Lost at the plate

Don't ask Dodgers catcher Russell Martin to pin down the moment his swing came off the rails. He can't.

"Spring training felt pretty good, but then I don't know what happened," he says. "It's was hard finding a groove and a rhythm, and when I had it, it just seemed like it didn't last very long."

While the Dodgers have seen young talent like Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier mature into stars, their 26-year-old fourth-year catcher -- already a Gold Glove winner in 2007 and twice an All-Star (2007, '08) -- is in the final stretch of a disastrous season with the bat, a virtual lock to set career lows in nearly every major statistical category.

Martin's problems actually began during the second half of 2008, as his numbers dropped and he struggled to drive the ball. This year, he didn't hit his first home run until June 20 and entered the All-Star break with only 12 extra-base hits, 15 fewer than at the same point a year earlier. Nor has the productivity of his first two and a half seasons returned in the second half. Martin will enter the final week of the season with a .681 OPS, good for 146th in the majors among qualified hitters.

It was a fall substantial enough that Martin fielded questions about steroid use from the Los Angeles Times.

Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly suspects the power drought played havoc with Martin's mechanics, as he began losing his identity as a line-drive, gap-to-gap hitter in an effort to quickly put up sexier numbers. "After a while you start trying to get [a home run] on the board," Mattingly says. "I really think he got into some bad habits along that path. He started spinning out, and it's really caused him problems all year."

Martin believes an offseason training program designed to shed weight and make him more athletic also robbed him of strength. It's not unreasonable to believe efforts to compensate have hurt his swing as well.

Whatever the reason, for Dodgers fans, the lack of patience and discipline common in young players feels jarring in reference to Martin, who arrived in L.A. seemingly complete with the polish of a 10-year veteran, both on the field and while interacting with media. He quickly became the pre-Manny Ramirez face of a franchise that badly needed one. Growing pains? Not part of the equation. Unfortunately, the same production that made him enormously popular around town also created expectations that have, at least this season, proved difficult to meet.

Manager Joe Torre believes Martin's failure to meet his own high standards left him searching for faster fixes at the plate for his slump than the game naturally allows. But Torre is also quick to note that while Martin's fall from offensive grace may be the dominant public narrative of his season, it's only half the story. After a 2008 season in which Torre and others in the organization felt Martin's defensive work fell short of expectations, this year Martin has bounced back admirably. Bad as he's been with the stick, he's been that good behind the dish.

Aided by the arrival of 16-year veteran Brad Ausmus, Martin has not only cleaned up his on-field fundamentals, but more importantly intensified and improved his efforts in preparation and scouting, leading to a better game plan against opposing hitters. "It's about getting better structure and consistency, translating information into a plan and building confidence with my pitchers," Martin says. "There's not much glamour in that, but it has a big impact on whether we win or we lose."

Martin's work handling the staff has helped L.A. to a 3.40 ERA, by far baseball's best, particularly impressive considering the Dodgers have operated much of the season with a well-publicized lack of a traditional ace and a bullpen reliant on previously unknown quantities like Ramon Troncoso and Ronald Belisario.

His importance hasn't been lost on teammates. Ausmus says Martin's contributions behind the plate outweigh anything he can do offensively. Says veteran utility man Doug Mientkiewicz: "We're not in first place if he's not catching every day."

Martin hopes a strong postseason run with the stick will repair much of this season's wreckage and quiet those who wonder if his first two and a half seasons were a mirage. "April doesn't matter in October. Or May, or June, or July. That's the mindset for me. Everything that's happened in the past, it doesn't matter. Today matters. Tomorrow matters," Martin says.

In the end, Martin's season, while clearly disappointing in many aspects, illustrates the relative nature of value. "If somebody wants to look back and start criticizing what I did," he says, "that's fine. I just want to win today." Whether that criticism comes depends largely on what aspects of Martin's game are most valued in the context of this Dodgers team.

And a World Series, L.A.'s first in over 20 years, wouldn't hurt.

Andrew and Brian Kamenetzky contribute to ESPN The Magazine.