What happened to Leonys Martin?

Leonys Martin
Seattle Mariners’ Leonys Martin hits against the Los Angeles Angels during the first inning of a spring training baseball game, Tuesday, March 15, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Every year the Mariners have a player with a great story.  For me, I love those players who have a tale of redemption.  Sometimes it’s a guy who becomes a star.  Often it’s a guy who was lucky to catch on and make his role work.  In 2014 the story was Chris Young.  In 2015 it was Franklin Gutierrez.  They are both players I keep tabs on, because they both remind me of what a tough game baseball is, and when a player has additional physical challenges it takes real courage to fight through those issues and succeed. I will always admire Young and Guti.

The M’s have lot of great stories on this team.  Robinson Cano’s out of the blocks beginning after fighting with illness and injury for an entire year is a great story.Steve Cishek’s emergence as a legit closer after a year in wilderness is another. But my absolute favorite story is Leonys Martin and whatever it is he might become.

Let’s be clear.  I love great defensive outfielders, especially great centerfielders. When I lived in the Bay Area in the early 70’s I loved the Giants with their outfield of Bobby Bonds, Garry Maddox and Gary Matthews.  It was a stable of greyhounds who could really go get a ball.  They could hit a little too. One of my all time favorite Mariners is Mike Cameron. Cammie was a thrill to watch.  I’m hoping he’s still got that home run ball he swiped from Derek Jeter in his first Safeco series.  Cameron is ranked number 12 among the greatest center fielders of all time in Michael Humphreys’ quirky little book Wizardry about the greatest defensive players in baseball history. I had dreams last summer about the Mariners acquiring Kevin Pillar or Kevin Kiermaier.

Didn’t happen. But instead the M’s took a chance on Leonys Martin. Let’s be clear what Martin is and what he is not.  Leonys Martin is ranked third in the AL among regular center fielders in dWAR at .7.  Yes, it’s Pillar and Kiermaier ahead of him.  He is an elite defender, and he’s been a defensive standout throughout his career.

Martin has not been a great hitter.  His career slash is .255/.308/.371.  Last year he was deemed expendable because the Rangers insisted he lead off despite his low on-base percentage, which was exacerbated by injury and his generally lousy year. Martin is not a power hitter. The most home runs he’s ever hit in a season is eight. You know why I spell out eight?  Because it’s less than 10.  Fewer than 10 home runs home runs makes you less of a power hitter than Brad Miller.

So what the heck is happening with Leonys Martin? One thing that’s happening is he has suddenly emerged on May 24th as a power hitter with eight home runs, tying his season high. That’s in 139 at bats as opposed to 457 at bats required in 2013, the last time he achieved that feat.  Does that mean he’s going to hit 25-30 home runs? I don’t think so, but clearly Jeff Sullivan is impressed.

No, what I find impressive, is that on May 9th Martin was hitting .198. with five homers and 37 strikeouts. 11 games later his slash is .259/.335/.468. He’s struck out only six times.  In the last seven games his slash is .600/.660/1.100.  with two K’s.

There will be plenty of folks who are super impressed with the idea of a Martin with power. I am much more impressed with a Martin who can be a legit leadoff hitter with speed. With Ketel Marte injured and Nori Aoki slumping, Martin offers the M’s an enfant terrible of their own.  A guy who can get on base, can run, drive pitchers and catchers nuts, and I’ll take the occasional homer just for good measure.

Will Martin’s success continue?  Will his average continue to rise?  Will he continue to suppress his strike outs?  Damned if I know.  But that’s baseball.  Pitchers will try to figure him out and he’ll have to continue to make adjustments.

Look, we know what to expect from Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager.  We’ll continue to hope Chris Iannetta hits enough to supplement his good defense. But I’ll be rooting for Martin to continue hitting and provide the kind of production the Mariners haven’t had in a very long time.



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