Martin’s mentorship becomes valuable to Blue Jays during rebuild

Revue de presse

Shi Davidi, Sportsnet, le 27 juillet 2018

Russell Martin

Russell Martin came to the Toronto Blue Jays with big goals when he signed an $82-million, five-year deal as a free agent in November 2014 and during his first two seasons up north many of them came to fruition.

Though back-to-back trips to the post-season ended in the American League Championship Series, a country-wide passion for baseball was reborn and Rogers Centre rocked in ways it hadn’t since the World Series years of 1992 and ’93.

Good times were back.

Now, it’s over for that core, its competitive window definitively shut in the wake of a dismal 2017 and similarly difficult ’18, many of the players from that group slowly being transitioned off the roster. Uncertainty and, in all likelihood, pain lie ahead, all of which is new for the 35-year-old, who before last year’s 76-86 finish had only once before experienced a sub-.500 season – the 2010 Los Angeles Dodgers went 80-82 – and only twice in 11 big-league years not reached the playoffs.

With one more year and $20 million remaining on his back-loaded deal – consider it the interest charge for his salaries of $7 million in 2015 and $15 million in 2016 – Martin is destined to live through the turnover, unless the Blue Jays decide to pay down his contract to facilitate a trade.

Barring that possibility, what is Martin hoping for between now and the end of his deal?

“Just to bring the winning culture back into Toronto,” he says during an interview just before the trades of Seunghwan Oh and J.A. Happ. “The first couple of years were amazing and it would be nice to help the younger crew get a taste of that and learn to embrace that. Once you get a taste, you never want to lose that.

“It’s been a frustrating couple of years as far as our record and how we’ve played. But if there’s one thing I’d like to do, it’s to get back to those winning ways and that winning baseball culture.”

How quickly that happens depends on how the Blue Jays intend to fill in around Vladimir Guerrero Jr. next year, as the third baseman widely considered baseball’s top minor-league prospect projects as a future cornerstone. Martin believes in the youngsters he sees around him, believing in general young players arrive at the big-leagues far more advanced than players did back in his day.

Done right, there shouldn’t be another 21-year playoff drought for the Blue Jays.

But “there are going to be some growing pains,” and as the roster trends more inexperienced, Martin “might find more spots where I might give a little bit of information here or there.”

“Nobody likes to lose, but it’s how you play,” Martin says of coping with the losses. “There are games where you get beat and the other team just played better. Then there are other games where maybe you sense a little bit of a lack of aggression or guys, not playing scared, but being a little bit tentative, and that’s frustrating to see, and that’s where my style and how I am; I’ve always been super aggressive. I feel that’s the way to play the game.”

“You have to be aggressive,” he continues. “And if you are going to make a mistake, I would rather it be an aggressive mistake than a passive one. So I encourage guys to go out there and play hard, play tough, try to make plays and that’s the only way you learn. If you go out and try to make an outstanding play and it backfires, so what? It’s aggressive and you start learning what your capabilities are, what you can and can’t do. There are ways to play the game and in that sense there are ways to lose. If you’re going to lose, lose by being aggressive and taking the game to the other team, not the other way around.”

By and large the Blue Jays have done that, and setting the right environment for the next wave of talent will be crucial, as is surrounding them with the right type of veteran players to help establish the culture the front office hopes to build.

Martin stresses it’s important for young players to learn not only how to put up numbers, but also find ways to help the team win in ways that don’t show up on stat sheets.

In a trying offensive year – he headed into Friday’s series opener at Chicago batting .174/.317/.288 in 265 plate appearances over 66 games – he’s still earned a Defensive Runs Saved rating of plus-7 in 527.2 innings behind the plate, while also handling the pitching staff and working with Luke Maile.

Still, while he feels strong physically thanks to the club’s two on, one off workload plan, on a personal level he “wishes I’d get more hits; wish the average was a little higher.”

“One of the keys is when you’re feeling good to go out there and maximize that,” he says. “It’s frustrating because I have felt good and I wish I had an excuse where I was banged up so I’ve been grinding. It’s not the case. The two and one has been good for my body and the rest is on me.”

Martin still works a good at-bat with an OBP .143 points higher than his batting average, but his line drive percentage is down to 14.2 per cent this year from 23.7 per cent last year, with increases of roughly seven per cent to his fly ball rate (35.5%) and nearly six per cent to his infield fly rate.

The primary concern for him is “the lack of consistency.”

“I’ve got to start driving the ball a little bit better,” he says. “I haven’t really changed my swing or anything like that. I’ve got a pretty simple swing, a pretty simple approach. I’ve just got to get better at not missing pitches that are good to hit.

“I’ve always had a decent on-base percentage, no matter what the batting average is, so that definitely helps. But when you’re hitting, your goal is to make hard contact and hopefully get hits. It’s not like I’m hitting first or second, where my on-base percentage plays. I’m hitting in a place in the lineup where you want to produce some runs and I haven’t done a good job of that at all this year, especially with guys in scoring position. If there’s one area I’d like to be better, it’s driving runs in.”

Martin is far from the only one and in these difficult times. He’s among the many Blue Jays being asked to go above and beyond at this point. He hoped for another playoff run or two in Toronto before his time here is up, but his next contributions to the club may be as the veteran bridge from one core group to another.

Revue de presse publiée par Jacques Lanciault.

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