If the reports of doctors and the man himself are to be believed, Leonys Martin is in fine health, and ready to start the 2019 season without restrictions. Which is great news, for everyone from the front office to the fan base. With youth, health, and general effectiveness being raising question marks across the Tribe outfield, he’s probably penciled in as the starting center fielder. So we have to start expecting things, right? What can we, based on what we’ve seen from Martin?
As far as projections go, Steamer sees Martin basically recreating his 2016 season, posting a .248/.308/.390 line over 122 games and being worth 1.6 fWAR. There are a pair of flaws with this theory, though. First, Steamer — and most projection systems for that matter — take into account the last few years and similar players, giving an idea on where the player would organically go from there.
This is a minor issue, for two reasons. First, by several measures, Martin made some changes to his game that could pay dividends for him offensively. In his 84 games in 2018 he posted a 103 wRC+, fully 20 points better than his career average. His 36.2 percent grounder rate was 10 points lower than both his career average and 2017 mark, while the 46.1 percent fly ball rate was a career high. He elevated his launch angle to 16.2 degrees, compared to the 10.6 degree mark he’d posted in his career to that point. It’s a story we’ve read several times the last few years, and Martin looked to be making a move toward hitting fly balls more to do more damage.
The other problem is how the projections really discount his defense. He’s projected to be worth 4.2 Defensive Runs. Projections are conservative, but in just 84 games last year he was worth 10 Defensive Runs by FanGraphs, and that has been the backbone for his finding consistent work in the Majors to this point. So that’s a bit of an issue. If all is right, that’s sure to be a floor at least, and we should expect many a stolen hit and robbed run.
So that’s all good news, news that should drive guarded but heightened expectations. However, the other problem with any projection systems is that it doesn’t have room in the algorithm to account for an “almost dying from poisoned blood” factor. It’s truly wonderful that he made it back to full health from such an insane scare, but any kind of intense hospital visit like that can’t leave a man unscathed. I mean, we worry when a guy gets a hamstring strain, and usually watch as he struggles all season. Just look at Jason Kipnis in 2017. Coming back from a wrist injury derailed the star turn for Nomar Garciaparra. These are comparatively minor things compared to, again, almost dying.
So as hyped as I am about his coming back — for both on-field and real life reasons — we have to kind of gird our expectations, right? I couldn’t really find information on players missing time like this and their ensuing return performance. It’s not an ACL or Tommy John surgery. One comparison could be Babe Ruth and his his “Bellyache Heard Round The World” in 1925 where he only played 98 games and hit .290/.393..543. That was good for as 137 OPS+, and both that slash line and OPS+ were well off his career .342/.474/.690 and 206, respectively. Ruth was in the hospital from April 9th to May 25th getting surgery on an intestinal abscess. He actually did take the field again on June 1st, but obviously had a poor year, for him.
So there it is, a comparison between Leonys Martin and Babe Ruth. Nobody could have foreseen this, but it’s the first major health problem that felled an otherwise healthy player that came to mind, that allowed him to come back and play. I don’t think Martin’s OPS is going to slip 300 points from last season - he’d actually have to purposely try to do that - but he’s probably going to have some kind of ill effect. He’s not trying to come back immediately like Ruth, so maybe it’ll be nothing at all. But that’s a tough thing to leave up to chance while the Tribe is trying to do big things, which drives home the need for the Indians to get an outfielder or two this winter.
Martin still going to be a central part of the Cleveland defense if only because that’s the way it has to be. If they’re going to take advantage of the talent level on the team now though, those tough to swallow trades may be the only recourse.