BRADENTON, Fla. – The ball slid underneath Russell Martin’s glove and into the outfield, and Pittsburgh Pirates third base coach Nick Leyva couldn’t help but have a little fun with the three-time All-Star catcher.
“We’ve only got one bag of balls left,” Leyva said with a smile before lifting his fungo bat to send another grounder Martin’s way.
“I’ll catch the ball when they’re hit a little harder,” Martin shot back.
Well, he does have a point.
Martin makes a living casually corralling pitches barreling down on him at more than 90 mph. Forgive him if it may take a little while for the former corner infielder to get settled at shortstop, where Martin will moonlight for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic.
Don’t expect the transition to take very long. Martin was drafted as a third baseman by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002 before being converted to catcher. He’s surprisingly blunt about how he feels about squatting for nine innings.
“I’m not a catcher, I’m an athlete,” he said. “I can play anywhere.”
Just not behind the plate for his native country in the WBC. And that’s just the way Martin prefers it. Tasked with learning a new pitching staff in Pittsburgh after signing a two-year, $17-million deal, Martin would rather not add coming up with a gameplan for Team Canada, too.
“I’m not going to have fun if I’m going to go into the environment of going to compete and learning 6-7 new pitchers that I’ve never caught before then expect them to trust me going into a game and then go and compete,” Martin said. “That’s not fun.”
Tinkering around at shortstop? Well that’s another matter entirely.
And this isn’t some gimmick. The 5-10, 205-pound Martin has quick feet for a player his size, and his arm was strong enough to throw out 24 percent of potential base stealers last season while playing for the New York Yankees.
Martin certainly captured the attention of teammate Clint Barmes, who knows a thing or two about slick work at short. Barmes has a theory on why Martin appears so comfortable at a spot he has never played regularly at any point in his career.
“I told him, ‘How often did you work with (Derek) Jeter over there in New York? Maybe you can bring me a little something over here,”’ Barmes said.
Martin downplays the idea of one day moving to another position permanently. He knows why the Pirates brought him in, and he’s anxious to help get the franchise over the top after two decades of mediocrity.
While the Pirates wooed him during the offseason, Martin checked in with former Yankee teammate A.J. Burnett and Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle to get a feel for what he could be walking into.
Martin is at the point in his career where he didn’t want to waste time being in a fractured environment.
“You don’t want to be in a miserable clubhouse,” Martin said.
Burnett assured him the Pirates were far from miserable. It was all the endorsement Martin needed.
“No matter what your stats are at the end of the year, that’s not going to define how you feel during the year,” Martin said. “It’s the interactions you have throughout the year. It’s the relationships you build in the clubhouse. That’s what’s going to decide whether you have fun or not. That played a big part in my decision.”
So did the financial security of a two-year contract and the opportunity to start over. Martin’s batting average has slipped steadily since he hit .293 and won a Silver Slugger award while playing for the Dodgers in 2007. While he’s still got plenty of pop – smacking a career-high 21 homers for New York last season – he batted a career-low .211.
Going deep may be problematic for the right-handed Martin at PNC Park, where long shots to leftfield often die before they reach the 380-foot fence in left-center. Yet Martin is confident his stroke will translate well to Pittsburgh.
He certainly can’t perform any more poorly at the plate than the guy he’s replacing. Veteran Rod Barajas did wonders with Pittsburgh’s pitching staff but he needed a late surge to just to clear the Mendoza line with his batting average, finishing at .206. And the combination of slow deliveries from the guys on the mound and a right arm that betrayed Barajas at times allowed opponents to run at will.
Pittsburgh catchers caught just 19 of 154 base stealers, by far the worst in the majors. Martin has thrown out 30 percent of runners during his seven-year career. Anything close to that will be a major improvement for the Pirates.
It’s also one of the reasons why he won’t be putting on a mask and a chest protector for Team Canada.
“If I’m going to catch and beat myself up, I’m going to do it here where I’m doing it with the guys that I’m going to compete with for the next six months,” Martin said.
That doesn’t mean Martin won’t try to enjoy his side job at the WBC. And while he looks good playing on the edge of the infield dirt, Barmes isn’t exactly looking over his shoulder.
“I’ve already told him, you can take as many groundballs at short as you want as long as my group’s hitting in the cage,” Barmes said with a laugh. “Just don’t stand by me while I’m working.”