Speedy Martin looks to rebound with Tigers

Hitting is top priority after struggling in 2017

December 22nd, 2017

DETROIT -- Social media in the winter has no shortage of baseball players doing offseason workouts. Find a Major League player with a Twitter and an Instagram account, and you'll probably find a picture or video of a player pushing weights or running or posing. In that sense, new Tigers center fielder is no different.

Still, for someone whose game is built on his legs and his foot speed, there's something ironic about Martin working out of his shoes.

Martin has a motivation pushing him this winter. He went from being an everyday center fielder for the Mariners in 2016 to Triple-A Tacoma last summer, then a part-time player with the Cubs down the stretch. He picked up his first taste of postseason action in Chicago in October, but was essentially a pinch-runner and defensive replacement.

"Last year was a really, really tough season for me," he said earlier this month, "and I've been dedicating myself a little bit more."

He wants more, and with his 30th birthday coming up in March, he believes there's more in him. In that sense, he's an example of the rebound candidate the rebuilding Tigers have been seeking, players who might be undervalued because they're coming off down seasons but who also carry an extra year of team control should they rebound.

Martin, like fellow new Tiger Mike Fiers, signed a one-year contract but is two years away from free agency. A bounceback season gives the Tigers either a good contribution for the money -- Martin's deal for 2018 is worth $1.75 million plus incentives, and he would be eligible for arbitration next winter -- or a trade candidate the Tigers can use to acquire more prospects.

For Martin, the bounce has to come at the plate. He has been regarded as a very good defensive center fielder for most of his career, and the metrics have shown it. According to Statcast™, Martin caught 90 percent of the fly balls hit to him this past season, compared to the 84 percent expected average. That additional six percent catch rate tied for the Major League lead among center fielders.

"He's a good fit because we need a left-handed bat in the outfield. The main thing is, though, he's also an excellent defender," general manager Al Avila said from baseball's Winter Meetings. "Our reports show that he would be a really good defensive center fielder in our ballpark, so that was a big part of it."

His hitting, however, is another story. After batting .247 with 15 homers and 47 RBIs for the Mariners in 2016, moving up-and-down between Seattle and Tacoma and then taking a bench role in Chicago led to an offensive struggle, including a .172 (22-for-128) batting average with three homers, nine RBIs and seven stolen bases.

The more he can reach base, the more he can use his speed to help manufacture offense. But his .300 career on-base percentage is just 53 points above his batting average. He has kept the differential around 60 points the last couple years, but given last season's struggles, his .232 OBP didn't help.

"I'm going to change a few things," Martin said. "I'm going to try to be ready from Day 1 in Spring Training. I want to challenge myself this year. Last year was a really bad year for me, and it was tough. This game has a lot of ups and downs. It's a really tough game, and it gets better every single year.

"I'm trying to improve myself and trying to get better at home plate. I think I'm trying to get better in discipline at home plate, to swing at strikes and not chase too much. But I'm working on it and trying to be ready."

That's where the Tigers see the upside.

"I would expect for him to get plenty of playing time," Avila said. "I expect him to bounce back and be a better hitter than last year, and we expect him to play great defense."

Considering the vast outfield gaps of Comerica Park, Martin is looking forward to the defensive part.

"It's a little bit different ballpark from the others," he said. "But playing in Detroit for a few years, going there [as a visitor], I've really enjoyed playing in Detroit because it gives me a chance to run, to make good plays. It's going to be fun. I like to run in the outfield. I like to cover. I'm going to enjoy it. I'm going to do my best."