ALTOONA, Pa. — “Everything.”
The answer was a simple one from Curve manager Michael Ryan, as he was asked what he has liked about the early season results from Altoona outfielder Jason Martin. After beginning the season 0-for-8 in his first two games, Martin went 15-for-36 during his next 10 games, including three doubles, three triples, and a home run.
“He’s an extra-base machine,” Ryan would go on to say about Martin’s ability to hit and run. “He’s balanced. He’s on each pitch, whether it’s a fastball or something off-speed. He can handle the bat with barrel control.”
Martin’s season debut with the Curve was delayed for just a few days as he was recovering from a minor Spring Training injury. After getting acclimated during his first couple of games, Martin has truly been an “extra-base machine”.
What is most surprising from Martin is the amount of power packed into his 5’10”, 185 pound (soaking wet, I’d say) frame. What makes it more interesting is the fact that the same would not have been said of Martin three years prior.
Drafted in the eighth round as a 17-year-old out of high school by the Astros, Martin was considered a singles hitter with speed. In his first three seasons of professional baseball, Martin only had nine home runs in 820 at-bats. He slugged .380 and had an ISO of .118. With an average of .262, his numbers weren’t bad, but nothing was eye-popping.
Then, Martin tuned in to what the Astros were preaching.
Ahead of the curve, the Houston Astros were looking for their hitters to change their launch angle at the plate. Of course, we hear about players trying to get ball in the air now, but the Astros were preaching about a change towards an elevated launch angle before the 2016 season. Martin was “all in”.
“I was all in,” Martin said of changing his swing to elevate the baseball more. “I feel like if you have somebody that has experience in coaching and good information behind it, everything is worth a try. It’s something I did buy into and found success doing.”
In 2016, Martin hit 22 doubles, seven triples, and 23 home runs. (Yes, it was in the hitters’ friendly California League; however, it was a night and day change for a former “singles guy”.) His 2017 season was just as impressive, as he hit 35 doubles, five triples, and 18 home runs between High-A and Double-A. Between the two seasons, his slugging percentage jumped to .508 with a .233 ISO.
Martin went from a 59.1% ground ball and 30.3% fly ball hitter in 2014 to 33.8% ground balls and 47.7% fly ball hitter in 2016. With line drive rates remaining consistent, he almost looks like a completely different player. Martin said that he made the adjustment to his sight lines and bat path.
“A fastball — and any pitch really — comes down at an angle,” Martin said. “You have to have a little bit of an upper cut to meet that ball on the same plane. That’s what’s going to cause you to hit the ball in the air more with more force.”
The approach has continued to breed great results for the 22-year-old prospect. He’s currently on a four game doubles streak. The ball seems to really jump off of his bat, even with the colder temperatures that hitters have been fighting this month. As a small guy, it’s a little unexpected, but the organizational approach that the Astros took on with Martin is really working.
“That was something that the Astros were really trying to preach, and I bought into it,” Martin said. “As I got bigger and added more strength, they enforced the launch angle. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
When asked if he felt like the Astros were a little ahead of the game when it comes to advanced analytics, Martin responded that he thought they were as an organization.
“I really believe that has a lot to do with their success,” Martin said. “It’s proven that the launch angle and everything they are preaching over there is successful. More teams and more coaches are buying into it as well, and it’s something that’s going to change the game.”
Obviously, when a player looks to add more power to their swing, it typically results in more strikeouts. It’s the same for Martin; however, he feels that it is something that he can adjust and improve upon with experience.
“I think changing the whole bat path thing, I was going to have a high strikeout rate at the beginning,” Martin said. “Once I start getting the hang of it a little more, hopefully those strikeouts will get lower, and I’ll be able to mix in a better eye and not chase as much when I want to elevate the ball.”
For now, this piece of the Gerrit Cole trade looks to be the real deal. We have yet to see what Joe Musgrove can do. Michael Feliz has been busy in the Pirates’ bullpen and advanced stats show that his numbers should improve. Colin Moran has shown flashes of what he can do with the bat, and the hope would be that he can hold down third base at PNC Park for years to come.
Gerrit Cole may be having his best season yet, as he adapts to the Astros pitching philosophies. Everyone has an opinion on the trade, including our own Matt Gajtka, who has a column about it on the site today. It’s way too soon to tell, but the best returning piece of the trade may still be in Double-A in a small, power hitting, speed guy named Jason Martin.
Does he feel pressure being one of the pieces in return for Gerrit Cole?
“I’m able to block it out,” Martin said. “I’m here. I know I’m able to play, and I’m a good player. Day in and day out, I’m giving it my all. That’s all I’m trying to do.”