Going Deep: Leonys Martín Is the Most Overlooked Player in Fantasy Baseball
I’ve been toying around with my new Twitter account lately. After seeing a surprising name on Statcast leaderboards, I decided to have a little fun.
Player A is Ozzie Albies, and Player B is Leonys Martín. Frankly, I think most people would take Albies in a vacuum (i.e., not considering their ADPs) given his age and positional eligibility. But juxtaposing their stats is striking. With almost double the plate apperances, Albies basically doubled Martín’s steals and home runs, with a similar batting average. Is that really worth the 300-pick premium? The vast majority of voters thought otherwise, particularly when they saw how much stronger Martín is than Albies.
This article isn’t about Albies though. It’s about Martín, whom I find to be more interesting anyway. His story has it all: forgotten veteran, the sudden development of power, stellar defense, a swing change, and a life-threatening bacterial infection. Not to be glib, but Martín makes the Dos Equis man look like Toby Flenderson.
The Swing Change
Admittedly, Martín was never known for his power. At most, he hit 15 home runs in 576 PAs in 2015. But after the 2016 season, in which he managed a meager .306 OBP, he knew it was time for a change. In the offseason, Martín worked out with Robinson Cano and Cano’s hitting instructor in the Dominican Republic. Cano noticed Martín’s swing was long and complicated. He suggested shortening up for the 2017 season, which Martín implemented without hesitation in 2017:
The modifications are noticeable. In past years, the lefty-swinging Martin started with his hands high behind his left ear with his shoulder and back elbow cocked with his feet spread wide. This season, Martin starts with his hands below his left shoulder and close to his body while standing upright in a more natural stance.
As noted above, the modifications truly are noticeable. Here’s Martín in 2016:
And here he is in 2018:
His hands are clearly lower now. They’re eye-level, whereas before they rested above his head. Accordingly, he’s also lowered his front shoulder.
The idea behind this swing change is to start lower in order to be quicker to the ball. Instead of starting with your hands up, then bringing them down to begin your swing just to bring them back up again to load, you start low and go straight to the baseball. There’s one fewer superfluous movement, which increases bat speed and shortens up the swing. And as lowering the hands makes it easier to get into the zone quicker, it also makes it easier to pull the ball because you’re more capable of getting out in front of it.
Perhaps most importantly, one thing is evident: Martín looks more comfortable in the box these days. Comfortability leads to confidence, which should, in theory, allow a hitter to focus more on hitting. This revamped swing brings with it a confident, focused power hitter. Just watch him:
OK, now that’s a smooth swing with few moving parts.
Still, a big reason why Martín’s breakout has gone unnoticed is back-to-back abridged seasons. Despite reinventing his swing in the offseason, Martin barely had a chance to show it off because the Mariners designated him for assignment on April 23, 2017. He would later be called up, only to be sent back down to Triple-A again. After a trade to the Cubs, Martín eventually found his way to the Tigers for the 2018 season, which itself would be cut short. But that’s where our story picks up.
The million dollar question — or, to be more precise, $1.75 million — is whether Martín’s swing change would be reflected in his 2018 numbers, which is the only substantial sample since those offseason workouts with Cano.
First, let’s look at Martín’s power. Many probably didn’t notice, but he hit 11 homers in just 383 PAs.
|Season||HR/PA%||ISO||SLG||Exit Velo on FB/LD||Hard Hit% (95 mph+%)||Brls/PA%|
I omitted Martin’s 2017 as he had only 138 PAs.
Wow. Just look at those improvements. In 2018, Martín barreled the ball more than twice as often as the 2016 season in which he set a career-high in homers. He nearly quintupled his 2015 barrel rate. He’s hitting his fly balls and line drives harder than ever, and he’s hitting the ball hard more often than before. Both of those facts make it seem like the swing change paid off. If there ever was evidence of quicker bat speed as a result of a swing change, it would quite literally be hitting the ball harder.
Thus, his barrel rate, hard-hit Rate, and exit velocity on FB/LD were all above league average. Martín quickly went from being a scrappy slap hitter to an MLB power hitter. Yet, I know what you’re thinking. Eleven home runs in basically half a season isn’t that many. Let me stop you right there. Martín got unlucky, nothing more.
His 13.7 xHRs and .467 xSLG, both higher than his actual output, suggest more future success in the power department. He also maintained an excellent 11.9 VH% and an elite 15.2% high-drive rate (well above the 11.2% MLB average). Considering that high drives represent 90% of home runs and stabilize pretty quickly, I’d say that’s a pretty good sign for Martín’s power prospects. His raw power portends better days, too. His 2018 barrel rate (44th overall) was higher than notable sluggers Franmil Reyes, Marcell Ozuna, and Jesus Aguilar. He should have hit more dingers in 2018, and moving from the large confines of Comerica Park to hitter-friendly Progressive Field should help facilitate that.
Here is Martín’s 2018 spray chart overlaid onto Progressive Field:
By my count (excluding those on the fence), there are 20 fly balls that Martin hit last season that would have left Progressive Field, when only 11 actually did.
