By: Tyler King
Canadian Baseball Network
Toronto Blue Jays’ catcher Russell Martin may have a secret weapon in the clubhouse this season. If I’m right, it would be great news for Jays fans, and awful news for fans of everybody else.
Martin, who hit 23 home runs and had 77 RBI in 2015, is hardly in need of any additional offensive edge. That being said, I was always taught to never turn down a free lunch.
Ok, so the lunch may not be free per se - it’s more like an $800,000 lunch. In Jose Bautista dollars that’s essentially free right?
$800,000 happens to be the amount of money the Blue Jays have invested in Josh Thole this year, which come to think of it seems like a preposterous amount of money to pay a guy who’s only claim-to-fame is being R.A. Dickey’s personal catcher.
But let me put it this way ... would you pay $800,000 to bump Russ Martin’s batting average by 20-points? ‘Cause that may be exactly what you’re doing just by keeping Thole around.
Alright, let me come right out and say it: Josh Thole is Russell Martin’s secret weapon.
Now let me explain why.
I had an interesting conversation with a young catcher a few days ago. He had just come back from Florida where his team spent 10 days playing US Colleges and high-schools.
He proceeded to tell me that while he was down there he got his first chance to catch a true knuckleballer. Then he told me how miserable that experience was and how it ruined his entire trip. He couldn’t hit anything after that. It was like catching the knuckleball had caused him to forget how to swing.
My initial reaction upon hearing this was to roll my eyes. I thought it was much more likely that the young catcher’s complaints could be equated to a bit poor sportsmanship and maybe some bad luck. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized he may have had a point.
Evidently major league teams know just how badly a knuckleball can mess with hitters. I remember a particular series last year down the stretch, where the Jays played the New York Yankees. Dickey got the ball in the opener and Joe Girardi elected to bench many of his starters - essentially sacrificing that game in order to preserve the timing of his hitters for the remainder of the series.
But what about the guy behind the plate, the one doing the catching. Everybody talks about how hard it is to catch a knuckleball. Now Imagine how hard it must be to step into the batter’s box and hit ... after catching one.
If you’re having trouble seeing a possible correlation, just imagine staring at this 100 times:
Now don’t tell me that you could hit a 92 MPH cutter after watching that for three hours. (I just watched the video 15 times straight and I think I’m going to be sick. Nasty, nasty stuff.)
If you remember back to the start of Spring Training in 2015, the big story was “can Russell Martin catch the knuckleball.” Nobody - myself included - wanted to see a four-time all-star sitting on the bench every fifth day just because a guy named Dickey was on the mound.
Then about a quarter of the way through the season many fans began to change their tune. They were begging for mercy on Martin’s behalf.
There were times when Martin was catching Dickey where the Jays catcher was obviously frustrated, not himself - and who could blame him? I wouldn’t want to squat behind home plate while a guy hurls a 78 MPH magic baseball that dances god knows where on its way to plunking me squarely on the thumb.
But looking beyond all those passed balls and the many curse words that I’m sure he uttered beneath his catcher’s mask, there were also times where Martin seemed a bit lost at the plate. Even though he always had the great power numbers, Martin did only hit .240 - which is .17 points lower than his career average.
When I spoke about that with the young catcher, he suggested that having to catch Dickey so often last season could have had something to do with the dip at the plate. I told him that I’d investigate and report back.
The results? He was right. (It’s time to sacrifice Thole).
To go about examining the effect of the knuckleball on Martin’s swing, I looked at every game that he started where he was catching Dickey, tallying up his total hits. Then I contrasted those numbers with each of the three games AFTER that start to see if Martin’s collective batting average increased.
In total, Martin caught 20 of RA Dickey’s 33 starts last season. If you add up all those games you’ll find that Martin went 13-69 at the plate, making his average a dismal .188 on days where he had to catch that god-forsaken knuckleball.
If you look at the games directly following those Dickey starts, you’ll see Martin's numbers start to improve. A day after having to catch Dickey, he went a collective 17-73 at the plate, giving him a slightly better, although still less-than-mediocre average of .233.
If you wait yet another game, his average climbs to .246 (16-65).
Finally, if you look at every third game that Martin started after catching the knuckleball, his average jumps to a very respectable .268 (11-41).
(I don’t want the only two hours of math I’ll do all year to go to waste, so if that seemed a bit confusing here’s a simple table ... although looking at the table now it doesn’t seem as impressive) :
Martin's Batting Average
When Martin catches Dickey .188
One game after .233
Two games after .246
Three games after .268
It’s true - Martin’s average jumped 80-points three days AFTER catching RA Dickey.
If that trend holds true, Martin’s production at the plate could improve drastically from 2015 just by letting Thole - who has already made the team out of Spring Training - catch the knuckleball. That’s the whole reason the guy is here anyway, might as well let him to it.
But that’s Gibby’s problem now - and it’s not an easy dilemma to solve. You want, no - you NEED Russell Martin’s bat in the lineup as much as possible. Even if the knuckleball’s got him all screwed up, he still has the ability to put one out at anytime.
The question becomes what’s best for the team? Are the Jays better off by sacrificing a guy like Josh Thole every fifth day in order to get the most out of their other (star) catcher? After all, a catcher typically needs more off-days than a regular position player anyway. Salvador Perez, the American League catcher who played the most games last season (142), still took 20 games off.
For Jays fans, I don’t deny it’s a tough decision. They love Russ Martin. I love Russ Martin.
All I’ve done is show you the numbers.
But, in my opinion, the numbers have spoken.