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Who Can Leonys Martín Be?

Despite what recent events may suggest, the center can hold, and maybe even crush some dingers.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

When Leonys Martín was traded to the Mariners, the reaction at Lone Star Ball, at least, was...not sad. And why would it be? Martín had a lousy year in 2015, losing his starting job, suffering a hand injury, and eventually being demoted to AAA. He went from being a premiere CF to the dreaded “fourth outfielder.” He was left off the playoff roster for the ALDS against Toronto and was banished to Arizona for extra workouts in the instructional league, where, in a fit of pique, he failed to report (you’d be mad too if Drew Stubbs took your job).

Maybe Leonys wouldn’t have been so mad if he didn’t fight so hard to get here. But after an ordeal during which he left his native Cuba, was separated from his loved ones who were promised safe passage with him, held as a de facto prisoner in a mattress-lined room in Mexico, and extorted to sign a contract giving away an exorbitant amount (30%!) of his earnings, maybe he was all out of patience for life’s little insults.

A trade to Seattle offered Martín a fresh start, and a chance to again be a centerpiece, a jewel in center field for a fanbase long-starved for competent outfield play. His fifteen homers, a career high, came as an unexpected bonus, as did his cheery, exuberant presence in the dugout. Flip through 2016 season highlights: Martín is at the center of a disproportionate number of them, whether it’s smashing a walk-off home run, or chasing down a fly ball at the wall, or a shot of him smacking the dugout fence and cheering his teammates on. He gave us what is arguably the defining image of the 2016 season, the GAPING MAW OF VICTORY:

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

But the warmth of the season has faded, and over the long, cold winter, doubt has crept in through the cracks in the walls. People don’t even bother talking about Martín as a regression candidate, because it seems to be a fait accompli that he will regress. Our own John Trupin wrote a piece back in November in which he concluded:

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.

A dangerous game, you say?

It’s the off-season, I’m bored, let’s play. [Slams hand on table, grabs knife]

Leonys Martin had a bad second half of baseball last year. This is indisputable. But there’s a chance that his hamstring injury hobbled him worse than we know:

Hamstring injuries are one of the most common sports injuries, but especially devastating to a player like Martín, who depends so much on his speed, both defensively and offensively. And while a hamstring injury isn’t necessarily season-ending, it can take weeks or months to heal from:

“MRIs performed on sprinters following a moderate hamstring strain have shown that 20-55 percent of the original injury has not healed 6 weeks later.”

Martín missed 15 games with his injury, or about three weeks, and he was badly missed in each one—or do I need to remind you of Norichika Aoki, center fielder? But when he came back, it was without the power he’d displayed at the beginning of the season.

Here’s what Leonys’ swing looked like, pre-injury. He’s always relied heavily on the quick-rotation power coming from his plant leg (you can see more examples from 2013 here). From spring training:

And you probably recognize this one.

You can see how much his legs are involved in manufacturing his power, specifically his plant leg, the left, which is the side he injured. The highlights are a little harder to come by after his injury, but there was this game, in which he kindly provided two for us to look at in one clip:

There’s an extra little kick in both of these home run swings, as he cranks around with similar torque but his plant leg isn’t quite strong enough to see the whole motion through, leading to the little extra step as he rotates through. It’s less noticeable on the second home run, the 86 mph slider he punishes into the seats, but you can still see a slight hitch. Martín’s swing has never been a thing of beauty, but with a failure in a key part of the machinery, it produced dreadful results in the latter part of the season, well below his career numbers.

Despite the late-season swoon, there are things to be excited about for Leonys in the upcoming season. Robinson Canó has been working with Martín on his swing this off-season, trying to help him shorten his swing and “be more under control at home plate.” Last year, Martín’s launch angle doubled as he started putting the ball in the air more, dropping his GB/FB ratio to a career-low 1.17, and his hard-hit rate jumped to almost 30%, a career high. Strength isn’t the issue for the 6’2” Martín, who has always trained hard and worked on building a strong upper body. Two days before the hamstring injury that would derail his season, Jeff Sullivan wrote about the dramatic change in Leonys’s results, noting that a side result of his increase in power was an increase in pitch selectivity, leading to the first double-digit BB% of his career in the majors. Sullivan also noted:

From a pitcher’s perspective, Martin has made himself more dangerous out over the plate. He can still get tied up inside, at least based on batted-ball speeds, so that could be the next step.

After spending time this off-season working with Canó—perhaps on that very thing—and returning at full health, with his improved launch angle and hard-hit rate, it’s permissible to dream on another 15-home run season from Martín. Eno Sarris has laid out the trifecta of hitting skills as power, patience, and contact, and examined how the three work together. Martín showed this past year he has the power, if he can access it; he has decent contact numbers (at about 80%, he’s 133rd overall on contact in the zone, right up there with Mark Trumbo, Kris Bryant, and Todd Frazier). The patience part is developing; his BB% this year was a solid improvement over his last three years in the majors, and would have been even higher, I think, had he not been pressing for hits post-injury.

Baseball is full of stories of late-blooming sluggers like David Ortiz, José Bautista, and our own Nelson Cruz, power hitters who learned plate discipline and saw their home run totals skyrocket in the span of just a season or two. These guys aren’t great comparisons for Martín; their lowest points are a career year for Leonys. But what the career trajectories of each of these players show is that a refined approach at the plate built on patience can help create power. If a healthy Leonys can hone his swing some and build on the strong start to the season he had last year, he will again be a sneaky source of offensive power for the Mariners.