I can see the headlines now. “Former slap hitter discovers his inner slugger.” “The Indians have really found something in Leonys Martín.” But this was happening in 2018; you just have to look for it. Here’s an extreme fly-ball hitter with heavy pull tendencies who’s now hitting the ball a lot harder. His HROpp% — the percentage of balls hit between 22 to 36 degrees, the best angles for home runs — is well above average, as is his average launch angle, which is unsurprising given his high fly-ball rate. That all speaks to a hitter trying to make the most out of each plate appearance by elevating everything and shooting for the shortest porches available. Combine that with his newfound raw power, and he could hit a whole bunch of home runs this season.
As far as speed goes, it’s inevitable that Martín eventually slows down, and he’s entering his age-31 season. In addition, his low OBP limits his stolen base opportunities, though there might be some room for improvement as his 2018 xOBP was 10 points higher and his walk and O-Swing rates improved to career-bests. His swinging-strike rate improved too. Martín’s sprint speed is similar to 2015, when he stole twice as many bases in fewer plate appearances. Perhaps most importantly, he’s moving from the Tigers, which ranked 22nd in steals per game in 2018, to leading off for Cleveland, which was first in steals per game among all teams. He was on pace for 14 this past season, but maybe 20 isn’t out of reach with some OBP improvement and a regular green light? He used to swipe 30 to 35 bags a season after all.
Martin’s batting average is slightly more complicated, however.
So the strikeout rate might actually get worse given Martín’s swinging-strike rate suggests more like a 24% rate, but he’s actually had success for several years beating his expected strikeout rate. Shrug.
Beyond this, xStats thinks Martín got a little unlucky with his batting average. To explain why, I included BACON (batting average on contact) and xBACON. Frankly, this is the first time I’ve ever really looked at either, but I think in this case they’re helpful. Here, Martín’s xBABIP and BABIP are nearly identical, so why does xStats think he deserved a higher batting average? Well, his xBACON suggests his BACON should have been higher, which, in turn, suggests a higher batting average. Put differently, BACON is just like BABIP but includes home runs, so if a hitter deserved more home runs but otherwise got what he deserved in terms of his other balls in play, his xBABIP will reflect his BABIP and his xBACON will be elevated.
As applied to Martín, remember that I said he had 13.7 xHRs but only actually hit 11? Those three home runs led to the 13-point gap between his xBACON and BACON and, in combination with the 2 points between his xBABIP and BABIP, yielded the 10-point gap in his average and xAvg. In other words, if xStats is correct that he deserved more homers (and based on my above analysis, I clearly agree), then hopefully he actually hits them next season and his batting average improves in kind.
Cleveland clearly thought Martín was more valuable than a fantasy baseball afterthought by trading for him at last season’s deadline. Unfortunately, our story picks up after only a few games with the Indians, where Martín fell victim to a mysterious bacterial infection that resulted in several of his organs failing. It was no surprise that he didn’t return to the field in 2018, but now he’s back and potentially leading off for a contender with newfound power. And no one has noticed given his 2017 demotions to Triple-A and the fact that he missed the second half of 2018.
I’m not worried about playing time either. Martín’s known as an elite defender, and his glove kept him in the lineup for years while his bat lagged behind. Even at 31 years old, he posted four outs above average, which ranked 29th among all qualified outfielders. His three defensive runs saved was above average as well. And the other Cleveland outfielders — Greg Allen, Tyler Naquin, and Jordan Luplow — don’t exactly represent stiff competition.
Here’s my projection for Martín: 85 Rs/27 HRs/70 RBI/16 SBs/.265 AVG. There are several factors that went into those numbers. First, I assume he’s leading off based on RosterResource, and he has been doing so in some games this spring training. If he’s not, add some RBI, subtract some runs and a homer and steal or two.
Second, I’m clearly bullish on his power. Moving to a small ballpark with a clear intent to pull fly balls and a barrel rate better than Aguilar leads me to believe he can achieve 27 dingers, which is essentially just double the 13.7 xHRs from his 2018 half-season. If he’s leading off, he’ll get more plate appearances, and the 13.7 xHRs accounted for hitting in Comerica, whereas now he’ll find the shorter porches of Progressive Field.
Third, he’s moved from a team that does not run to a team that runs more than any other. Accordingly, I project modest improvements in his stolen base rate.
Fourth, I gave Martín his xAvg., which is predicated on an increase in power.
To me, that’s a value at the 357th pick overall (NFBC drafts since Jan. 1). Consider Andrew Benintendi, going 29th overall. He hit .290 with 16 HRs and 21 SBs, which is not too far off. Now, I don’t think Martín will be better than Benintendi, but he doesn’t have to be better to represent an enormous value at his ADP. He should at least be going in the top 200.
As few people probably care about what I think, Martín’s value will likely remain depressed, which means there’s value. Do yourself a favor and use your last pick on him. He’ll cost you nothing, and he’s already broken out — but no one’s realized it yet.
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire