Lott: Russell Martin on hitting, competing, and working your way out of a slump

Russell Martin
Photo credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

It is one of the tedious mantras of baseball. A player is stuck in a slump for two months, and when a reporter asks him what’s going on, he says: “It’s just baseball, man. When the season ends, my numbers will be where they always have been.”
Sometimes that’s true, sometimes not. Texas outfielder Carlos Gomez seems to have hit bottom at 30; his numbers will not return to normal this season. Neither will Chris Archer’s, although the Tampa Bay pitcher has gradually recovered after a rocky start.
But in the case of the Russell Martin, the refrain is ringing true. The Blue Jays’ catcher has played in 107 games. In the first 54, his slash line was .202/.283/.286. Over the next 53 games, his line is .287/.395/.532.
His OPS has improved each month. In August, his OPS stands at 1.016 entering Monday night’s game in Baltimore. He has hit eight of his 15 homers and driven in 20 runs this month.
Overall, he is slashing .247/.343/.416, within a few points here and there of his career numbers.
What happened? On Sunday morning, I asked Martin that question. Here is our conversation.

JL: What’s different for you now than in April and May?

RM: Just the results, man, really. I’ve always felt like I’ve been a good hitter. You have your ups and downs in this game. There’s really no explanation. They say that most of the game starts from your head, and when you’re feeling confident, normally good things happen. You get some things to go your way, you start feeling a little bit better. You start expecting things to happen and they happen.

When you don’t have results, do you start expecting bad things to happen?

You can start to press a little bit. You start being a little bit more tense, trying a little bit harder. It’s like you’re chasing instead of being the one being chased. When you’re going well, they’re the ones that are worried about you. It’s like the other way around when it’s not going well. When it’s not going well, you’re out there trying to get the hit instead of like, letting the hit come to you. When you’re going well, you’re patient, you’re waiting for your pitch. You feel dangerous, so you feel almost like they’re going to pitch you like they’re scared a little. And they do, and they end up making mistakes.

Does your long career in the big leagues make it easier to weather slumps?

I think I just have a better understanding now of how a long season is. I’ve had struggles before. It’s not like it’s the first time that I’ve had struggles. I’ve had years when I’ve started poorly, then I’ve played well towards the end, and it seems like it matters even more at the end. And then I’ve had seasons when I’ve been really hot from the get-go and then I’ve slowed down towards the end. I’d much rather have a season where I start kind of slow and then I finish strong and head into the playoffs and feel good about that. The best scenario would be to be hot all the time, the whole year. Screw that getting-cold stuff.

When you were struggling, did you experiment with any mechanical adjustments?<

I try to keep the game simple. When you’re not going well, you start thinking about technical stuff, but it’s like really, the ball’s coming in at 100 miles an hour. If your focus isn’t completely on picking up the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand, you’re not where you need to be. If your mind isn’t in the moment – you know, practice is practice, you work hard and dedicate yourself in practice, but during the game it’s about competing and being in that moment.

You can’t be thinking about where your hands are.

You can’t be thinking about where your hands are. You can if you want to, but I’d much rather think about picking up that ball and what’s the pitcher trying to do to me than where my hands should be. That’s where pitchers and hitters I think are a bit different. Pitchers really get into the routine of repeating a mechanic and trusting a delivery. Hitters, you’ve just got to pick that thing up, man. It doesn’t have to look pretty, you know? But your hand-eye co-ordination is the most important thing, and if you’re not seeing it, then you’re not going to get the results you want.

Is it easier to cope with batting slumps because you’re catching?

I think so. You play a part in a game, whether you’re hitting or not. You catch a good game, call a good game, you win, you feel good about it. You’re involved all the time. I don’t have time to think about what’s going in another part of my game. I’m just trying to win. If you do that, it keeps you level-headed.

When you’re catching, you’re not thinking about you, you’re thinking about helping your pitcher. You’re thinking about the team.

Right. I’m thinking about getting outs. I’m trying to get guys out. You’re strategizing a little bit. Whatever’s going through my head, it’s all about keeping those guys from scoring. It’s as simple as that.

You must be feeling good right about now.

Right now, I do feel good, I feel OK, I feel like I’m seeing the ball. I feel better at the end of the game when I know we got the W. That’s when I feel better. At the beginning of the day, I’m still – we haven’t won yet, you know what I mean?

Baseball creates an interesting mindset, to have to start over every day, no matter what happened the day before. No matter where you are in the standings, you’re starting from scratch.

You have to love competing, man. It’s either in your DNA or it’s not. I’m the kind of guy that likes to compete. Even if I wasn’t playing baseball, I would be competing somewhere else, somehow, if not with anybody else, it’s with myself. That’s just how I’m made up. I think most (players) are kind of like that. They just enjoy the competition, and that’s what keeps you going. It’s that fight. Whether you win or lose, the fight is what’s fun.