Already with nine home runs, including a thrilling game-ending two-run homer Tuesday, the outfielder has become a valuable part of the Mariners’ offense. “Man, this is really good,” he said. “I feel like everybody loves me here. It’s such a nice feeling.”
Leonys Martin sat at his locker, staring ahead and glancing at his phone every few minutes. His left thigh was wrapped tight with a bandage to hold the ice pack on his hamstring.
Every so often, his semi-trance was interrupted with a hand on a shoulder or words from teammate or a coach that stopped at his locker to check on him. Each time brought a warm smile to Martin’s face. They cared.
A tweaked hamstring ended his night in the third inning. And it was frustrating since the minor injury came during a stretch when he was playing the best baseball of his career.
Minnesota @ Mariners, 7:10 p.m., ROOT Sports
There was comfort for Martin in knowing the hamstring issue was minor and he’ll be back in a few days. But the reaction from his teammates and coaches provided further affirmation of his importance to the team. Just hours earlier, he talked about how happy was to be with the Mariners, and postgame he was given another reason to feel that way.
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“I’m not surprised,” he said. “Man, this is really good. I feel like everybody loves me here. It’s such a nice feeling.”
Of the many offseason acquisitions in the roster overhaul made by general manager Jerry Dipoto, the trade that brought Martin to Seattle has been the most beneficial and valuable.
On Nov. 16, Dipoto acquired Martin and right-handed pitcher Anthony Bass while giving up reliever Tom Wilhelmsen, outfielder James Jones and prospect Patrick Kivlehan.
It was clear the Rangers, who had signed Martin as a free agent after a defection from Cuba in 2011, were ready to part ways with him, even if it meant sending him to divisional foe.
“I don’t want to talk about last year,” Martin said. “I want to move on. I’m just looking forward.”
The trade appears to be a win for the Mariners.
In what seems to be an annual occurrence, Wilhelmsen has pitched himself into the minor leagues with a 9.98 ERA. The Rangers designated Jones for assignment in the offseason and outrighted him to the minors. He’s hitting .242. Two days ago, the Rangers designated Kivlehan, who was hitting just .184 in Class AAA, for assignment.
The day he put on a Mariners uniform, Martin was the best defensive center fielder the team has had since Franklin Gutierrez was completely healthy in 2009. It speaks to Martin’s plus ability to run down balls and his stellar throwing arm, but also to how abysmal the position had been in past years.
By fielding metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Martin rates in the top five in both categories in all of baseball. Per UZR, he’s saved 3.0 runs in 44 games played, while per DRS he’s saved four. In FanGraphs, Defensive Runs Above Average, Martin is tied for third best at 3.7 with Kansas City’s Lorenzo Cain behind Kevin Pillar of Toronto and Dexter Fowler of the Cubs.
“He’s a lot better than he grades out in some of the stuff,” manager Scott Servais said. “I look at center fielders in the league and he’s got to be one of the top two or three guys in our league in tracking balls down and plus the throwing arm on top of it. I haven’t looked at all the details and metrics. I know where I think he is, but some other rankings don’t have him quite as high. I know I’m glad he’s on our team.”
Bench coach Tim Bogar hasn’t looked at the metrics, but off memory he mentions two over the shoulder grabs in Houston and another against Kansas City.
“That one game in Houston he saved at least five in one game,” Bogar said. “He turns and runs to a ball better than anybody I’ve ever seen. I don’t know how the metrics work exactly, but those balls in Houston are hits in the majority of outfields and he made it looks easy. And nobody even tries to run on his arm.”
Martin has never been known as a great hitter. He was thought to be a streaky, undisciplined hitter with contact issues and unable to work counts or hit left-handed pitching. Before this season, he had a career strikeout percentage of 20.5 and walk percentage of 6.0 and a.305 on-base percentage, confirming the scouting report. Last season, he hit .219 with a .264 OBP, including 69 strikeouts in 95 games.
In 44 games this season, he’s hitting .265 with an .822 OPS with a career high in homers (9) and drawn more walks (17) than he did all of last season.
He’s worked extensively with hitting coach Edgar Martinez on controlling his swing and changing the bat path to through the strike zone.
“I’m just trying to be aggressive and swing at strikes,” Martin said. “Trying to stay under control at home plate. I don’t need to swing as hard.”
Martin is hitting the ball more in the air this season as a result. It’s not usually ideal for a player with his speed, but Servais isn’t changing anything.
“When you get a young player and he’s a speed player, especially a left-handed hitter, you want them hitting the ball on the ground at the shortstop or in the six hole and when you do that, you take away lot of the players natural ability,” he said.
The postgame scene on Wednesday was similar to a Sunday loss to the Royals on May 1. Martin had gone 0 for 4 with three strikeouts. He sat at his locker, head down and dejected. Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano awoke him from his self-pity.
“They said: ‘Hey come on, what you are you doing? Keep your head up. We’ve got a long way to go and you are going to be all right. It’s about tomorrow,’” he said. “That’s the kind of thing you never forget. That’s the kind of stuff you sometimes need from your teammates.”
When his average dropped to .189 two days later, Servais called him into his office.
“He said, (expletive) that, today’s another day, you’re back in there today, you’ll be back in there tomorrow and the day after that. You are going to play, man. You are going to play. So make an adjustment and be ready to play,’” Martin recalled.
Martin is the type of player that needs positive reinforcement. It’s something that Bogar, Cruz and Servais saw when all four were in Texas.
“He’s a sensitive kid,” Bogar said. “He likes to know that he’s needed. Just spend time with him and talk with him and reassure him that everything is cool.”
It’s better than cool for Martin.
“That’s the little things you see and say, wow,” he said. “People believe in me. This is an amazing feeling. This is the best feeling I’ve had in baseball.”