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Oakland Athletics coaching Q&A: Eric Martins, part two

The Oakland Athletics graduated several Triple-A position players to the big leagues this season. In part two of my interview with Nashville Sounds’ hitting coach Eric Martins, we discuss several of the players who he coached this season, including Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, Yairo Munoz, Franklin Barreto and many more…

Matt Chapman / Photo by Chris Lockard
Matt Chapman learned on the fly in the big leagues this year. / Photo by Chris Lockard

Oakland Athletics coaching Q&A: Eric Martins, part one

OaklandClubhouse: Transitioning to the guys you worked with in Nashville this year, obviously there were quite a few guys who started the season in Triple-A who made a significant impact in the big leagues for the A’s. We’ve talked about Matt Olson in the past, but he made the joke that he’d like to mix a few singles in with the home runs. How do you see him ultimately developing as a hitter? He actually hit for a higher average in Nashville this year than he has done at any other level. Is that a possibility for him moving forward?

Eric Martins: The big thing for him now is that the adjustment that he made mechanically has given him the confidence that he doesn’t have to cheat on pitches. I think that makes a big difference for him because it was always in him to be able to hit. He would go through stretches – even in Midland and then last year – when he was hitting balls all over the field and he really looked like a hitter, not just a power guy. This year, he was as good as you are going to see a guy go line-to-line with power.

I think the mechanical adjustment that he made, which gave him a cleaner path to the ball, allows him to see the ball a little longer because he doesn’t have to cheat anymore. He can use the whole field, and he has power to all fields. He still has the good eye and he has good plate discipline. He rarely swings out of the ‘zone. He’s still going to have some strike-outs because he does have a little hole there that can be exposed every once in awhile, and he’ll have to adjust again. But I think the thing that was bothering him, the thing that was holding him back, he’s kind of fixed. Now, he’s just going to take off and be Matt Olson.

I can see him hitting anywhere from .250 to the high .260s, and he might even get a year where he hits .270. And he’ll hit 30 home runs a year and play a good first base, which sounds like a pretty good player. [laughs]

OC: Then there is Matt Chapman, too. I don’t know if it is the name, or what, but to have two corner infielders who can hit for power like they can and field their positions the way that they do has the potential to be special. You’ve worked with Chapman for a long time. Where did you think he made his biggest improvements offensively this year, and where do you see him developing long-term?

EM: It’s funny with him because he’s still learning. He basically learned on the fly in the big leagues and he put together what you would expect for him. But for him, he’s not satisfied because he knows he is better than that, and we know he’s better than that. But, for throwing him in the fire and letting him play the defense like he does, he was able to hit some home runs in the big leagues and grind out some at-bats. It was good for him to get that experience because he knows what to expect.

There was some mechanical stuff that he needed to work on, but for him, it was simple. It wasn’t an adjustment of his hands or his stance. It was just getting a little bit more rhythm. Having a little bit more rhythm and more movement instead of coming from a standstill. The only thing that I talked to him and worked with him on this year was plate discipline. I told him at the beginning of the year, ‘Chap, I know you are going to strike-out. You are a strike-out guy. There are guys who are strike-out guys. All I care about is how did you strike-out? If you are going up there and it’s a 1-0 count and you swing at a ball that is out of the ‘zone and then the pitcher drops in a breaking ball for a strike, suddenly you are 1-2 in the count where you could have been 2-0 if you didn’t swing at that bad pitch. You took yourself out of the driver’s seat.’

That was the only thing that I was really emphasizing with him. He started seeing more pitches in the game. His pitches per game, he went from maybe seeing 10 pitches in a game and swinging at six or eight of them to seeing 17-18 pitches with six or seven swings. It allowed him to really work on his plate discipline, and he did a great job. Before he got called up, he was walking like a madman. That was the big thing for him.

