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Sports Russell Martin plays mentor to young catcher Danny Jansen

The passing-down of knowledge from one generation to the next is as inevitable in baseball as it is in life.

So it is not unusual that veteran Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin gives rookie Danny Jansen some advice about the major leagues. About how to learn a pitcher’s idiosyncrasies, what the other team’s hitters are likely to do in a certain pitch count, how to call a game. And how to play the position every day in a long season.

Martin, 35, wants to play another year, but is graciously teaching Jansen, 23, who could end up replacing him in the toughest position in baseball.

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“He’s a great kid,” Martin, a 13-year veteran, said earlier this week when asked about mentoring his heir apparent.

“He’s the kind of kid that you want to help out and you want to see him do well. If I can do anything to help him I’m going to make myself available.”

Jansen is regarded as one of the Blue Jays' top prospects, a 16th-round draft selection in 2013. He was promoted from Triple-A on Aug. 13 and has been behind the plate most of the time since. He started in seven of Toronto’s past 10 games heading into play on Friday, collecting eight hits (including his first major-league home run) in 23 at-bats for a .348 batting average.

Jansen had at least one hit in his first six big-league games, just the fourth player in franchise history, and first catcher, to do so.

“I really don’t think he can be any better to be honest with you,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said about Jansen’s hot start. “He’s getting his hits, he’s driving the ball. He’s got a short, compact stroke, he’s a guy who’s going to put the ball in play. That’s very valuable.”

Despite the fanfare of his arrival and his strong debut at the plate, Jansen said it was never awkward with Martin, or with season-long backup Luke Maile, since he arrived on Toronto’s suddenly crowded catching scene.

“I was just coming up here, trying to help the team win,” Jansen said. “I know Russ feels the same way, whatever he can do to help the team win. He’s been a great mentor already and I’m really looking forward to learning some more from him.”

Martin knows from experience the importance of having a mentor, which he had when he broke into the majors with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006.

“I remember coming up, Sandy Alomar Jr. was the backup catcher,” Martin said. “He was older [40] and he kind of showed me how to treat young players. He was awesome. He took care of me, didn’t let me get bullied by anybody or anything like that. And if I had any questions I could go to him and I felt comfortable with him. Hopefully Danny feels the same way.”

Jansen said he appreciates Martin’s generosity.

“Man, truly grateful for the opportunity,” Jansen said. “I’m trying to learn as much as I possibly can. He’s got 13 years in the big leagues, he’s got so much experience behind the plate and with pitchers and stuff. And he’s a great game caller.

“So I’m just trying utilize time, just to talk with him if I get a chance and go over some stuff, scenarios that have happened.”

Pete Walker, the Toronto pitching coach, said it is not easy for a young minor-league catcher to join the major-league team deep into a season and learn the ins and outs of the pitching staff.

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“He also doesn’t know the hitters yet so that’s sometimes difficult when you’re first starting to catch,” Walker said. “But for most part, we’re going with the pitcher’s strengths.

“And as he learns the hitters a little bit more and we give him more information and he sees them on a regular basis, he’ll be more comfortable attacking hitters in certain ways.”

Before catching off-speed specialist Marco Estrada for the first time on Monday against the Orioles, Walker said Jansen spent plenty of time in the classroom boning up on his new subject.

“Before Estrada’s game he sat and watched three different ballgames that Estrada threw and watched the different pitch sequences and watched how Luke and Russ caught him,” Walker said. “Just to get a feel for him and that’s really what he needs.”

Something must have sunk in, as Estrada picked up the win when he allowed just three runs and seven hits over 5 1/3 innings.

“Danny called a great game,” Estrada said afterward.

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As Jansen’s confidence and ability grows, Martin can see the writing on the wall when it comes to his own future as a starting catcher. Although his bat has heated up over the past three weeks or so, in which he hit at a .314 clip, his season-long average is .200 after Wednesday’s 0-for-3 outing against Baltimore.

If Martin does not improve on that number before the year’s end it would be a season low for a career .250 hitter. “I’m going to keep battling,” Martin said. “But the batting average, it stinks. It is what it is.”

Only Gary Sanchez (.188) of the New York Yankees and Seattle’s Mike Zunino (.192) are worse among all major-league catchers with at least 240 plate appearances.

Martin, who was born in Toronto, has another year to go on a five-year, US$82-million deal , which ranks as the richest free-agent contract handed out by the Blue Jays.

By comparison, a newcomer such as Jansen is being paid at the MLB base rate of US$545,000, which will be prorated to the end of the season or for however long he is up with the big-league club.

Unlike injured teammate Troy Tulowitzki, who has said he will not contemplate a position other than shortstop, Martin has had no qualms about changing his role.

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In fact, it was Martin’s willingness to play third base, Toronto general manager Ross Atkins said, that cleared the way for Jansen’s promotion. Atkins said if the veteran had balked, Jansen would still be in Triple-A.

Martin started at third base against Baltimore on Wednesday, the sixth time he started there since Jansen’s arrival, catching just once.

And while Martin has caught in the vast majority of his more than 1,600 games in the majors, he was a third baseman in college.

He views the move back to third like renewing an old friendship.

“I just love playing third base,” Martin said. “That definitely was a factor. But the situation we’re in, we were so low in the depth chart at third base. It just seemed like it was a move that would help the team the most.

“At the same time, it gives us a chance to get a good look at Danny and what he can do. And so far he’s really proven that he’s a big-leaguer.”

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And, with one year left to go in his contract, Martin said versatility might be his best chance to prolong his career.

“I can play just about any position out there,” Martin said. “It gives me an opportunity to get on the field and give somebody a breather somewhere. So kind of being a super utility, it can be in my back pocket if I need it.

“I’m not getting any younger, that’s for sure. I still feel great, I still feel athletic and can move around and stuff. But there’s definitely kids knocking at the door that definitely have a lot of upside and potential. I definitely realize that.”

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