After several years as a successful scout with the Oakland Athletics, Eric Martins moved into a new role with the A’s three years ago as a hitting coach with Double-A Midland. Over the past two seasons, Martins has served as the hitting coach for the Nashville Sounds. He has also coached at the A’s fall Instructional League camp.
On Monday, I spoke with Martins about his time at this year’s Instructs and about the hitters he worked with in Nashville. In part one of the interview, we discuss the Instructional League group.
OaklandClubhouse: As a hitting coach, that game last night [Game 5 of the World Series] must have been a dream to watch.
Eric Martins: It was unbelievable.
OC: What are your thoughts on the significant increase in the home run rate this year and how power is really driving the game right now?
EM: It’s crazy. Guys are making a little bit of an adjustment. That has a little bit to do with it because I’ve seen the improvement of certain guys. Some are saying that the balls are juiced. Some of these ballparks are a lot smaller. Houston is a bandbox in any case. Balls are flying out there. Carlos Correa’s homerun is basically a pop-up anywhere else. It just barely got over. But it’s fun to watch and it’s what fans want to see. As hitting coaches, we love it. Although, if you have noticed, the home runs have gone up, but so have the strike-outs. It’s a bit of a give-and-take. But, if I can take some home runs, we’re good.
OC: We’ve talked a bit about launch angle in the past. Is that something that hitters are coming to you wanting to work on?
EM: Absolutely. That’s something that we are seeing more and more. Whether they are looking at YouTube or watching Josh Donaldson or reading about these guys talking about how they changed their launch angle to get more balls in the air – Chris Taylor is getting a lot of pub about it right now – they see the results.
A lot of times, a lot of stuff gets lost in translation and they may be doing it wrong. For example, Nick Allen and I had a good conversation during Instructs. He was in my group and I spent a lot of time with him during Instructional League. One of the things that he was trying to do was get some balls in the air and work on that angle. I told him, ‘at this point right now where you are at physically, you hitting balls in the air and them barely getting out of the infield or even hitting them hard and getting to the track, that’s good and all but right now you aren’t physically strong enough to try to hit balls into the air that are going to leave the yard yet. Maybe you should lower your angle a little bit. You can still try to drive some baseballs and hit some balls into the gap, and then as you physically mature, those balls will start turning into some homeruns.’
It doesn’t work for everybody – even though people are seeing the results of it – but these are guys who have either been in the big leagues or been in Triple-A for a long time, and they had to make a drastic change in their swing.
OC: Allen was a guy whose defense really stood out coming out of high school. Offensively, what sort of player to do you see him shaping into?
EM: Nick is stronger than people think. There is a little bit of thump in there. I don’t really want to call it power, but he has the ability to drive balls into the gaps and hit some doubles and some triples. He’s an above-average runner. His instincts for the game are just phenomenal. He’s a good little baseball player. He’s going to put the ball into play. I could see him as a leadoff or two-hole type hitter, depending on what we need from him.
He’s one of those kids who is really smart and knows his craft. He knows what he wants to do and takes instruction well. He was one part of the group of guys I was looking after for the entire Instructional League. He talked about the angle with me and I made some adjustments with him. You have to kind of be careful with these kids and not try to give them too much, especially if they are trying to work on something.
I asked what he was working on prior to Instructional League, and we made some tweaks and adjustments of what he was trying to do that I think might benefit him in the long run. He was working on a consistent load and some separation with his hands. He did a really good job. It clicked on certain days and on other days he would say, ‘it feels a little off’ and I told him, ‘it’s going to be that way. This is something new that you are doing. At least we are giving you a program in the off-season of what you need to work on. It will eventually click.’
Good player. Smart. I think he has a chance to hit at the top of the order. The defense is fantastic and his instincts and feel for the game are top notch. I’ve always been a fan of him. I had him when he was a freshman when he was in the underclassmen Area Code games. I’ve known him for a little bit.
OC: You talk about instincts. Is Allen sort of a Daniel Robertson-type player in terms of his ability to put himself in the right place at the right time on the field?
EM: Yeah. I think with Allen, he’s a little bit more explosive in terms of foot speed and quickness, whereas D-Rob is more instinctual where he was probably taking a couple of steps prior to where the ball was going to end up. Nick Allen has those instincts, as well, but he has the foot speed and the quickness to make some highlight reel plays.
OC: Marcos Brito was in camp for a second year. How is he coming along, especially with him being a switch-hitter?
EM: I had Brito last year in Instructional League when he was a fresh sign and 16 and just raw and you could tell that it was going to take awhile. But he made some significant strides this year. Not having seen him since Instructional League last year, there has definitely been some physical maturity to him, as far as his body. He’s a little bit stronger. He has a lot more confidence in his game. He’s a little better from the left side right now than the right side. But he’s another good player who’s taken some good strides. He’s gotten much better just in one year. On top of that, his English has gotten a lot better. Those guys are doing a good job in everything that they are doing, whether it is with their English classes or all of the other stuff that the guys from Latin America are working on.
OC: Who else was in your Instructs working group this year?
