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40 in 40: Leonys Martin

A healthy Leonys Martin is poised for a breakout year.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Center field has a long and storied history for the Mariners. With names like Griffey, Cameron, and Gutierrez looming large, it can be difficult for a player to make his mark. If you go back and look at the team highlights from last season, you’ll find a player doing everything he can to live up to these legends. In the field and at the plate, Leonys Martin was a revelation.

Offensively, Martin set career-highs in home runs and total bases last year. His walk rate was the highest it’s been since a 24-game cup of tea back in 2012. That additional power was fueled by an increase in fly ball rate and a career-high hard hit rate. He was one of just four center fielders in MLB to record at least 15 home runs and 20 stolen bases. That combination of power and speed is tantalizing.

Defensively, he was spectacular. The highlight reel is filled with brilliant catches and laser beam throws. His arm in particular earned him outstanding marks from the advanced defensive metrics—first among center fielders per UZR and second per DRS.

But any discussion of Martin’s year must acknowledge his hamstring injury. He pulled it on May 25 and was placed on the disabled list for the minimum amount of time. While he was on the shelf, the defensive shortcomings of the roster were exposed. Nori Aoki spent the majority of the time in center in Martin’s stead and it wasn’t pretty. So Martin rushed through his recovery and rehab and returned with his hamstring not fully healed.

The effect on his performance was stark. Prior to his injury, he was putting up an excellent 124 wRC+, showing excellent power and patience. After returning from the DL, his offensive output dropped to a poor 73 wRC+. His power dried up, and because he was pressing for hits, his walk rate took a steep dive. He would make a number of remarkable catches in the outfield but his range was limited. Now that Statcast is tracking defensive actions, we can visualize some of the struggles Martin had in the field. Below is a spray chart of hits allowed and their potential difficulty indicated by the color gradient.

As you can see, there are a number of hits that fell in behind Martin that would be expected to be fairly routine catches. Now this chart covers the entire year, so it’s possible that some of these hits fell in before he was injured but I’m willing to bet that a majority of them occurred after his injury. Both UZR and DRS recorded a lower range score than we’d expect based on his past performance.

Luckily for the Mariners, Martin has had an entire offseason to heal fully. There have been no reports of lingering issues and he’s been proactively working on his swing with Robinson Cano. The Mariners have also addressed the roster deficiencies by adding four or five outfielders who could capably cover center field if needed. That gives the team the flexibility to allow any injuries to heal fully should the need arise this season.

Watching Leonys Martin patrol center field is a joy Mariner fans haven’t seen since Franklin Gutierrez was known as “Death to Flying Things.” He plays the game with his emotions on his sleeve and his presence is felt throughout the clubhouse. If he’s healthy and he can maintain the offensive improvements he made during the first half of the season, Martin could be poised for a huge year.