Digging for Diamonds: Leonys “The Lion” Martin
The year 2017 was not the kindest to Leonys Tapanes Martin. His wRC+ of 35 and wOBA of 0.224 ranked 7th- and 6th-worst respectively among all hitters whose teams were gracious enough to give them at least 130 plate attempts last year. Originally part of Jerry DiPoto’s Grand Outfield Experiment after coming off a respectable 2016 campaign (where he hit 15 homers and stole another 24 bases), Martin started off last year hitting just .111/.172/.130 in his first 58 plate appearances. That poor start caused the Mariners to surprisingly designate him for assignment on April 23rd. Given that he was owed $4.85M and was a career .248/.301/.359 hitter at the time, it was even more surprising that the then 29-year-old went unclaimed and was sent down to Triple-A. Was this seriously the end of the road for the former two-time Baseball America top 100 prospect? Surely not.
Upon his shocking demoting, Martin went right about his business while at Triple-A Tacoma. Martin hit .306/.346/.492 as a Rainier, flashing his typical power/speed combo with 11 homers and 25 steals in just 360 at-bats. Thought to have regained his stroke (114 wRC+ at Triple-A), Martin was recalled by an injury-riddled Seattle in late July, and although he nabbed a couple of steals and contributed three extra-base hits in his sparse playing time, he was DFA’d for the second time in August. This time, Theo Epstein & Co. did not let him slip through waivers and made the move to acquire him for the Cubs’ playoff roster, trading the always popular pitching prospect Player T. B. Namedlater-Orcash to the Mariners to acquire Martin’s services for the remainder of the 2017 season.
After serving mainly as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement for the former World Series champs, Martin elected free agency in November with eyes on an everyday center field job. “Last year was a really, really tough season for me,” he said to MLB.com’s Jason Beck last November, “and I’ve been dedicating myself a little bit more.” Seemingly motivated by his lack of success as well as his lack of a contract, Martin worked out hard this offseason; “I’m trying to improve myself and trying to get better at home plate. I think I’m trying to get better in discipline at home plate, to swing at strikes and not chase too much. But I’m working on it and trying to be ready… I’m going to try to be ready from Day 1 in Spring Training. I want to challenge myself this year.”
Martin surely did not need to challenge himself to improve anymore defensively; his glove in center field will always be his calling card. Going off of 2017 StatCast data, Martin caught 90% of the fly balls hit to him, compared to the 84% expected average. That six percent gap is tied for the Major League lead among center fielders. Sure enough, Martin’s glove combined with his non-2017 work at the plate caused the Detroit Tigers to dish out $1.75M with another $1.1M in incentives for him this past offseason. Perhaps even more enticing was Martin’s service time, or lack thereof, as he had less than five full years of service prior to the beginning of the season and thus gives his team another year of control prior to free agency. GM Al Avila said of the signing: “He’s a good fit because we need a left-handed bat in the outfield. The main thing is, though, he’s also an excellent defender.” Martin was signed seemingly as a left-handed compliment to Jacoby “Juicy J” Jones, limiting his already bleak fantasy outlook entering this season. Further complicating things was the presence of former first-rounder Mikie Mahtook as well as Nicholas Castellanos’ move to the outfield during this offseason. Martin’s ADP entering the season was 520, and his price in dynasty leagues was probably next-to-nothing.
Fast forward to the end of April 2018, and Martin is the second most-improved hitter in all of baseball. He ranks in the top 100 hitters in wOBA now after ranking in the bottom 6 last year, and lest you think he is getting lucky he actually ranks 36th (!!!) overall with a .388 xWOBA. This put him ahead of current household-name sluggers like Rhys Hoskins, Khris Davis, Kyle Schwarber, and Joey Gallo. We are all well aware by now about how improvements to your Launch Angle can go a long way towards overall effectiveness, and Martin has done just that this year, going from a career ground-ball rate of 47.4% all the way down to 33.3% this year, putting him right in the heart of the ideal launch angle “goldilocks” zone.
Digging just a bit deeper, using Jeff Zimmerman’s conversions for StatCast data to the 20-80 grading scale, we can see that based off Martin’s 2018 StatCast data his power should grade near a 60 on the current 20-80 grading scale for game power. This is based on an above-average maximum exit velocity (112.6 mph, up from 108.0 last year), above-average average exit velocity (87.9 mph, up from 83.8), slightly below average maximum distance (421 feet, up from 403), a well above-average average fly ball distance (200 feet, up from 165), and an elite barrels/PA percentage (8.9%, 26th among all qualified batters and up an astounding 6% from last year). His Hard% of 36.1% is almost ten percent above his career average, and he is also using the opposite field more than 9% more frequently, all likely huge contributors to his newfound success this season.
Last but not least, we look to his plate discipline to see how truly sustainable this breakout can be (barring this recent 1-25 skid following a trip to the disabled list). He is swinging at pitches at nearly the exact same rate, but 3% less often outside the zone and 7% more often inside the zone (as compared to last year). But how is he doing when he swings? Well, his contact rate is up by over 4%, while his swinging-strike rate is down 2%. He is seeing far fewer first-pitch strikes, not surprising since he has been leading off for the entire year so far.
Given all the different areas in which Leonys Martin has improved this year, it is far too unlikely that he will revert completely back to his previous form. He has transformed himself from a 15/25 player into a 25/15 player, and perhaps with some more health and some more luck on the basepaths we could be looking at our next Tommy Pham-like breakout. Hopefully ,he can fully recover from his hamstring woes, rediscover his April form and continue on his way towards achieving full breakout status.