Under the tutelage of Seattle Mariners’ legend/hitting coach, Edgar Martinez, Leonys Martin has revamped his approach at the plate, showing confidence in his swing after a disappointing 2015; however, Martin has still struggled to overcome what has always been seen as limited offensive upside.
With the Mariners’ front office championing a “control the strike zone” movement, Martin has found himself walking at a league average rate (8.7%) for the first time in his career, but Martin is also whiffing as frequently as ever, leading to a 32.3% K%. That’s the kind of strikeout rate only extremely powerful hitters can get away with. But a higher K-rate isn’t the only power-hitting characteristic Martin has adopted so far in 2016.
The most obvious change is Martin’s batted ball profile. A whopping 47.5% of balls Martin has put in play were fly balls, while just 37.7% were ground balls. Compared to a 30.1% FB% and a 50% GB% for his career, these tendencies suggest Martin is trying to hit for more power by lifting the ball a bit more.
Martin is helping his case by making considerably more hard contact than in years past, but it is not coming at the expense of soft contact, so it seems that Martin might just be letting it fly at the plate and taking what he can get. Unfortunately, (way) more often than not, as his .188 AVG shows, Martin heads back to the bench without a hit. Despite an unusually low BABIP, this isn’t just a product of poor luck.
In 2013 and 2014, as a member of the Texas Rangers, Martin managed a BABIP of .319 and .336 respectively, but he did so on the strength of 21+% LD%. In 2015, Martin was named the Rangers’ leadoff man to begin the season, but it’s likely that this high-leverage role put a little too much pressure on him. Martin was much more aggressive than a prototypical top-of-the-order hitter, and got a little too pull-happy while hitting a lot of fly balls: his LD% dropped to 15.3%, dragging his BABIP down to .270.
This year with Seattle, Martin hasn’t been asked to fill the same role, given the presence of Nori Aoki, and there were practically zero expectations for his bat coming into the season. Although Martin was acquired primarily for his glove, his 79 wRC+ is unsightly, and his 14.8% LD% and .233 BABIP suggests something is wrong with his swing, (or at least what he chooses to swing at).
On a new team with such a respected hitter (Martinez) as a coach, it is not a surprise that Martin would be very receptive to adjustments, so it is possible we are just seeing the growing pains that come with a new approach. We can see that coming into 2016, Martin had noticeably quieted his hands during his load, which may be slightly altering his typical swing path.
There was a definite hitch in Martin’s load during his days with the Rangers.
In this clip below though, we see the motion in Martin’s hands is reduced to a little wiggle (or waggle, if you will).
Potentially, this better sets Martin up to hit offspeed and breaking pitches, which is supported by improved Fangraphs’ pitch values, but pitchers are getting fastballs by him. In 2014 and 2015, if we look very closely frame-by-frame, we see that the last movement Martin’s hands make before moving toward the ball is up and back, a typical load.
In 2016, we see that Martin’s hands don’t load in the same way – they’re actually tilting the bat forward before swinging. All my youth coaching would tell me that this can easily put a “loop” or a little uppercut in his swing, making it harder to square up fastballs. Whether this is actually happening isn’t really my domain, but let’s look at what Martin has done against fastballs this year.
From Baseball Savant, event breakdowns for Martin against 4-seam fastballs show a distinct step backwards in 2016.
A 2.6% increase in whiffs may seem marginal, but Martin is putting 4-seam fastballs in play with less frequency, and is fouling off a larger proportion of them. Martin’s ineffectiveness against fastballs is likely a main contributor to his decreased Z-Contact% (down 10% from last year) and still pedestrian line-drive rate.
Pitchers aren’t easing up on Martin either. Two of Martin’s five home runs this season have come on sliders, and coincidence or not, the percentage of sliders Martin has seen (compared to total pitches seen) this season is 4% under his career average. Pitchers have increased their changeup use nearly 5% over Martin’s career average this year, and per Brooks Baseball, Martin has whiffed on half of his swings against offspeed pitches.
Though he is well on his way to setting career highs in power categories, Martin has so much going against him that it will be incredibly difficult to justify this trend. The Mariners need Martin on base, and while he is doing his part by walking more, he really just needs to squarely put the bat on the ball. It might be a matter of getting comfortable with a new approach, but now that we’re nearly a fifth of the way through the season, it is time to start worrying a little.
Statistics provided by: FanGraphs.com, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball, MLB.com
Images thanks to: MLB.com, Getty Images, USA Today, statesmanjournal.com