TAMPA, Fla. -- Ron Gardenhire followed the tradition of Major League managers warning not to put much into Spring Training batting orders. Still, Leonys Martin looked like a leadoff hitter to begin the Tigers' Grapefruit League opener Friday against the Yankees.Martin has leadoff speed, but the track record of someone
TAMPA, Fla. -- Ron Gardenhire followed the tradition of Major League managers warning not to put much into Spring Training batting orders. Still, Leonys Martin looked like a leadoff hitter to begin the Tigers' Grapefruit League opener Friday against the Yankees.
Martin has leadoff speed, but the track record of someone who fits lower in the order. Given the rest of Detroit's lineup, Martin could make Gardenhire's job easier if he could change that.
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"He can be one of those guys that creates a lot of havoc on the basepaths," Gardenhire said. "He can be a guy that if you get him in our ballpark, he can hit a single up the middle and he can be standing on second base. This guy can really do some damage flying around the field."
The question is how to get that from him consistently.
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"Leonys is a young man full of talent who is still trying to find himself this spring," hitting coach Lloyd McClendon said.
McClendon did not manage Martin in Seattle, but saw plenty of him when he was a speedster for Texas. Martin hit .274 with a .689 OPS and 31 stolen bases for the Rangers in 2014, plus he posted a .325 on-base percentage that remains his career high for a full season. He hit 15 homers with a .684 OPS with the Mariners in '16, but he posted a .306 on-base rate and struck out 149 times.
Then came a .172 average and a .513 OPS in 2017, an all-around disappointment that sent Martin from Seattle to Triple-A Tacoma, then the Cubs' bench down the stretch. The problem, Martin said, was self-created.
"Last year was a really, really tough year for me," Martin said last week. "I changed a few things at home plate. When I got to Spring Training, I didn't do what I practiced in the offseason. That's why I got confused a little bit at home plate. It was difficult to find myself at home plate."
From 2013, Martin's first full season in the Majors, until his last season with the Rangers in '15, more than half the balls he put in play were on the ground, according to Fangraphs. His fly-ball rate stayed under 30 percent through '14, and his line-drive rate was just over 20 percent in that span.
Martin's fly-ball rate jumped to 33 percent in 2015, but his ground-ball percentage was 51.7. His uptick in flies came at the expense of line drives. In Seattle, his fly-ball rate jumped to 36.8 percent in '16, then 39.3 percent last year. His ground-ball and line-drive percentages both dropped.
According to Statcast™, Martin averaged a 6.4-degree launch angle on balls he put in play in 2015. That rose to 11 degrees in '16 before falling slightly to 9.2 last year.
"I hit 15 homers [in 2016], but that's not my game, man," Martin said. "I always tried to hit the ball to the gaps, and I changed it. And it doesn't work like that."
Not surprisingly, McClendon is working with Martin to lift the ball less.
"First of all, I believe in launch angle. Having said that, launch angle isn't for everybody," McClendon said. "As an instructor, you have to know the strengths and weaknesses of each of your players and what's going to work best."
Martin put that to work Friday, leading off with a ground ball up the middle that Yankees second baseman Gleyber Torres couldn't corral. Martin took second on Nicholas Castellanos' flyout to the left-field track, then he scored on Chad Huffman's single through the left side.
This is what the Tigers need from Martin. He doesn't have to be a home run hitter in Detroit's lineup. If he can put the ball in play, use his speed and get on base at a decent rate, he can be effective.
"If he drives the ball and that's what we decide he can do, that's great," Gardenhire said, "but I think the biggest value that he has is how electric he can be running the bases. I've seen him do that."
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook.