Perhaps Jerry Dipoto saw Leonys Martín as a 15-20 home run hitter when the Mariners targeted him last winter, but I think it’s safe to say that the power outburst Martín showed took many by surprise. According to Martín, hitting coach Edgar Martínez, as well as veterans Nelson Cruz and Robinson Canó, were responsible for helping Leonys adjust his swing and stride slightly to deliver more power. As Jake discussed last week in our general overviews of position groups, Martín was a good defensive player, even as defensive metrics did not deem him to be great, but his power fell off dramatically following his return from a hamstring injury in May, as did, likely, his confidence.
The version of Leonys Martín from the first two months showed pull power that would make him one of the top players in the league at his position if it was maintained over an entire season. With an aging, high-paid core and few immediate upgrades easily at-hand, internal improvement will likely be key if the Mariners want to compete for the playoffs in 2017. Was his power just a fluky stretch of excellence? Or indicative of something repeatable?
Martín’s body is built like the most frustrating person to play against in a pickup basketball game. He’s listed at 6’1, 180, but looks thicker and more compact, as though he is built to drive in the lane with his shoulder lowered and create space to put up an ugly layup that rattles in, then grin at you as he dances back down the court. After never posting a home run total over eight in his career, Martín smacked nine dingers through May and seemed like a breakout star. He feasted on first pitches, in particular, hitting a voracious .473/.473/.623 with two of his 15 home runs on the year coming on the initial offering. His 97 wRC+ through the first half of the season, even after being rushed back from his hamstring injury, would have been 11th best in the MLB among qualified CFs.
With Martín’s solid speed and defense, the gap between his excellent first half and his dodgy second half is the difference between being a poor man’s Kevin Pillar and a poor man’s Dexter Fowler. Hamstring injuries are notorious for sapping power and messing up good mechanics if they occur in a hitter’s plant leg, just ask Albert Pujols. Even if that effected Martín for a time, however, his second half struggles, particularly his 45 wRC+ August, were disappointing.
These are the heatmaps of where Martín was being pitched to in 2016 - the left side showing his first two months and the right side showing the rest of the season following his return. They are not particularly different. The recipe Martín was served changed dramatically twice during the year, each coinciding with a slump for the vivacious Cuban. In June, Martín saw a rise in fastballs, and after roughly 150 at-bats of a 60-24-16 split of fastballs-breaking balls-offspeed, fastballs jumped to nearly 70% of his diet, and Martín, whether struggling physically or rhythmically, had his worst month of the year, with a wOBA of .276 after a torrid May at .392.
Martín adapted, but it appears his adjustments led to him cheat to catch fastballs, and his whiff rates began to skyrocket for offspeed and breaking pitches. Correspondingly, pitchers began to throw him more junk, and Martín saw barely over 55% fastballs the final two months of the season. Leonys’ joyful bat flips were supplanted too frequently by a hanging head and a slow trudge back to the dugout after a K or a pop out. According to Brooks Baseball’s records, Leonys seemed to either cheat for heat or be totally off balance for much of the second half, with his swing and misses jumping nearly 6% on changeups and curveballs. Even when he made contact, Martín popped out at nearly double the rate he did in the first two months on fastballs, and over triple the rate he had on sliders.
After beginning the season with what would be a career high 26% K% through May, Martín would roughly maintain that rate throughout the season, but replaced home runs and pull power with Austin Jackson-esque batted ball velocity, less pull power, and more swings and misses. The weaker contact meant that, even though his fly ball rates on fastballs rose slightly (while falling for all other pitches), he didn’t have the power to drive the ball out of the ballpark.
Leonys swung more and got less out of it in the second half. His speed helped him raise his batting average and other traditional stats slightly, but while singles and doubles are wonderful things, but they simply are not homers. Hitting as many home runs in the second half of the season as he did in April capped him out as a good baseball player who performed like a slightly diminished version of his Texas self for half the season.
Will Leonys Martín show 20 HR power over a full season next year? Probably not. A 29 year old player who has not shown consistent health and power in his career is not a great bet to suddenly display both in droves. If you are looking for hints that he might be great, I can offer conjecture about his health or his mindset, but making a declaration based on two months of performance is a dangerous game.
Even if the power he once had has slipped away from him, he will still be a Good Baseball Player, and will likely resemble the player we expected when he was initially acquired. There are enough mitigating factors in this season’s late struggles to argue, if things go right, Martín could be the player he started 2016 as for an entire season: comfortable, confident, and well-constituted. If he is, that would go a long way towards the M’s playoff chances next year. It’s only November, go ahead, dream big.