He has the bat speed and he can really hit anything. That was sometimes to his detriment because he knows he can hit any kind of pitch, but when you get to the big leagues, they are going to expose your tendency to swing at bad pitches. And I told him that. I would get on him, and I can get on him a little bit more because of our history together.

One game, we were facing a position player pitching and it was a 2-0 count. He swung at a ball at his letters and he flew out to left field. I was really upset with him. He was like, ‘why are you mad?’ I said, ‘because you are giving away at-bats.’ He says, ‘it’s a position player.’ And I told him, ‘I don’t care. We are trying to train you to swing at good pitches. I’d rather see you take this walk right here.’ We have the kind of relationship where we can get on each other and at the end of the game, it’s fine, but it was just one of those things where I want him to see more pitches and swing at the pitches he can really handle and lay off of the pitches that he can’t until he gets to two-strikes. It kind of worked for him. It helped him out a lot.

OC: Franklin Barreto is another guy who you’ve said can be a victim of his ability to put the bat on nearly any type of pitch. Do you think he’s made progress understanding what he should be swinging at, or do you think that is still a work-in-progress for him?

EM: It’s still a work-in-progress. I feel like I could have done a little bit better job with him to really try to ingrain that in him. With him being so young, you don’t want to put too much pressure on him. I didn’t want to put that pressure on him because he had a hot start, and then all of a sudden he had a slump and then all of sudden there were injuries in the big leagues and he might be called up. The question was swirling: when is he going to get called up? That’s a lot of pressure for a 21-year-old to handle, in my opinion, to really to start grinding on him to tell him, ‘this is what you have to work on.’ I did to an extent, even though I could have done a better job of having him make a few more adjustments with two-strikes.

The only thing with Barreto is that I didn’t see the two-strike adjustment. I want to see him be able to hit with two-strikes and be able to put the ball into play a little bit more instead of the strike-outs. He’s so talented and he can hit anything in the game. When he gets to two-strikes, he needs to find a way to shorten up a little bit and put the ball into play because he is so dynamic when he puts the ball into play, he can beat out balls if he hits them on the ground.

There would be some stretches where he was better with it. He started putting [two-strike pitches] into play and hitting them on the ground and he was safe because he can really run. Then there were days where he wouldn’t be so locked in and didn’t make that two-strike adjustment. It’s just a learning curve. He’s still so young and he’s still going to have to make some adjustment.

I think he knows now. He got his taste in the big leagues and found out that it wasn’t going to be as easy as everything else was for him. Sometimes when they get that wake-up call and they get that little bit of a taste and it causes them to say, ‘okay, I really need to work on this part of my game.’ But, still, he’s special and he’s going to be special and it’s going to be fun when he finally puts it all together.

OC: Yairo Munoz joined the Sounds part-way through the year and had a solid Triple-A debut. Is he starting to find himself as a hitter?

EM: Yairo is a special talent, and when I say special, I mean that Ryno [Sounds’ 2017 manager Ryan Christenson] and I have talked about him almost being like Vladimir Guerrero in that he can hit any single pitch that is thrown up there and he is almost a better bad ball hitter than a good ball hitter. He’s a notorious first-ball swinging hitter. One thing that we are trying to work on as an organization is singling out pitches and not being first-ball swingers and giving up outs. He was up around 41% first-pitch swinging during the year.

It was almost to the point where if he swung at the first pitch and fouled it off, you knew you were going to get a good at-bat with him. It almost locked him in. It frustrates you because sometimes he would swing at the first pitch and it would be a lazy groundball on a pitch that was a ball. But, at the same time, if he fouled off the first pitch, it locked him in and he was really into the at-bat and would end up with a quality at-bat. Ryno and I would laugh that we almost wanted him to either swing-and-miss or hit a foul on the first pitch because he would really then focus on his at-bat.

