Every player selected in the first few rounds of the amateur draft does not become a major leaguer, and every first-rounder does not become a star player, or even an above-average one. Conversely, every pick later in the draft is not always an organizational soldier or minor league roster filler; sometimes, late picks blossom into Kevin Youkilis (8th round), Julio Lugo (43rd), Mike Piazza (62nd), Mike Cameron (18th), Albert Pujols (13th), or the subject of today’s profile, Russell Martin.

Russell Nathan Martin was drafted out of Chipola College in the 17th round of the 2002 amateur draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers, or pick #511 overall. He signed just a few days later, and was assigned to the Gulf Coast League Dodgers, where he would get some decent playing time:

Year Team             AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%    K%
2002 GCL Dodgers(Rk) 126  .286/.412/.357   17% .071    6   14.8%  11.6%

You have to love a walk rate higher than a strikeout rate, although Martin’s power left something to be desired during this short stint. The patience was solid, although keep in mind, he was a college player in Rookie League. He was also a third baseman at this stage of his career. That quickly changed, and Martin was behind the plate the very next season thanks to the advice of area scout Clarence Johns. If Martin could perform defensively back there, this would make him much more valuable, given his offensive abilities in the Gulf Coast League.

Martin moved up to Ogden in the Pioneer League for his second year in the minor leagues, eventually earning a promotion to Single-A South Georgia in the Sally League:

Year Team              AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%    K%
2003 Ogden(Rk)        188  .271/.368/.436   37% .165   13   11.7%  11.7%
2003 South Georgia(A)  98  .286/.343/.439   29% .153    5    8.3%  10.1%

Martin swapped some patience for power, and his line was probably the better for it, adding another dimension to his game without taking away from his OBP-driven value too much. He slipped below 10 percent at South Georgia though, although he would prove able to rebound the very next year at Vero Beach in that regard.

Baseball America ranked Martin as the #18 prospect in the Dodgers organization, pretty good for a guy who just two years before was drafted after 510 other players:

Martin’s athleticism, soft hands, and well above-average arm strength originally prompted his conversion [to catcher]. Under the tutelage of minor league catching instructor Jon Debus, Martin has made tremendous strides receiving and blocking balls. He still lacks polish, as indicated by his 27 passed balls and 23 percent success rate throwing out basestealers in the Rookie-level Pioneer League. The Dodgers love the Canadian’s hockey mentality and believe it has helped with the transition. At the plate, Martin has a fluid line-drive stroke with raw power potential. He needs to stay behind the ball more consistently, though, as he tends to get overly pull-conscious. He has done an excellent job thus far of controlling the strike zone.

Baseball Prospectus 2004 did not have any information on Martin at this point, so credit to the guys at Baseball America for jumping on this ship as early as they did. His performance at Vero Beach the following year would make him tougher to miss, thanks to a nifty walk rate and power numbers that were deflated only by a low batting average:

Year Team              AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%    K%
2004 Vero Beach(A+)   416  .250/.368/.421   39% .171   25   14.2%  10.7%

It’s fascinating that while learning a new position, perhaps the most difficult defensive and demanding position on the diamond, Martin was also improving at the plate. His walks once again exceeded his strikeouts, this time at a 1.3 ratio. He showed some pop, with 40 extra-base hits including 15 homers, and his low batting average was the product of a .256 BABIP, a clear anomaly for a line-drive centered hitter like Martin. His BABIP should routinely exceed .300, and if he had been around there in 2004, we would have been talking about a .300/.400/.500 converted catcher in High-A and in the more pitcher-friendly Florida State League.

Baseball America recognized the significant improvement in his game, and bumped him up to the #6 slot in their organizational rankings, behind Joel Guzman, Chad Billingsley, Edwin Jackson, James Loney and Andy LaRoche:

He’s quick, uses his excellent footwork to help him block balls in the dirt, and has a well above-average arm. Offensively, he has a line-drive stroke, good plate discipline, and the potential to hit 15-20 homers annually. He’s durable, works hard and has a strong makeup. Martin’s swing can get long at times. He needs to maintain his focus throughout games on his receiving, but more than anything else he requires more experience behind the plate. He’s a below-average runner, though not a baseclogger. After taking a step forward in the Arizona Fall League, Martin will open the season in Double-A. He has no challenge as the Dodgers’ catcher of the future and may be ready for the majors by September 2006.

Baseball Prospectus 2005 was also impressed by Martin’s development, and felt he was going to make the Dodgers very happy, and soon:

A power/patience catcher who held his own at Vero Beach. So far during his career, he’s walked more than he’s struck out, a rare, attractive feat. He’s had a surprisingly low average for a guy who’s struck out so rarely, and he’s actually shown some speed on the field, which makes you wonder how long he’ll have either (a) the speed, or (b) any time actually catching, rather than moving to another position. Defensively, the jury’s out, but he’s done well enough to keep getting penciled in there, and he’s young enough to learn the craft.

