff. You couldn’t teach somebody to play like that. It’s so unique.”

Thole remembers a game last year when he allowed a pair of stolen bases. He felt he had a decent chance to get the runners but didn’t like the way he executed his throws. Thole came into the clubhouse after the game and mentioned to Martin in passing that he was going to get to the ballpark early the next day to work on his throwing from behind the plate. Martin told him he’d see him there. The next day, there was Martin, waiting for Thole on the field with a glove and a bag of balls. “He worked with me for like 20 minutes,” Thole says. “It helped a ton.”

On some teams, the starting and back-up catchers maintain a degree of separation between them. They know the days they’re going to catch; they know the pitchers they’re responsible for; and they each let the other do his work the way he sees fit. But Thole says he and Martin have operated more like a team within a team this season. Often, on days that knuckleballer R.A. Dickey is starting, which means Thole draws the catching assignment, Martin will sit with Thole for a few minutes and share what he observed from the opposing team’s hitters the night before or how he’s had success against them in the past.

“I’ve been on teams where the catchers kind of keep to themselves,” Thole says. “But ever since I’ve been here, he’s constantly communicating about what he’s seeing, what he thinks might work. He’ll give me his whole scouting report. And that goes a long, long way.”

“This will sound weird, but there’s this feeling when he’s behind the plate. I just feel this trust with him. It’s something that’s hard to describe to people,” Grilli says. “There are certain things that go into this game—the innuendos of playing together. I don’t know how to put it into words. But, believe me, he’s special.”

Photo Credits

Hannah Foslien/Getty; Kevin Sousa/Getty; Ed Zurga/Getty