Heard an interview with Russell Martin the other day on MLB Network Radio. He told the story of watching Joey Votto fight off pitch after pitch with two strikes, choking up on the bat and trying to get something he could hit. As a catcher, Martin said it was frustrating trying to figure out what pitch to call next. He told his Pirates teammates, "I'm going to do the Joey Votto this time."
When the Toronto Blue Jays signed Martin as a free agent in November, everyone knew they were getting an elite defensive catcher. But Martin is also coming off the best offensive season of his career, when he hit .290/.402/.430 -- making him one of just four players with 400 plate appearances to boast a .400 OBP. Not bad for a guy who had hit .221 with a .321 OBP over the previous three seasons.
Was it just a fluke? Not necessarily. Martin changed his two-strike approach -- and the stats show that it helped. His numbers the past five seasons with two strikes:
2010: .146/.209/.196, 2 HR
2011: .138/.236/.207, 3 HR
2012: .137/.250/.288, 9 HR
2013: .129/.241/.219, 5 HR
2014: .229/.337/.276, 0 HR
That certainly looks like a guy doing a Votto. Martin cut down on his swing, and while he lost home run power he improved his batting average and on-base percentage. He knocked in 25 runs with two strikes in 2014, more than any of the previous four seasons (which could be a function of the number of runners on base, of course). I would say that the approach worked; his wOBA, a catch-all offensive metric, was still higher last year than in 2012, when he hit nine home runs with two strikes.
It's worth noting that Martin had a .361 BABIP with two strikes (by the way, we're covering 246 plate appearances here). That is high -- and likely involved some luck -- but could also be a reflection of the different approach. His rate of foul balls was nearly 10 percent higher from 2013 and his swing-and-miss rate was 10 percent lower.
Martin also hit a little better with no strikes or one strike. His wOBA in those situations the past five years:
He hit .367 with less than two strikes, with all 11 of his home runs. His BABIP was .315, higher than any of the three previous seasons, but in line with what he did in 2009 and 2010 and a number that can be sustained. Digging deeper, he hit very well with no strikes -- .414/.512/.771, compared with .327/.408/.580 the previous five years. The one change I see is Martin swung less often with no strikes: 28 percent of pitches seen compared to 32 percent from 2010-2013. So maybe he simply did a better job of swinging at the pitches he could do more damage with.
We'll stop before we get in data overkill. Maybe it was just a good year for Martin and he'll regress in 2015. The projection systems see him with an OBP in the .337 range. But he did make some real changes with his approach in 2015, he's always been a solid contact hitter and I wouldn't be surprised if he maintains much of the offensive improvement from last season if he keeps doing the Votto.