Hurdle slots Russell Martin in the two-spot of Pirates’ lineup

We’ll start off with a tidbit of an article from December’s Winter Meetings:

“Hurdle recently drew some double-takes for thinking out loud about possibly batting Russell Martin No. 2; the Bucs’ new catcher has a lifetime OBP of .352 (albeit it slipped last season to .311).

‘How many prototypical leadoff men are in the game right now?’ Hurdle asked rhetorically. ‘But a man that can get on base, can score runs … and the second guy is maybe someone to walk, handle the bat, stretch out an at-bat and get on base.’

Sometimes, before manufacturing runs, a manager has to manufacture a batting order. Hurdle is at that point now.”

Today, Russell Martin will suit up for the Bucs in their Grapefruit League home opener against the Atlanta Braves. Guess where Martin’s name is penciled into the lineup? If you guessed the two-hole, you are correct:

(via @Pirates on Twitter)

(via @Pirates on Twitter)

As Tom Singer mentioned in the aforementioned article, Hurdle actually drew some double-takes for his ridiculous thought of batting Russ Martin second. However, he’s apparently giving it a try anyway. Spring training is obviously a time for experimenting, so it’s not definitive that he’ll stay in that spot. Anyway, here’s a look at Martin’s offensive abilities for the job…

Batting him second isn’t that out of the ordinary, considering he’s been slotted there before. However, it was never his primary spot in the order. He hit out of the two-hole 14 times in 2007, 12 times in 2008, 12 times again in 2009, a career-high 22 times in 2010, and just once for the Yankees in 2011. The Bronx Bombers did not bat him second at all last season. Simply because he’s hit there previously should not give him that opportunity with the Bucs. Martin isn’t in his mid-20′s anymore, and his offense has been steadily declining.

Hurdle was quoted as saying he wants the second guy to draw walks. He walked a whopping 90 times in 2008, which was the 15th-highest total in MLB. His ability to draw walks in recent years has been nowhere near his impressive 2008 campaign, though. While Martin hasn’t drawn more than 53 base on balls in any of the past three seasons, he’s still posted above-average BB% rates. His 53 walks in 2012 would have been third-most on the Pirates, behind only Andrew McCutchen (70) and Pedro Alvarez (57).

The next Hurdle requirement is “handling the bat”; in this case, he most likely means bunting. Hurdle loves to bunt, and bringing Jay Bell in as the new hitting instructor potentially furthers the team’s goal to sacrifice in 2013. Bell led the league in sacrifice hits in 1990 and 1991 with the Bucs. He sacrificed 39 times in ’90, while starting 153 of his 159 games in the two-hole. He was slotted into the starting lineup as the second hitter 153 times again in ’91, and sacrificed 30 times. Bell was setting the table for the fan-favorite center fielder that was hitting behind him, Andy Van Slyke. Russell Martin – or whichever Pirate gets the two-spot – will be charged with the same task for Andrew McCutchen. Martin only has seven sacrifice hits in seven big league seasons; he’ll have to “handle the bat” in order to hit second.

Another of Clint’s keys for the two-hole is stretching out an at-bat. Martin does have some decent plate discipline, which is a plus. He only swings at about 20% of pitches outside the strike zone, whereas league average is around 30%. For comparison, Clint Barmes was around 40% last year. Martin can also make contact, staying consistent with the league average at 81% of the time. Making the pitcher work is always important, so he’ll have to take some pitches if he wants to hit in front of Cutch.

Finally, Hurdle mentions the need to get on base in the two-hole. This is arguably the most important factor, as you simply can’t have consistent outs coming before the heart of your lineup. Martin’s on-base percentage has steadily declined over the past five years, which potentially points to another regression. He peaked at an excellent .385 OBP in 2008, but posted a subpar .311 OBP last season. His batting average has dropped over the years as well, so it’ll be interesting to see how productive he can be in 2013.

His diminishing offensive abilities make for a questionable lineup card. Many project Neil Walker to hit second, and he’d probably be a suitable option. The Pittsburgh Kid bats fifth today, however, and Hurdle may want him there in a position to drive in runs. As we said earlier, it’s only spring ball and there’s plenty of time to experiment; nothing is set in stone. Although it is interesting to see Clint Hurdle follow through with his December quote about batting the Bucs’ new catcher in the two-spot.

In other Russell Martin news, he’s withdrawing from the World Baseball Classic. He wanted to play shortstop, in order to save his legs for catching during the regular season. Team Canada wasn’t so sure of that, so Martin decided to withdraw altogether. This is best for the Pirates anyway, as it’ll be useful for Martin to get acclimated to the pitching staff during that time.

Photo: Keith Allison/Creative Commons

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