Leonys Martin and the Elevation Revelation: Between Innings

{Editor’s Note: Since the time of this article being published, the Cleveland Indians have revealed that Leonys Martin has been suffering through a “life-threatening bacterial infection that attacked his internal organs.” The report also states that as of August 13, Martin is in stable condition. The WFNY family prays for his full recovery- regardless of what it means for baseball.}
Visions of a former National League MVP outfielder on an expiring contract landing with the Cleveland Indians to help solve the issue with one of the worst outfields in MLB danced through fans heads as the non-waiver trade deadline neared. Yet neither the 25-year-old Bryce Harper nor the 31-year-old Andrew McCutchen changed teams. The biggest name on the outfield market to switch ballclubs wound up being the St. Louis Cardinals’ Tommy Pham, who somehow landed on the non-contending Tampa Bay Rays.1 The Tribe did not sit on their hands though as they traded for defensive stalwart Leonys Martin, who is team-controlled through the 2019 season.

Martin has been known through his career as a slightly below average hitter who made up for the minimal value in his bat with great play in the premium defensive position of center field. The combination of his speed, routes, and arm also allows him the flexibility to move into a corner spot in the outfield when it is deemed necessary. Martin’s hitting fell off a cliff in 2017,2 but the 2018 season has seen his batting prowess reach the heights of a MLB average hitter. Such a status might not seem impressive, but when paired with his defense it makes him a valuable weapon in any lineup. When compared with the complete lack of production he is replacing, Martin’s current value to the Tribe is incredible despite needing to sit out the Wednesday night game against the Minnesota Twins with ‘intestinal turmoil.’

The question quickly shifts to if Martin has made actual changes he can continue to carry forward or if he will regress back to his career average numbers. Either is possible and his propensity for hamstring maladies indicate the Indians do need to have other options available should he suffer an injury at an inopportune time.3 However, there are some specific alterations in his swing and approach that make it worth considering Martin could have tweaked his profile enough to sustain his current production levels.

Let’s start with where Martin is similar or worse from his previous seasons. His .255 batting average and .323 on-base percentage mirror his early career with the Texas Rangers. Martin’s strikeout rate dropping to 21.8% in 2018 puts him back on pace with those early career results as well. Only having seven stolen bases in each of the 2017 and 2018 season are far down from the 20 stolen base per season average he had with the Rangers.4

Most of his peripheral statistics though have drastically improved. Martin’s .425 slugging percentage is 40 points higher than his pre-2018 career high and 60 points above his career average. The current 8.5% walk rate and a 0.39 BB/K ratio are both career bests. As is his 37.9% hard-hit rate (8% increase from his previous career best) and 18.9% soft hit rate (2% decrease from previous career best).

Are these peripherals random variance or a change in approach?

The numbers suggest the latter. Martin is a recent convert to the Elevation Revelation. His flyball rate of 46.1% is a career high as it has increased by over seven percent, while his groundball rate has decreased by the same to 36.2%, which is a career low. These results are far different than his early career when the speedster focused on hitting over half of his batted balls on the ground with just under 30% reaching fly ball status.

But wait, there’s more.

Not only is Martin hitting the ball in the air more, but he is being much more particular about which pitches he is targeting. He is swinging at out-of-the-zone pitches only 30% of the time (career best) while swinging at in-the-zone pitches 71.6% of the time (career best). His overall contact rate has also risen compared to the last couple of years though it is lower than when he was swinging down on the ball his first few seasons in Texas.

Oh, and his defense is still just fine, thank you. Martin’s UZR/150 of 16.2 in CF is near his career-best though his DRS (4) is not quite at the levels of his early career numbers even when accounting for the innings discrepancy.

What does it all mean?

The details of exactly how these results are achieved is complex, yet the overview is rather simple. Martin is swinging with an intent to drive the ball in the air. He is swinging at more strikes and less balls. The combination of the two has allowed him to hit the ball harder, more often. Doing so has elevated his hitting profile because his power numbers have surged, which has made him a league average hitter in combination with his above average defense in center field.

It is possible Martin will not be able to sustain his current profile or that injuries (or intestinal turmoil) will get the better of him. However, he has made specific changes that break any statistical projections about him and fans can simply sit back and cheer him on.

  1. Pham, who finished No. 11 in the 2017 NL MVP voting, has multiple years of team control. []
  2. Reports were that the Seattle Mariners forced him into a swing change he did not want, which led to some animosity and Martin spending most of the season in AAA. []
  3. Note: Brandon Guyer in center field does not constitute an acceptable substitution. []
  4. Remember those hamstring concerns? They might explain this drop-off. []