But he’s one of those special guys. He can hit any pitch. He’s got power to all fields. He really likes to drive the ball to right-center field. Ultra, ultra aggressive. Still young. He’s another one of those kids who can benefit if he can really work on a solid approach. He’s learning. He’s trying to study pitchers and learning what pitchers are throwing and what they are trying to do. There is just some focus stuff there every once in awhile that comes and goes with him. But, other than that, the tools are evident. For what he did this year at the two levels [Double-A and Triple-A] is pretty amazing.

OC: You got to see him play in the outfield some this year, as well. How was he doing with that? Was it hard for him to balance learning a new position with making adjustments at the plate?

EM: No, not at all. He loves it out there. When he is in the outfield, he reminds me a little bit of Carlos Gomez because there is a little bit of reckless abandon, a little bit of a loose cannon with the way he goes about it. But the tools are there and he plays a good infield. He did a great job playing shortstop for us this year when we needed him to play there and he does a good job at third base. Obviously, the arm is special.

But he did a good job in the outfield. He got some good jumps and ran some balls down for us. He played all three spots in the outfield for us and looked good in all three. He looked like a natural. As the year progressed, he started learning. At the beginning of the year, he would want to show off his arm all of the time. Then as the year started to go, he started to understand, ‘hey, I don’t have to air it out every time. Let me just throw it to second base.’ At the beginning of the year, he just wanted to show it off every time, even if he didn’t have a chance. That was the maturity progression during the year, ‘okay, I don’t have a play there, so let’s keep the runner at first base to keep the double-play in order.’ That was really fun to watch maturation of that part of his development.

Like I said, with his versatility and his tools, he’s a good player.

OC: Joey Wendle and Renato Nunez had to wait until September to get the call to the big leagues. Is it hard with guys who are putting together good production while watching others get the call to the big leagues to keep their focus?

EM: They both did a good job. Joey Wendle, especially. What a professional. He was fantastic all year. He was good with the young guys. We moved him off second to play a little bit of short and some third. That gave him a little bit of versatility, which I think he’ll be good at. He put together a pretty good season for himself, as well. Things didn’t get off to the start that he wanted with the shoulder injury in spring training, so he got off to a rough start, but he came down and did some rehab with us and finally got cleared to play.

Things just happen the way that they happen. Jed [Lowrie] had a great year. At that point, Joey’s only position value was second base, so there was no room to really bring him up. I think he understood that. Then when we started to move him around and have him play a little bit of shortstop and a little bit of third base, he was up for it. He was professional about it the whole year. Worked hard on his swing and put together another good year. I love Joey. Joey is a great player. His head is in the right place. He’s going to help his team some way, some how. He’s going to be a good player.

As far as Renato goes, the number that stands out to you is the 32 home runs that he hit this year. He hit .249 and that came down to the end of the year in his last at-bat, he was at .251. But, a pretty good year. There are still some red-flags there with him. He made some improvements this year. He walked a little bit more. His on-base was a little bit better, and his numbers got better.

I tried to talk to him about that all of the time because there was a point where his focus with runners in scoring position wasn’t as good as you would want, especially with a guy that should be feared across the league. But they would almost want to go after him because he would get himself out at some point. It’s just one of those things with Renato. I still think to this day that by the time he is 25-26, he’s going to be dangerous in the big leagues.

He still needs to figure some things out in terms of his approach and what kind of hitter that he is because he has an innate tool and can really hit when he puts his mind to it. But there is a lack of focus with runners in scoring position, expanding the ‘zone. Not understanding what the pitchers are doing to him with runners in scoring position. Those are the at-bats that are kind of frustrating because he should have had more RBI than his RBI total was this year [78]. But saying that, for him to hit 32 home runs, that’s still impressive.

OC: Renato is out of options going into next season, and he’s probably going to have to make that final adjustment in the big leagues since he’s not likely to clear waivers. Is it hard when you see guys – especially some of the Latin players who sign so early – hit the point of being out of options before they have fully developed in the minor leagues? Is there anything you can leave players in those situations with?

