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A New Leonys Martin?

Is Martin's hot start a sign of a new approach at the plate?

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

I will be the first person to tell you it's too early to make generalizations.

We're so early in the season - only 13 games. Thirteen games! That's more than 75% of an NFL season, but just 7.4% of the baseball calendar. And in a sport where hot and cold streaks happen all the time, it's nearly impossible to tell which early statistical trends are permanent and which can be chalked up to luck.

Of course, it's my job at this here Lookout Landing to write about stats, so that's the goal. When I found the Mariners stats page on Baseball-Reference, there were a couple things that stood out...

Wait a minute - is that Leonys Martin far out-pacing the team in strikeouts? And is he really hitting that well?

Martin, acquired this winter in a multi-player trade (the M's gave up Tom "The Bartender" Wilhelmsen, James "Jimmy Jets" Jones, and Patrick Kivlehan for Martin and Anthony Bass, who was soon released), has never been a star hitter.

In his best seasons (2013 and 2014), Martin has been a slightly below-average hitter (87 and 89 wRC+, respectively) but an elite defender, and that has been a recipe for success: He combined for 6.4 fWAR over those two seasons. But his hitting cratered last season, with his slash line dropping all the way to .219/.264/.313.

Through the ups and downs, Martin's strikeout rate has remained fairly consistent, fluctuating between 19.6% and 22.3% of his plate appearances. This year, however, it's skyrocketed to 37.0%, good for sixth in the league!

The tradeoff of being more free-swinging? A whole lot of power.

Martin's career isolated slugging percentage (ISO, or slugging percentage minus batting average) is .110. He finished at just .094 last year. But he's now at .214, fourth-best among all center fielders in the game.

So Martin is striking out more and hitting for more power. He also has just 46 plate appearances this year, meaning that it's entirely possible this is just a fluke. There are a couple reasons to think, however, that this could be the start of a new Leonys Martin.

We all know that if a guy hits three homers on Opening Day, there's no chance he'll keep his pace of 486 dingers for a full season. Home run rate doesn't stabilize after one game - rather, it takes a much larger sample to be reasonably confident that a given stretch of a season is representative of a player's true talent. The same is true for many other statistics, unsurprisingly.

What is interesting, however, is that these rates stabilize at different points - and one of the earliest to reach that point is strikeout rate. Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus has done some great research into the minimum number of plate appearances and at-bats for each stat, and he's found that strikeout rate becomes fairly stable at just 50-60 plate appearances. If Martin doesn't strike out a single time for his next 14 trips to the plate, he would still be at 28.3% for the year, higher than any full season he's had in his entire professional career. If you believe in the 50 PA minimum, then his K% would be at 34.0% should he make not strike out in his next four PAs.

But it's so early in the season still that you just can't put too much stock into what Martin has accomplished. Carleton published a piece yesterday about how quickly exit velocity stabilizes, and it's quite interesting - it looks like it takes just around 40 batted-ball events (meaning no strikeouts, walks, etc.) to reach a fairly confident point. Martin has all of 23 events this season.

But why might it make sense to believe in Leonys Martin 2.0?

The above quote comes from Greg Johns' article last week. It fits in with what we've seen and heard around the team since Edgar took over: He's able to connect with the clubhouse in ways that Howard Johnson, Dave Hansen, and the rest of the revolving door in that position have failed to utilize.

Dustin Ackley (God rest his beard's soul) succinctly summarized why players listen to him:

It’s easy to listen to a guy who has a street named after him. It’s easy to buy into that.

This isn't something to take to the bank. It's entirely possible that Martin has just gotten lucky a couple times (though his average exit velocity on line drives and fly balls is more than 2.5 MPH higher than it was a year ago). It's possible that he's going to return to the light-hitting elite defender that Dipoto & Co. thought they acquired from Texas - still a good player in his own right.

But why approach this game that way?

I'm choosing to believe in The New Leonys Martin. I'm going to enjoy watching him fly around center field, stepping on Norichika Aoki's shoes and making great diving catches, before he steps up to bat and bombs one over the right field fence. I'm going to enjoy a player wear my number from high school and play my position and excel. I'm going to put my faith in 'Gar, in manager Scott Servais, and in Leonys Martin.

Because that's what baseball's all about.

Go M's.