Leonys Martin likes progress he’s making at plate for Tigers

Chris McCosky

Bradenton, Fla. — This is kind of how the spring has gone for Tigers center fielder Leonys Martin.

His first at-bat Thursday in the Tigers’ 8-3 exhibition loss to the Pirates, he hit a ball on the screws, a sinking line drive into right field. The result: right fielder Sean Rodriguez swooped in and made a diving catch.

Second at-bat, he hit a hard ground ball in the hole between second and first. The result: Josh Harrison ranged far to his left to snag it and throw him out.

It’s been like this all spring. He’s hit balls on the barrel with very little to show for it.

“I feel really good,” said Martin, who is trying to re-establish himself offensively after a rough season last year. “I feel like I am seeing the results of all the stuff I worked on in the off-season. I haven’t got the hits, but I’ve hit the ball really good.

“I feel like I’m taking really good at-bats. I’m confident. I really believe in what I did in the off-season.”

BOX SCORE: Pirates 8, Tigers 3

What he did in the off-season was go back to his old approach at the plate. Last season, after hitting 15 home runs for the Mariners in 2016, Martin got caught up in the launch-angle craze. He went to a more upper-cut swing to hoist the ball into the air more frequently.

The results were poor. He wound up hitting .172 with a .232 on-base percentage, striking out 25 percent of the time. For a player with Martin’s elite speed, those number seemed unfathomable.

So he worked to flatten his swing, to keep the barrel of the bat in the hitting zone longer and to get back to hitting ground balls and line drives. Although he only has six hits in 27 at-bats this spring, he has been hitting the ball hard. More importantly, he is going to the plate with a sound approach and a clear head.

“I have the right people behind me in Lloyd (McClendon) and Phil (Clark),” he said, referencing the Tigers hitting coaches. “They push me the right way mentally. They’ve helped me a lot. We’re on the same page.

“I really like what I am seeing right now. So confident.”

Hitting is a three-in-10 proposition for the best, most confident hitters. For a guy who comes to the plate with a head full of doubt, it’s nearly an impossible task. Even if the balls aren’t falling in yet, Martin has at least rid himself of the doubt.

“It feels really good,” he said. “As soon as you walk to home plate, you get the feeling you can do this. You feel confident when you step into the batter’s box.”

Martin’s offensive production is a major X-factor for the Tigers. If he can put the ball in play and get on base with some consistency, he is probably the Tigers’ best option to hit leadoff.

“He’s taking good quality swings at good pitches,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s working as hard as he can. All I want to do is let him get as many at-bats as we can and see what he’s all about.

“I like him up there (at the top of the order). If he can handle it, that’s great. We’ll see.”

If he doesn’t produce, doesn’t get on base with some regularity, then it becomes a question of hitting him at the bottom of the order or platooning him.

And Gardenhire said after the game he was not a fan of a platoon in center field.

“In a perfect world, he’d be my center fielder,” he said. “I’m hoping that works out really good. There might be a few places you can platoon, but center field is one of those up-the-middle strengths that you’d like to see a guy out there every day.

“I am hoping he takes that and runs with it. Thus far, I like him. He’s done just fine.”

Twitter @cmccosky