With nagging injury in past, Martin at full strength
Playing through arm pain no longer an issue as focus shifts to offense
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Russell Martin's contributions to the 2013 Pirates were recognized as substantial. Had many been aware of the condition in which he played most of the season, it may also have been recognized as heroic.
Not that there was much wrong physically with Martin -- only with his right shoulder. But for a catcher who throws out people for a living and generates his power from that joint at bat, that was enough.
"I battled all the way through the year. It was a battle pretty much the whole year," Martin said of the lingering effect of the sore shoulder he had sustained early in Spring Training. "The fact is that hurting my shoulder limited my ability to swing freely."
Martin hurt the shoulder, looking back, in predictable fashion. Given the richest free-agent contract ($17 million for two years) in club history, he wanted to make the best impression the worst way -- exactly the way he went about it.
Prior to the Pirates' first exhibition game, on Feb. 24, Martin was a bit tardy hitting the field for the normal warmup catch. So, rather than start out at the customary 50-feet distance, he cranked up and let go a 120-foot throw, and he immediately felt an odd pull on the shoulder.
But there was no way Martin was going to miss his first game with his new team -- or miss a chance to show off his arm.
So, with two outs in the bottom of the fourth, he picked the Braves' Blake DeWitt off first base. From the plate, for a right-handed catcher, that throw has to be made at an awkward angle -- and Martin immediately cringed with pain.
"I knew I was in trouble," Martin recalled.
Martin left that game the next inning and didn't catch again until two weeks later, but he didn't feel totally healed until well into this winter.
"The offseason can do wonders," Martin said. "I took some time off and did some exercises to strengthen that shoulder. Now I feel [freaking] great. Got to knock on wood, and hopefully just keep it that way."
Early this Spring Training, Martin has been using that wood to knock the ball around.
In Friday's game against the Twins -- his first game action since Monday -- Russell banged doubles his first two times up, to go along with two earlier spring home runs. A 2-for-3 day left him hitting .400 (4-for-10) in limited action, as manager Clint Hurdle tries to minimize his preseason workload.
This is a far cry from a year ago, when his crippled swing was evident from the outset. Martin went 6-for-40 in the Grapefruit League, then began the season 0-for-17.
"I realize I hit a couple of [pitchers'] mistakes, but at the same time, I'm not missing the mistakes. And the key as a hitter is to feast on the mistakes," Martin said. "I'm putting good swings on pitches I want to put into play. That's what I've been working on.
"I feel like I have a plan when I got out there."
The plan starts with a moderately altered approach, something borrowed from Andrew McCutchen that is intended to make him less jumpy and could have a beneficial side effect.
"From looking at Cutch hit, with his open stance, he looks so comfortable," Martin said. "So I started to open up [and spread the legs] a little bit, and it's allowed me to feel more relaxed. I'm sort of winding up with the pitcher, getting ready a little earlier.
"And, standing taller, you feel that you won't wear down; there's a little less weight on the knees. But really, mostly it's just being healthy."
Since bad things are supposed to come in threes, a couple of other issues in addition to shoulder pain complicated Martin's first spring with the Bucs. There was the extended World Baseball Classic controversy; Martin agreed to represent Team Canada only if they would let him play shortstop, which they would not, but the point became moot anyway with his shoulder injury. And of course, Martin had to cram on and with a whole staff of pitchers for whom he'd be responsible.
None of those factors are now at play, setting up Martin to provide some of the internal offensive improvement the Pirates counted on when deciding to be quiet in the offseason market.
After all, although he provided some timely power (15 home runs, plus those two dramatic shots in the National League Wild Card Game victory over Cincinnati), Martin hit a mere .226 -- 29 points below his career mark -- and barely pushed his OPS over .700 (.703).
"I know I can be better. But stress about it? No," Martin said. "I will go out there and do the best I can every time. Have I shown what I can do [with the Pirates]? At times. The consistency is what I'm looking for now. To mentally always have the same feel that I do when I'm on a good streak, to keep that mindset even during the lows.
"But I know what helps the most," Martin added. "My most important job is making sure the pitching is focused and they feel confident. There is more comfort now, because I've spent a year with these guys. But if I can improve offensively, that's another way I can help."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.