There was no shortage of outrage when it became clear that manager Ron Gardenhire and the Detroit Tigers planned to use newly acquired Leonys Martin in the leadoff spot to begin the season. The reasons against this decision were rampant, whether it be Martin’s subpar on-base percentage or the more favorable alternatives in the batting order.
One week into the season, though, Martin appears to be up to the challenge. While his numbers are not anything extraordinary through an admittedly small seven games and 35 plate appearances, the decision to put him at the top of the order has not been a complete mistake.
So far, so good
The biggest critics of the move pointed to a career 0.300 OBP and 6.4% walk rate for Martin. Early into 2018, the center fielder has looked quite different with a .343 OBP that ranks fourth on the team. His .233 batting average that is somehow buoyed by a .318 BABIP are not encouraging, but perhaps he is showing positive development in learning to get on base.
Accordingly, what is most impressive about Martin’s early numbers are his five walks, good for a 14.3% walk rate. This number is sure to regress, but Martin’s monthly figure will be one to watch. His April walk rate has historically been a decent predictor for his season-long number. The only time he recorded a double-digit rate in April was in 2016, which led to the highest walk percentage in his career.
Without any real power so far — just one extra-base hit in 30 at bats — it would seem that Martin is simply trying to get on base safely. Thankfully he has been able to do so, as the other numbers surrounding his start are less favorable; only one steal, a negative base running metric per Fangraphs, and a 50 percent fly ball rate all give plenty of cause for hesitation.
Despite these flaws, Martin has benefited from his biggest competitors going into the season starting off a little slowly. Both Jeimer Candelario and Mikie Mahtook have had trouble reaching base consistently, and early surprise Niko Goodrum is unlikely to see enough playing time to really compete for the spot.
Wait and see
The Martin experiment was always going to need more than one week to judge, but the early results give some credence to providing some more time for him atop the order. As he continues to draw out at bats and find a way to get on base, he is doing exactly what is being asked of him.
Making any decision off of one week is foolish, but even giving Martin the first shot at the leadoff position seemed foolish in its own right. However, in a season that will be full of trial and error for the Tigers, maybe this was not the worst place to play around with the roster (see: Daniel Norris). At this point, there is no reason to change course until something changes. Martin will have control atop the order until he loses it himself.
Even with a struggling batting average, Martin’s on-base percentage gives hope for a successful tenure in the leadoff position. It would be nice to see more aggressiveness on the base paths and a reduced fly ball rate, but he is making it work so far, and he has earned himself more opportunities to head up the lineup at this time.