EM: There’s only so much talking you can do. That’s something that I have talked to him about – and that’s the only thing that I have worked with him on the last few years – is tightening up his strike-zone. Be better with runners in scoring position. And that’s it. That’s all. Because the tools and the swing are there. He has as pretty a right-handed swing as you are going to see. It’s just that there are times when there are swings that you wonder, ‘what are you swinging at?’ And that’s the frustrating part.

When he puts his mind to it, and it will come in bunches, he’ll walk. He might walk two-three times a game for a week and get a couple of hits and you think, ‘okay, there it is’, and then all of a sudden, there he goes swinging at another pitch above his head and waving at a first pitch slider and rolling it over to the third baseman. It just makes you want to pull your hair out. That’s why I stopped growing hair! [laughs]

But, like I said, by the time he’s 25-26 years old, whether it is with us or someone else, he’s going to put it together. He really is, because he is good at what he does. He improved just a little bit this year and his average went up to almost .250 and he hit 32 home runs, and that was with just a little bit of an adjustment and improvement in his walk-rate. I think he saw the writing on the wall. We went over the numbers before he got called up and I told him, ‘look, you walked a little bit more this year than last year and look at what your numbers did.’

OC: Jaycob Brugman was added to the Mesa Solar Sox’s roster this week. He had a strange year with the injuries at the beginning and the end and the call-up in the middle. What do you anticipate he will be working on in the Fall League? Is it just a matter of getting at-bats, or was he working on something in particular before he broke his foot in August?

EM: I think it is a combination of both. When he got sent down, there were some adjustments that he was working on. They worked on a little bit more of a leg kick with him, just to be a little bit more aggressive and drive some balls. Jaycob is so good at being able to take his base hits and they wanted to add a little bit more – not power, per se, but being able to drive some more balls in the gap and get some doubles. That was one thing that when he was first sent down, he shot me a text and said, ‘hey, I wanted to let you know that I’ve got the leg kick going and I really like it and I want to work with it.’ And I said, ‘perfect.’

When he got with us, I hadn’t seen him in so long that I was able to pinpoint a couple of things that maybe had gone awry when he was in the big leagues. We started getting into a pretty good position where he got it back and felt like, ‘okay, there it is’. With the added leg kick and the added aggression, he felt like he was driving some baseballs. Then he had the freak little calf injury and we were doing some extra work on the side and he happened to foul ball off on his toe and that was it.

It was an unfortunate event because he was feeling really good about some of the things he was working on up in the big leagues with Bushy [Darren Bush] and the tinkering that we did down in Nashville.

I think now it is about him getting some time and some ABs. I don’t know that he is really going to be thinking about that mechanical stuff right now because he hasn’t hit, so he’s up there just trying to survive and see some pitches. I’m sure in around another month-and-a-half when he’s down in Arizona, he’ll be giving me a call and be wanting to get started early.

OC: Beau Taylor re-signed with the A’s early in the off-season. You’ve worked with him a couple of seasons. It obviously took him a few years in Double-A to get back to being the hitter he was in High-A. How did you feel he handled his first taste of Triple-A?

EM: He was fantastic. Beau did a really good job. I think the thing with Beau was basically he owned up to his approach. He stopped trying to think he was going to try to hit 20 homers and, instead, he was going to drive some doubles, and those doubles would become home runs. He was really, really conscious about sticking with his approach. Very rarely strayed away from it, and that’s what helped him become who he is now.

I think the shifts in Midland really helped him stick to his approach because he realized that there were just so many hits that he could get by hitting a line-drive to the left-side of the field. Because he can catch-and-throw, he doesn’t need to hit 20 home runs. But he is strong enough where he can drive a ball all over the yard. I’ve seen him hit some impressive home runs the couple of years that I have had him. He hit one off of Alex Reyes, the Cardinals’ flame-thrower, when we were in Midland that was as impressive of a home run as I have ever seen. He hit a 99 MPH fastball at his letters and tomahawked this ball out. I was like, ‘woah, okay.’ [laughs]

But I think for Beau, he really honed in on his approach, stuck to it and really worked on it. He knows the kind of hitter that he wants to be. He’s sticking to it. He’s not trying to do too much.

