The Lonesome Death Of Russell Martin's Power

The Dodgers, throughout their history, have been blessed with an inordinate amount of great-hitting catchers.  Roy Campanella and Mike Piazza are the two standouts, but the Dodgers have also enjoyed good to very good seasons from backstops Paul LoDuca, Mike Scioscia, Joe Ferguson, Tom Haller, Johnny Roseboro, and Babe Phelps, just to name a few. 

Russell Martin seemed prime to join the pantheon of great Dodger catchers.  In his first three seasons, he made two All-Star teams, won a Silver Slugger award, and even mixed in a Gold Glove for good measure.  Nobody has caught more innings than Martin since he made his debut in May 2006, and from 2006-2008 Martin had the fifth-highest OPS+ among all catchers in baseball.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to the Dodger Hall of Fame.  Martin simply doesn't hit for power anymore.  It was a little troubling last season, when Martin followed up his breakout .469-slugging, 19-homer 2007 with a .396 slugging percentage, but I'll never be disappointed in a catcher with a .385 on-base percentage.  Besides, Martin was sure to improve this year because of his improved attitude and maturity.  He even started doing yoga.

It hasn't helped.  In the 126-year history of the Dodgers, there have been 34 different seasons in which a catcher has posted a slugging percentage under .300 (with at least 200 plate appearances).  The king of these seasons is Bill Bergen, the worst hitter in the history of baseball.  Bergen played eight seasons with Brooklyn, from 1904-1911.  He has the seven lowest slugging percentages ever by a Dodger catcher, and the only reason he doesn't have eight seasons is because he only had 143 PA.  Only six of these sub-.300 seasons have come since 1941.  Russell Martin's slugging percentage in 2009 is .298 at essentially the halfway point this season.

On the wonderful Baseball-Reference.com, you can find a stat called OPS+, which is simply on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, normalized for park and league.  100 is average, anything above is above average, and anything below is below average.  It is a nice way to compare players of different eras, leagues, or parks.  Another stat you can find on Baseball-Reference.com is the league slugging percentage normalized for park.  Its a way to find out what a league average non-pitcher would do in the same park.  From there, we can develop a normalized slugging percentage, or SLG+ if you will.  For instance, Russell Martin's slugging percentage is .288, and the league slugging (lgSLG) at Dodger Stadium in 2009 is .416, so his SLG+ is 72, meaning Martin is well below average.

Here are the all-time worst SLG+ numbers by a catcher in Dodger history (minimum 200 PA):

Catcher Year SLG lgSLG SLG+
Bill Bergen 1911 .154 .363 42
Bill Bergen 1909 .156 .319 49
Bill Bergen 1910 .177 .344 51
Bill Bergen 1906 .184 .310 59
Bill Bergen 1904 .207 .329 63
Bill Bergen 1905 .219 .335 65
Tex Erwin 1910 .228 .344 66
Mickey O'Neil 1926 .264 .396 67
Otto Miller 1918 .228 .337 68
Bill Bergen
1908 .215 .312 69
Steve Yeager
1980 .273 .385 71
Hank DeBerry
1927 .284 .400 71
Jack Ryan
1898 .252 .356 71
Russell Martin 2009 .298 .416 72
Steve Yeager
1978 .276 .385 72

There are still 83 games left in the season, so there is plenty of time for Martin to change the ending to this story.  But when you are lumped in with the worst hitter in baseball history, the time to worry is here.  Or, as Bob Dylan said in The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll:

Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now's the time for your tears

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