You can make an excellent case that Martin, the Mariners’ new starting center fielder, has the best arm in baseball.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Tape-measure home runs and 100-mph fastballs are the most obvious baseball crowd-pleasers, power writ large and unsubtle.
But let’s reserve a spot in the pantheon of gasp-inducing feats for the laser throw from the outfield to gun down a runner. Give bonus points if it’s at home plate; there might not be a more exciting moment in baseball than a charging outfielder uncorking a bullet to the catcher, and the balletic explosion of converging activity — the sliding runner, the arriving ball, the sweeping tag, all punctuated by the umpire’s call.
Baseball connoisseurs still revel in some of the legendary throwers in baseball history — Roberto Clemente, Ellis Valentine, Andre Dawson, Dwight Evans and Jesse Barfield jump to mind. Who can forget Dave Parker gunning down a runner at the plate at the Kingdome in the 1979 All-Star Game, or Bo Jackson nailing a stunned Harold Reynolds trying to score from first on a ball in the corner, or Yoenis Cespedes throwing all the way home on the fly from the left-field corner to cut down Howie Kendrick. I’m sure you have your favorite hose, be it Larry Walker, Vladimir Guerrero, Raul Mondesi, Jose Guillen or someone else.
And now the Mariners have one of the leading practitioners in the art of outfield artillery. Leonys Martin might not have the strongest arm in baseball; then again, he just might. But regardless, you can make an excellent case he has the best arm. And there’s little argument he is the best-throwing center fielder in the business; almost all the renowned throwers reside on the corners.
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“The carry on the ball, the velocity, the accuracy, how it comes out — it plays,’’ Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “A lot of guys have long arms, but it doesn’t play. It takes them a while to wind up and get rid of it. But as you see, he’s a very athletic player. It’s in and out of his glove rather quickly, and it is on line where it’s intended to go. It’s impressive.”
Martin said he takes tremendous pride and great joy in his throwing ability. One of his favorites occurred last year when he threw out the Yankees’ Mark Teixeira at the plate after he slowed down rounding third on a single. After the game, Teixeira lambasted his third-base coach, Joe Espeda, for telling him to ease up because it appeared he had it made easily.
“I enjoyed that one,’’ Martin said. “Halfway past third, I don’t know what the coach said, but when I was getting the ball, I put my head up, and he was jogging. I said, ‘I have a chance.’ I didn’t expect to get him.”
Such moments are adrenaline to the 28-year-old Martin, and they come with enough frequency to put Martin among the elite. Last year, he had 13 assists, tied for sixth in the majors, despite playing in just 95 games. He had 11 assists in 2014 and 14 in 2013.
“Throwing a guy out is like hitting a home run or driving in a run,” Martin said. “It’s an amazing feeling for me. To help the pitcher out, it’s a great feeling.”
But assists tell only part of the story, because once an outfielder gets a reputation, runners stop taking chances against him. Think back to Ichiro’s epic throw to obliterate Oakland’s Terrence Long early in his rookie season of 2001 — “like something out of Star Wars,” in Dave Niehaus’ memorable words. It was a long while before foes challenged Ichiro again.
A recent article by Lookout Landing, entitled “Leonys Martin: Kill Machine” highlighted his throwing bona fides. According to the FanGraphs Outfield Arm Runs (ARM) stat, which attempts to measure the number of “runs above average an outfielder saves with their arm by preventing runners from advancing,” Martin is not only the top center fielder, by a large margin, since they started tracking this in 2002; he’s the No. 1 outfielder at any position, just ahead of Cespedes and Walker.
In fact, Lookout Landing’s Eric Blankenship crunched the numbers for all the reputed great throwers throughout history in the admittedly obscure category of kill percentage differential (base runners thrown out per opportunity above league average) and found Martin, at this early juncture of his career, topped them all.
It’s not hard to see why. Whenever possible, I have made it a point to watch fielding drills to get an up-close and personal view of Martin’s arm. It is a sight to behold, and not just for me. Nelson Cruz, Martin’s teammate in Texas when he was signed out of Cuba, and now with the Mariners — and a strong thrower in his own right — marvels at Martin’s arm.
“You can’t imagine one with the strength and accuracy he has,’’ Cruz said. “Now that he’s more mature, he understands that it doesn’t have to go all the way to the glove. It can go on one hop. Experience helps. He understands what kind of arm he has and what he can do to change games and help his team win games.”
Cruz said Martin has one of the two best outfield arms he has seen, the other being Alexi Ogando. Yes, the same Alexi Ogando who was converted to pitching and was clocked at 100 mph in 2012.
Martin, who was coached in the art of throwing by his dad, pitched only briefly in his youth. But he said that when he was 20, he was clocked on his throws from center to home and the radar-gun reading was 98 mph.
“I love throwing,’’ he said. “I try to keep it a strong part of my game. People enjoy it. I can’t wait to show the fans in Seattle.”
They’re in for a laser show.