OC: There were a number of players on your roster this year who had significant big league experience. Was it helpful to have players like Ryan Lavarnway and Chris Carter later in the year and Matt McBride given that you had players on the opposite end of the experience spectrum like Barreto and Munoz?

EM: You know, we have been really fortunate the past couple of years to sign some really quality free agents. None of these guys who were selfish and cared only about themselves. They were willing to help the younger guys out. It was a great dynamic the last couple of years compared to, I guess, a couple of years ago. The first team in Nashville wasn’t so great. I’ve been lucky to have some good free agents, older guys that have been around. Jaff Decker can be added to that group. He was amazing all year.

Those guys more led by example. They weren’t really too boisterous. Chris Carter, every once in awhile, would say something to the young guys when he needed to. Joey Wendle did a good job of actually being the vocal leader of the team with certain guys and stuff like that.

We had a good mix of guys last year and we have a good mix of guys that are still in the organization that have some leadership qualities. [Greg] Deichmann and [Will] Toffey look like they are going to take over what Chappie started. They look like they are going to be natural born leaders when they get to that point. Nick Allen is going to be a kid that players are just going to look up to because of the way he plays the game and his focus and intangibles and stuff like that.

Going back to our group, like the McBrides, they know they aren’t that vocal, but if there is some help there that they can give the younger guys, they would. But they more led by example. They showed up and did things the right way and we never had any problems with those guys.

OC: Ryan Christenson was named the A’s big league bench coach last week. How did you feel your coaching staff worked together and what are you looking forward to for next year?

EM: It’s great. Ryno and I go way back. We played together and we have had a good relationship over the years, dating back to the early years in our careers and playing against each other in college. We’ve always had a good relationship. Our first year in Midland was fantastic, along with John Wasdin, and that carried right back over into this year. The way that he thinks about the game is cohesive with the way that I think about the game. I was more like his bench coach this year than the hitting coach.

It was one of those things where if there were certain things going on during the game that he wasn’t sure about, he’d ask me. We’d have that conversation, which helps me because I really enjoy the other aspects of the game on top of just the hitting. I love working with the infielders and helping with positioning and the defensive stuff and in-game decisions and stuff like that. Instead of being locked up in the batting cage the whole time, it keeps my brain working, which helps me because that’s what I like to do.

I don’t like to just label myself as a hitting coach and that be all I care about. Ricky Rod [Rick Rodriguez] does an outstanding job with the pitchers. It’s unbelievable to watch him work. I look at the staff and the guys we have helping to develop these guys and Liepp [Keith Lieppman] once again did it right. He puts the right guys in place. That’s why he’s the best.

OC: If you had an opportunity, would you be interested in managing?

EM: You know, I have been asked that question by Liepp and a couple of other guys. I don’t know yet. I’m not sure. I think it would be hard for me to have that even-keelness that you need to manage. The way that I played, I played hard and I expected everybody to play hard. To be able to relax and not really let loose on these guys if they are not quite playing hard would be tough for me. I think eventually I could and I would do it, but I see myself more as maybe a third base coach or first base coach or something like that. But maybe later when I’ve calmed down a little bit. I think I’m just too intense.

The relationship that I have with my guys – especially the position players on the team – I can lay into them because they need me for something later. So if they don’t run out a ball hard or something like that, I can lay into them and they know it is just for that second. The next day we are in the cage and it’s like nothing happened. Whereas with a manager, you don’t have that special time with those guys. So the last words that these guys are going to remember for a couple of days is ‘Eric just laid into me for this, this and that’ or I just blew up on the team. I think at some point, it’s a possibility. Whatever they need from me, that’s what I do anyway. If Liepp said, ‘I really need you to go manage’, I’d do it.

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