If you were to start writing a semi-regular column at Baseball Prospectus that dives into the mechanics of hitters' swings, I am almost positive no one would choose to start with Leonys Martin. Nobody is jonesing for a breakdown of Martin’s swing, except for maybe his immediate family. However, the Mariners outfielder is intriguing to me because of what he represents.
Why hitters decide to make changes to their swing at various points in their career is fascinating. There are players like the Twins’ Byron Buxton or the Yankees’ Aaron Judge, who have various coaches and instructors providing them with input to maximize their production for the organization. They are a significant investment, so naturally a team wants them to pay dividends as soon as possible.
On the other hand, there are players like Chris Colabello or J.D. Martinez, who start to fall into the roster fodder roles and decide to make adjustments because either they risk flaming out of the game or they need to make improvements if they ever hope of achieving a big payday (like Justin Turner or Edwin Encarnacion). At 29 years old in 2017, Martin fits into the latter group.
PECOTA doesn’t necessarily envision a step forward for Martin in 2017, projecting him to hit .249/.303/.380. PECOTA, of course, doesn’t really factor in these kinds of changes. It focuses on a player’s previous track record and comparables. Martin’s recent decision to make adjustments to his swing might be reason to reconsider his potential this year.
When he was acquired from the Rangers following the 2015 season, Martin was expected to be a defensive wizard in the spacious Safeco Field. Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto cited the center fielder's athleticism, speed, and defensive capabilities as the primary reason the organization was willing to part with Tom Wilhelmsen, James Jones, and Patrick Kivlehan to get him. Anything Martin could contribute offensively would be gravy.
Martin headed to Seattle as the owner of a career .255/.305/.361 batting line, essentially replacement level if it weren’t for his outstanding defensive chops. In his first season with the Mariners, he made several changes to his approach that allowed him to hit a career-high 15 home runs. More than that, it allowed him to go from a ground ball-oriented hitter to one who elevates the ball more as his revamped swing provided an average launch angle of 12.4 degrees after producing at the less optimal 6.2 degrees in 2015. These are positive indicators of a hitter trending in the right direction.
It was Mariners hitting coach Edgar Martinez who helped facilitate the changes. According to reports, Martinez worked on getting Martin shorter to the ball and eliminating a bat wrap, which he perceived as hindering his overall swing. Working alongside veterans Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz also provided valuable insight—Cano honed in on the fact that Martin had a tendency to overswing and Cruz … well, he provided Martin with a new, heavier bat, something that would hopefully counteract his sometimes too quick swing.
While the cosmetic stance and setup differences between his Rangers and Mariners days is easy to discern, it's what happens after Martin starts his swing that separates the two models. With the Rangers, he would drop his hands before bringing them back up to shoulder level and toward the ball. Last season with the Mariners, he would keep his hands (and his head) in a better spot to attack, saving his hands the travel distance before firing forward.
There were more than a few articles written suggesting that, because of Martin’s changes in his stance and swing, the sudden burst of power was more than just a blip. Still, after his insanely hot month of May, Martin more or less cooled down and the results were instep with the rest of his career, finishing with a .247/.306/.378 line that looks like the same output from his Texas days.
Changes or not, he ultimately produced at the same level he always did, save for the month of May. Which brings us to today.
Once again, Martin has unveiled a complete overhaul of his mechanics. According to Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times, Martin went with Cano to the Dominican Republic, where they worked with former Oriole and current hitting instructor Luis Mercedes. (It is notable because Mercedes is credited with helping Edwin Encarnacion discover his potential when they worked together in 2011, right before Encarnacion’s age-29 season.) Together, Cano, Mercedes, and Martin worked on a new stance and swing that would be direct to the ball and allow him to drive it to all fields.
Unlike his previous change, Martin went the other direction with his hands, opting to lower them to his chest instead of raising them to head level. He’s squat, square, and—perhaps most importantly—quiet.
The first changes for Martin in 2016 feel incomplete. When hitters make adjustments in-season, they are often band-aids. Some can be very substantial band-aids, like Brian Dozier of the Twins adding a pre-swing bat flick to create rhythm and timing before going off for 42 home runs. Others might just help a player get hot for a month or so before the opposition figures out how to cool them off (or other flaws such as pitch selection rear their ugly head again). Now, with an entire offseason to perfect his mechanics, 2017 will definitely be intriguing for Martin.