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Leonys Martin, or a Tale of Two Hitters

Will the real Leonys Martin please stand up?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

What first comes to mind when you think of Leonys Martin?

Perhaps it's his incredible ability to run down fly balls in center field, perhaps only rivaled by Air Bud.

Or maybe you think of his bazooka for a throwing arm.

Either way, the man patrolling center for the M's is defined by his defense, and he's asked to hit just well enough to contribute. After over a year of Austin Jackson, whose right arm can only be described as a noodle, it's a welcome sight to see him in center, something we were reminded of when he hit the disabled list and the likes of Nori Aoki and Shawn O'Malley were pressed into action.

Ever since that stint on the DL, however, Martin hasn't been the same hitter. Consider the following table, which shows Martin's stats before the hamstring injury and after he returned.

Before DL Stint 167 .262 .339 .483 14 123
After DL Stint 96 .233 .281 .333 4 68

Sure, 96 plate appearances isn't exactly a huge sample size. But that's a pretty glaring difference! Given his batting average on balls in play of .306, a number very much in line with his career .312 mark, it doesn't seem like he's been markedly unlucky of late. So what gives?

One obvious answer is that he's still dealing with a nagging injury that's affected his swing. As the running catch to rob Trumbo from above illustrates, his speed in the gaps is still there, and his leadoff triple just a few days ago is another sign of health. He was activated immediately after his 15 days ran up, indicating that he was rearin' and ready to go. I'm inclined to say that he's mostly healthy now, and that there's another explanation for his depressed numbers.

It wasn't too long ago that we started to wonder whether Martin had altered his entire approach at the plate. Jeff Sullivan over at Fangraphs wrote a piece the day before Martin went on the shelf about how he was no longer a slap hitter. From the article

Martin has shown one of the bigger drops in grounder rate, and he’s shown one of the bigger increases in hard-hit rate. Seems to me that puts him in a happy quadrant. A selection of his company in there: Daniel Murphy, David Wright, Victor Martinez, Yasmany Tomas. Everyone wants to hit the ball hard more consistently, but you don’t want to waste those quality batted balls on grounders. Martin has added some lift he didn’t have before.

If you know anything about data recording, you know that grounder rate can be kind of subjective. The same goes for hard-hit rate. So we can turn to Statcast, via Baseball Savant. Martin’s batted-ball speed has been a little bit better, but the real dramatic change is in where the ball has gone off the bat. Last year, 453 players hit at least 50 batted balls that Statcast recorded, and Martin ranked 396th in average launch angle. That is, on average, Martin’s batted balls came out nearly horizontal. So far this year, Martin ranks 37th out of 269.

It's possible that Martin was just hitting a bunch of fly balls and his true style of play included many more grounders. Since returning, Martin's ground-ball rate is 48.4%, much higher than his 40.6% rate during the first two months of the season. In addition, fewer of his fly balls are making it over the fence, as he's down to just an 8.0% HR/FB rate compared to his 21.4% rate from earlier. Though his career rate is 8.8%, indicating that he simply had a torrid stretch to open the season and was bound to regress, I think Jeff's piece shows there was some sort of change this season, and it's reasonable to expect him to hit more balls out of the park than in previous years.

Ultimately, this piece is unsatisfying. I don't have the exact reason why Martin has been worse since his return from injury, though I think it's a combination of the two factors mentioned above, with regression the most likely culprit and the one that deserves the lion's share of the blame.

There is one thing to keep in mind: Leonys Martin is still a damn good center fielder. For a full season, even with this three-week-long slump, Martin's numbers would prorate to 4.4 fWAR over a full 162-game campaign. But even beyond the numbers, his clubhouse presence has been cited over and over again as hugely beneficial to the team, to the point where he traveled with the club while on the DL. You can't put a value on that.

So here's to you, Mr. Martin. May you find your early-season game and bless us with many more of these moments.