EM: I had Allen. I had Austin Beck. I had Lazarito (Lazaro Armenteros). So, yeah, there was some good talent there. Then I would also work with different guys here and there, but those three were the usual group that I would have in the early sessions. That was a special group.
I didn’t get to interact with him too much, but Greg Deichmann was a lot of fun. Just sitting with him and talking with him on the bench, he’s got some great leadership qualities. On top of that, he can really hit.
OC: What was Beck focused on during the camp?
EM: Beck is another kid who oozes with tools. Explosive hands, explosive bat speed, raw power. He has the ability to use the field and drive the baseball to all parts of the field. The only thing I focused on with him was calming his hands down. He kind of had Gary Sheffield active hands and sometimes he’d get caught in-between and would be thrown off. The only thing I really talked with him about was trying to calm those down a little bit. Still wanted him to have movement but wanted him to be able to be on time every single time.
It was pretty good. Another really good kid. He’s a little quiet and keeps to himself a little bit, but he responded well to instruction and what everyone was trying to work with him on.
OC: Keith Lieppman mentioned at various points this year that when Lazarito was really focused, he displayed better plate discipline than maybe the organization expected at this stage given his age and previous level of experience. Did you see signs of a sophisticated approach from him this fall?
EM: Definitely. 100%. He put together a pretty good year in the Arizona Rookie League for as young as he was and pushing his way into the league. Last year was different. He had just gotten here and was probably not in great shape and hadn’t probably eaten very much. They took it easy with him last year. Seeing him this year, he’s an animal.
The focus the first couple of weeks of Instructional League was really good. The last couple of weeks, he kind of went backwards a little bit. But definitely you saw the plate discipline, the bat speed, there is some raw power there. It looks like he is going to be a hitter. He likes to stay inside the baseball.
But the most impressive part to me is that he didn’t really swing at bad pitches. He was able to foul some pitches off and grind out some at-bats. That was fun to watch because I didn’t know what to expect coming in and I just knew that he had put together a pretty good year in the Arizona League for as young as he is. Him and Brito being both just 17-18, for them to do as well as they did in the league was pretty impressive.
OC: I think last Instructs you worked some with Anthony Churlin. Did you work with him at this year’s Instructs?
EM: Yeah, I got to see him, too. I really like Churlin. When it all comes and he puts it together, he has a chance to be one of the next guys coming up. He’s got a great body and he is starting to put together an idea of how to be a hitter instead of just swinging. He’ll run into a few balls. There’s some power there. There’s aptitude there. There’s bat speed there.
He’s just trying to find himself right now. There is some tinkering that goes on. One at-bat, he’ll have one stance. In another at-bat, he’ll have another stance. It’s one of those things where, as a young hitter, he’s trying to find himself and find what works. We’ve gave him some tips and things that we wanted him to work on and whatever he decides to do, he’s got to work within the confines of everything that he has been working on. We kind of let him be as far as the stances and finding what felt comfortable for him, as long as he was working on things that we wanted him to work on.
OC: Were there any guys that stood out for you that maybe you hadn’t seen before or who made a lot of progress since you saw them last year?
EM: Ryan Gridley. I really liked him. He reminds me of a young Bret Boone. We try not to put that comp on him, but he’s small in stature but he’s strong. He’s physical. He takes an aggressive swing and he can drive a baseball. He’s very versatile. He can play some different positions. He plays with a passion, plays the game hard and plays the game the right way.
I like him. I like the way the kid gets after it and I think he has a chance to be one of those guys who over-achieves a little bit and gets past certain rungs and levels because of his physicality and his versatility defensively. I like him. I think he was the co-Grinder award winner for Instructional League, which is almost like the MVP of the camp. He did a good job. He’s one of those guys who loves to play. We would rotate guys and one team would play one day and the next team would play the next day, so guys would be rested. He would always fill that role where if there was a guy who couldn’t play, we would throw Gridley in there and he never complained about it.
I like the way he gets after it and there are some tools there. He needs to cut down on some things, but he has an aggressive approach and he’s pretty strong, can drive a baseball and plays different positions. He’s one of the guys who impressed me a little bit.
Jose Rivas, the catcher, was another one who impressed. I liked him. He showed a pretty advanced feel for hitting. Handled pitchers well. Did a good job behind the plate. Threw well. For being a young kid from Venezuela, he was pretty impressive. I like him. He stood out to me, too.
All of the other guys really worked their butts off. Deichmann was good. Will Toffey looked like he has a chance to be a solid player. That group in Vermont kind of reminds me of the group that we have up in Oakland right now, if they stay together. Toffey and Deichmann and Gridley. There are kind of some similarities with the way that group plays and the kind of baseball players that they are [with the group in Oakland].
Talking to Nuke [Aaron Nieckula], who had them all year in Vermont, he said ‘this group is awesome. I love these guys. They played well together.’ It’s fun to see that because of how well things are going now to see this next wave of guys coming. You throw them together with the guys we have in Oakland now and add in guys like Jorge Mateo, Sheldon Neuse and Max Schrock and we’ve got some guys coming. It’s exciting.
Stay tuned for part two of this interview, when we discuss hitters who spent good portions of the season with Nashville, including Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Franklin Barreto, Yairo Munoz and Joey Wendle.
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