19 June 2009

Russell Question Guesswork Martin: Game 67 Unfair Win Shares

Russell Martin steps up to the plate, and I don't know what he's thinking. If I was him, I'd be furiously trying to think of nothing. If you think of nothing the weight of disappointment and failure can't crush you. If you think of nothing maybe you can pretend you're the same guy who used to hit a home run nearly every week. Because you are still that same guy. But you're not that same guy, too. The nothing in the home run column is proof of that. It's impossible to think of nothing. It's always there.

Second inning. Russell comes up with the bases loaded. He's batting eighth now. Eighth. That's worth a diversion right there. Batting order is not the great determinant of how well a team will hit and score; rather it is determined by how well each player hits and scores. The Dodgers are unusual in that they have often used a strong eighth hitter this year, but this should not obscure the truth that the eighth spot is usually reserved for poor hitters, or good hitters doing poorly. Which is Martin?

Martin has often had to struggle against the known wisdom that being a catcher and being a good hitter are not compatible. If he was an obvious hitting savant such as Joe Mauer or Mike Piazza, then he would not have this problem. But his hitting exellence, when it has come, has been quieter. He is an on-base percentage hitter, with modest, functional power. Tremendously valuable, when he is right. He started his career batting in the eighth spot, because that's where catchers like him belong. Few at the time expected him to be more than a supporting player offensively.

July 22, 2006: Martin moved out of the eighth ( or ninth ) spot of the lineup for the first time. That he was a very good hitter could no longer be ignored. By the end of the season he was back in the eighth spot, mostly, a product of the idea that he started pressing too much and struggling when asked to hit higher in the lineup. It's always been a guessing game with Martin. How is the lineup position affecting him? How is his workload affecting him? How will his offseason training regimen help him? We make guesses. We hope, we worry. But we don't know.

In 2007 and 2008 Martin never started a game batting eighth. He was one of the top catchers in the game, and known as a very good hitter.

June 12, 2009: Martin is moved back to the eighth spot in the lineup for the first time since 2006. The hitter he was the last three years is gone. Martin is just a catcher again. Just a guy you have to play because you have to play a catcher. We still love him, for now, but the love is muted, pensive. What happened? We can only guess. The guessing game, again. Workload, or deep slump, hidden injury, or something darker? We don't know. Guessing makes it worse.

Uncertainty is where we are now when Martin comes to the plate. Back to the second inning, back to the bases loaded. This could be the key moment in the game. There is only one out, but Wolf is coming up next, so it's all up to Martin. I don't even worry about the double play. Instead I just hope Martin is still capable of getting a hit. He's an old man out there.

Sometimes Martin really works the count. That's always been on of his great strengths as a hitter. But not this time. He swings and misses for strike one, then hits the ball. He connects for a line drive, but this is a 2009 Martin line drive. It's a soft line drive, following the slope of a gentle hill. The ball doesn't make it over the shortstop's outstretched glove. He's out. I don't think I can call that a line out. I'm left grasping at what to call it. He hit it square, but not hard. Let's say he hit it trapezoidally. I don't know if he deserves to be out. I don't know if I can take anything good from that at bat. Does he take anything from it, except frustration and failure? We can only guess.

In the fifth inning Martin leads off and hits a slow grounder to short on a 2-2 pitch. That's the second time that he's pulled the ball weakly toward the shortstop. But the placement and slowness of this one make it a tough chance, and after a slight bobble by the shortstop Martin is safe at first. They give him a hit. That's not the kind of hit that leaves me thinking Martin is breaking out of his slump. It's a persistence hit. A perseverance hit. And an important hit for the Dodgers, since Martin will go on to score.

Martin's last at bat comes in the seventh. He falls behind 0-2 in the count. Cue the desperation swing. Watch as the struggling hitter presses and swings at something out of the strike zone. But Martin doesn't do that. He lays off three straight balls. Full count, and revelation. He's still patient. He's still the same guy he always was. Right? Right, dammit? Deep down I'm sure Martin thinks he still the same guy he always was. So why can't he hit anymore? What happened? We can only guess. He can only guess. The painful march of homerless games goes on. We're nearing half the year without a home run. The batting average is plummeting. Forget the home runs, a few solid line drives would be welcome. But it doesn't happen in that at bat. Full count, and a foul off, and then he walks. Martin will go on to be tagged on the rump during a run down. An inglorious out in an inglorious year. He was a little hasty running the bases. But at least he didn't make his out before the Dodgers scored that go-ahead run. He helped in that inning, in some small measure. Loretta got to come up without the pressure of there already being two outs. A small benefit. This is how we measure Martin's contributions now, in very small doses.

Martin ends up 1-2 on the day, with a walk. That's a solid game. It is. But the questions still linger. Martin never hit the ball hard. Right now he's getting by on patience and persistence. When will the power return? When will our Russell return? We can still only guess.

Unfair Win Shares ( Dodgers )

Wolf -- 1
Belisario -- 1
Loretta -- 1

One run allowed in six innings. Four outs in relief against the toughest part of the Athletics lineup. A pinch hit go-ahead RBI. That is the story of today's Dodger shares.

Unfair Loss Shares ( Athletics )

Zeigler -- 1
Sweeney -- 1
Cabrera -- 1

The losing run allowed in relief. A pinch hit game-ending double play. A rally ending double play and a caught stealing. That is the story of today's Athletic shares.

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