Year Team              AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%    K%
2005 Jacksonville(2A) 409  .311/.430/.423   21% .112   18   15.4%  13.7%

A .356 BABIP seems high, but his groundball rate was close to 50 percent. This gave his batting average a jump, but thanks to the lack of line-drive power, his slugging percentage didn’t follow suit. Still, you have to love the discipline he displayed in his Double-A debut, with a walk rate almost two percent higher than his strikeout rate. You would like to see some more power from a player with his profile as he reaches the upper levels, but the line he put up is nothing to sneeze at. Baseball America moved Martin up to the #4 prospect in the Dodger organization for the 2006 season:

Martin has become one of the best catching prospects in the game, thanks to his athleticism and ability to absorb instruction. Martins employs a patient approach at the plate and uses the entire field. His swing is compact and simple, he stays through the ball well, and he’s a good situational hitter. He’s comfortable behind the plate and his blocking and receiving skills are advanced for such an inexperienced catcher. He has a strong, accurate arm, good footwork, and an efficient exchange on throws. Martin has yet to show much power, though he can drive balls out of the park when he stays back. Some scouts believe he’ll be a 15-20 homer threat in time. He has slightly below-average speed, but he’s fast for a catcher and isn’t afraid to take an extra-base.

Martin’s earlier troubles–his problems with throw accuracy, footwork, blocking, receiving, and getting a little too pull-happy–were all in the past by the time 2006 rolled around. He was more of a disciplined hitter, despite his lack of power at the time, and his defensive skills had come around very quickly. Baseball Prospectus 2006 was excited about the idea of Dioner Navarro and Martin behind the plate in the future:

A year older than Navarro but at least a year behind him developmentally, Martin is nonetheless the backstop with more upside. He had a strong season at Jacksonville, showing outstanding plate discipline, reasonable power, and even some speed while cementing his place as one of the Dodgers’ best prospects. Converted from third base prior to 2003, he made good strides behind the plate under the tutelage of Jacksonville coach Steve Yeager. He drew praise for a strong arm, improved receiving skills, and his handling of pitchers. He’ll likely spend the season in Vegas, but the Dodgers can look forward to a young, productive tandem behind the plate.

Martin was an honorable mention on our Top 50 prospects list for 2006, and it was expected he’d spend some time in Triple-A continuing his development. Martin would have all of 91 at-bats for Triple-A Las Vegas before the Dodgers called him up. They would also deal Navarro to Tampa Bay later on in the season, meaning the catching job was all Martin’s:

Year Team              AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%    K%
2006 Los Angeles(MLB) 415  .282/.355/.436   34% .154   30    9.8%  13.7%

Although his strikeout rate exceeded his walk rate, Martin kept his batting average and slugging numbers up while thwacking 40 extra-base hits in 415 at-bats. His power looked much like it had at Double-A, although his Isolated Power was a little lower. Still, this was an impressive showing from a rookie who barely played any games at Triple-A beforehand. He played in 121 of his team’s games, which did not prepare anyone for the 56 of 59 he’s caught in 2007 so far:

Year Team              AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%    K%
2007 Los Angeles(MLB) 197  .310/.382/.497   36% .188   15   10.9%  14.7%

It’s early yet, but Martin is making a run at his 90th percentile PECOTA line of .316/.405/.497, and his strikeout and walk rates continue to be impressive. The increase in his power production is a plus, especially given that PECOTA expected him to hit .270/.352/.410 in his sophomore season. Martin has batted-ball data working in his favor so far though:

Year  P/PA   FB%  LINEDR%  GB%   IF/F%  HR/F%  BABIP eBABIP  Diff.
2005  N/A   34.8%  15.9%  49.2%  17.2%  12.9%  .356   .279  -.077
2006  3.8   29.6%  19.9%  50.4%   7.5%   9.3%  .307   .319  +.012
2007  3.9   31.8%  20.8%  47.4%  12.7%  12.7%  .335   .328  -.007

At Jacksonville, Martin didn’t use his line-drive stroke effectively, instead earning his lofty BABIP via a high groundball rate. He still has the groundball rate, but he hits the ball more squarely on liners now in the major leagues. There’s only a .007 difference between his eBABIP and BABIP, meaning Martin’s performance–if this is the type of hitter he has become, and his batted-ball stats look eerily similar to 2006 only with more power–is more likely than not legitimate. Martin has also shown more power on the road in 2007, with a .292/.333/.504 line against a .333/.438/.488 line in Los Angeles. This doesn’t match up with his odd 2006 performance, where Martin hit .319/.391/.514 at home and just .227/.317/.391 away from Chavez Ravine. This also suggests that Martin’s 2007 is the more realistic line as far as what we might expect from him.

I have received a lot of e-mails and questions in chats in regards to my thoughts on Martin and his place in the current catcher hierarchy. If Joe Mauer is not able to catch for much longer due to his recurring injuries, then Brian McCann is the top young catcher in baseball, but as this year’s production attests, Martin comes close. Nevertheless, I’m not sure that after two months I’m ready to say they’re on an equal level. McCann had a stellar season last year, and if you adjust his line this year accounting for BABIP, he should be at .325/.378/.468, and that’s assuming all of the extra hits are singles. PECOTA expects more pop and lower averages from McCann, but I think he’s more of a batting average guy who has some pop, sort of in the Mauer mold, but maybe with more power potential overall. McCann’s 2006 BABIP and eBABIP are one and the same at .338, meaning it was a serious breakout campaign that needs no real adjustment. Of course, the Dodgers–and 27 other major league teams–would love to have Russell Martin behind the plate, and that’s a pretty good endorsement.

Marc Normandin is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Marc by clicking here or click here to see Marc’s other articles. You can find some of Marc’s other work here.

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