When Russell Martin appeared on the Canadian roster in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, he turned heads with coaches, players, and fans, not for his play, which was largely average until the following year with the Pirates and beyond, but because he had a unique request: to play shortstop. He said the following to FOX Sports:
“I like to prove people wrong... I’m going to do what I feel like doing. I feel like playing shortstop. It’s a selfish move from my part. But it’s what I love to do. Sometimes you’ve got to do what you feel like doing for yourself. And I want to do it... And if it goes well, then great. I expect it to go well, because I know I have the talent. I’m doing the work I need to do now to not embarrass myself and my country. Hopefully, people will be pleasantly surprised when they see how I play... Everybody’s surprised, because it’s not something usual... I know myself. I know how I was brought up. It’s like riding a bike. You’ve done it before.”
The thing is... he never got to play shortstop for the Canadian team; and in fact, the Pirates actually barred him from playing, which forced his hand to back out of team participation altogether. In a Deadspin article he outlines that “there’s the feeling of I might be letting my teammates down, my Canadian teammates, but that’s something that I’m sure I’ll get over,” and some of his teammates, like Justin Morneau, intimated that it was selfish to put a position over a team. Whatever, it was an exhibition.
It’s not something fans think about a lot, but I’m sure in the grand scheme of players in baseball history, there have been those who may not have been “out of position,” but “felt” out of position. Martin didn’t mince words when asked what his favorite position was last week:
“(Shortstop) was my favorite position growing up and I think it’s my favorite position to this day... I was really good back then, although I don’t know how it will translate now. I just know I could play that position really well, so it would be nice to get the opportunity to go out there and showcase what I can do.”
Last night, he finally got his chance. In a game where the Blue Jays lost by a score of 12-2 to the Mets, and a season where they have started 21-21, the time was now for manager John Gibbons to let him live his dream. In the eighth inning, he made his first appearance at shortstop and it was the fifth position he played at in his career He described it to Newsday as “the only cool thing that happened in the game... Kind of call it a dream come true. Wish the circumstances were a little bit different.”
It got me thinking, of course. How often do catchers play out of position like that? I would imagine a decent amount, but not in this fashion. There are shortstop-first players who move to third and catcher early in their career, and utility man infielders who have appearances at almost every position.
What Martin is described as, while also making a shortstop appearance 13 years into his career, almost never happens in the live ball era. Not only that, but of the catchers to make an appearance at shortstop, he is easily the best in the live ball era. On the Play Index I searched for players who made at least 300 starts at catcher, more than 2500 plate appearances, and at least one appearance at shortstop. I got five other players: Brad Ausmus, Mickey Owen, Michael Barrett, Mike Heath, and Jamie Quirk. Among those, Martin is easily the best of that bunch:
Shortstop-Playing Career Catchers
This not only underscores how interesting of a story this is, a catcher playing shortstop at all that late in a career, but also just how good of a player Martin is historically. According to JAWS, he ranks 28th all-time, just a shade below Yadier Molina and Roy Campanella.
He’s likely not a Hall of Famer, but as I said, easily the best catcher to ever play shortstop. With the Shohei Ohtani fever in full swing, I think it’s a worthy exercise to examine the implications of something like this. Is it possible for players we don’t normally assume of playing in another position, to actually be able to play that position?
If Ohtani can play both pitcher and hitter, I’m sure it’s theoretically possible for a shortstop to also be a catcher, or for a catcher to also be a utility infielder that can play anywhere. In many scenarios, that offers a unique advantage—imagine being able to have your backup catcher start for a day, but keeping your primary catcher and “utility man” in the field while not losing the designated hitter? It’s a possibility we have never seen or even thought of, but with Martin’s enthusiasm, I’m sure it is possible. For now, though, he stands in relative solitude.