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Leonys Martin, The Hero We Need

Isn’t it great to have a competent (read: not Austin Jackson) center fielder?

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The Mariners traded for Leonys Martin way back in mid-November, or just over nine months ago. At the time, reaction to the trade was fairly positive.

Back then, we thought we knew what we were getting: an elite defensive center fielder coming off a down year at the plate.

Of course, when I say down year, I mean Jesus Sucre-in-the-Home-Run-Derby down. Martin posted a putrid wRC+ of 50 last season, with a slash line of .219/.264/.313. He made hard contact just 23.3% of the time, a career-low rate. And he hit a lot of ground balls with very few line drives - in fact, his line drive rate was sixth-lowest among all players with at least 300 plate appearances.

I could go on and on about last season, and I actually did write about it earlier this year. That article came out after just 13 games, so the sample size was quite small - a point I noted early on - and not necessarily representative of a new approach.

Now, however? Martin has 101 games and 403 plate appearances, and the changes are clear as day. The Leonys Martin we thought the Rangers had gift-wrapped us never actually showed up, but instead we got Leonys Martin 2.0, Now With Extra Power! and he’s been nothing short of wonderful.

Let’s start with what hasn’t changed. Namely, his Gold Glove-caliber defense. It’s come in handy on more than a few occasions.

Last night’s game was a perfect example. Martin had a couple shining plays, throwing out Nick Buss trying to turn a single into a double and gliding in to rob Cliff Pennington of a single.

It's a thing of beauty, no? Jose Rivera

This is nothing new for Martin, but everything new for the Mariners. We spent the last year-and-a-half or so watching Austin Jackson and his noodle arm underwhelm us, and it hasn’t been since Guti became Death to Flying Things that the M’s have had a true CF on both sides of the ball.

Okay, fine, one more.

So Martin’s defense remains stellar. His offense has turned around from last season as well, but it’s done so in a very surprising way, as Martin has turned into something of a slugger.

Since my article in mid-April, and since some guy named Jeff Sullivan wrote about Martin in late May, Martin has continued this power-hitting trend. His ground-ball rate has dropped 10 points, from 51.7% to 41.6% - for context, that drops him from the 39th-highest rate among the 268 players with at least 300 PA to the 127th-highest rate among the 209 with that many PA this year - and his fly-ball rate is up from 33.0% to 41.2%. He’s pulling the ball much more as well.

Let’s do some quick math here. More balls pulled to RF + more fly balls = more home runs! And, yep, Martin already has more dingers this season than the past two years combined.

But it’s the plate discipline numbers that are most interesting. Martin is striking out more this year, which is unfortunate (though he’s also walking more as well). That’s not because he’s chasing more, however, as he’s hacking at 31.7% of pitches that are outside the strike zone, a career low for him. Rather, he’s simply just swinging and missing more - a fairly logical tradeoff for the increased power he’s seen.

Leonys Martin has not been what we expected. But he’s been more fun than we could’ve dreamed of. As a center fielder through my high school days, I always appreciate someone who can play gap-to-gap defense, especially when that someone also has the arm strength I would’ve loved to have. That, combined with the surprising power and general swag that Martin has in spades, has made for quite a player.

So here’s to you, Leonys Martin. You’re a key piece of a playoff contender, and you’re also a joy to watch. Keep it up. Keep fighting.