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Mensching: Leonys Martin's surprising start with Tigers could last

Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News

At first it seemed like a head-scratcher. Why did the Tigers sign an aging outfielder who can’t get on base, and then make him the leadoff batter? Yet one month into the season, Leonys Martin has been the Tigers’ most pleasant surprise.

It doesn’t seem like it should have worked, but it did. Whatever the Tigers saw in him couldn’t have been gleaned from the stats.

Not once in his career would Martin have been considered an above-average batter. Over the past three seasons, his best batting average was .247. Last year it plunged to .172. His OPS was below .600 two of the past three seasons. And last year his on-base percentage fell to .232.

Those aren’t exactly stats that scream out leadoff hitter.

He did put up some nice-looking spring training stats, though, including a .400 OBP and isolated power (ISO) of .228, more than twice his career norms. But it’s easy to write off spring training stats, with the lesser competition and the dreaded “small sample size” making you think you see things you don’t.

Yet so far Martin has carried it into the regular season. He’s hitting .271 with .333 OBP and a .479 slugging average bolstered by four home runs, which is tied for the team lead.

And there doesn’t seem to be any big blinking indicator lights going off to warn us it’s fraudulent.

More: Speedy Jones, Martin give Tigers true defensive edge

Martin’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .306 is perfectly in line with his career norms, and the biggest difference is he’s hitting the ball harder, with Baseball Savant recording a hard-hit percentage of 38 percent vs. 32 percent in each of the past two years. His hits have gone an average of 215 feet, about 50 more than they have in each of the past two seasons.

Martin also leads the Tigers in barrels per plate appearance. Barrels is a newer stat that uses the exit velocity and launch angle to decide whether a batter “barreled up” on the ball. Balls that are launched at the proper speed and proper angle have been shown to become not just hits but frequently extra-base hits. In 2016, they resulted in a batting average of .822 and slugging percentage of 2.368 — somewhere between a double and triple, on average.

Martin averages a barrel in 11 percent of his plate appearances, ranking him 21st in baseball so far this year.

Another fun set of stats you can find at Baseball Savant are expected statistics. Using launch angle and exit velocity data measured against historical trends, the stats attempt to strip out defense and field dimensions to find out what a player should have been expected to hit.

Martin’s expected batting average is .290 (19 points higher than the actual number) and his expected slugging average is .617, a full 138 points higher than the actual figure.

Adding strikeouts and walks to quality of contact yields his expected on-base average, a stat that uses the historic run value of different events to rate the quality of a batter. Martin’s expected wOBA is .411, just three points behind Miguel Cabrera (.414) though further behind Nick Castellanos (.422).

It’s a little early to measure defense with great confidence, but we do know that Martin has been an above-average fielder for his career and can safely say he continues to be so, thanks to his fast sprint speed that helps him track down balls.

Recently, the center fielder robbed Pittsburgh’s Starling Marte of a hit by tracking down a ball that is caught only 11 percent of the time, per StatCast. He ranks tied for fourth in MLB in outs above average with three.

Put it all together and you’ve got a player who has been a threat both at the plate and in the field who has given us no warning signs this is all occurring inside the land of make-believe.

The Tigers found themselves a good one at a bargain-basement price less than $2 million when few others would have looked twice.

Kurt Mensching can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.