What do most people think of as a prototypical center fielder? They likely envision someone with speed, who can nab a screaming line drive without breaking a sweat. Most evidence, both empirical (center fielders have had the highest Speed Scores in baseball for nearly the entire history of the statistic) and anecdotal (have you seen Lorenzo Cain?!?), supports this view. Indeed, it seems the logical position, as center fielders have to cover more ground than anyone else in the stadium.
On the flipside, if you were to request a list of baseball's greatest outfield throwing arms, fans would probably respond with someone who mans the corners. From Jose Bautista and Yasiel Puig in right, to Alex Gordon and Yoenis Cespedes in left, the game today has no shortage of sharpshooters, the most prominent of whom don't play center field. But [Morpheus voice] what if I told you that the best-throwing outfielder in baseball, over the past two seasons, resides in the middle?
For now, Leonys Martin doesn't possess the eminence of the aforementioned names. That's a shame, because since the beginning of the 2013 season, he has the most ARM runs in the majors. Prefer DRS? He tops that leaderboard too. Although his range might lag behind (he has a humble 4.7 RngR over that span), his deadly throws compensate. Let's look at how he's achieved his success, and where he can go from here.
First, some background on Martin. The Rangers signed him in 2011, as a 22-year-old out of Cuba. When he defected the year prior, Baseball America had this to say about his defense:
He's a lefthanded hitter whose best tools are his speed and defense.
He...played center field and showed at least average range.
Texas's director of international scouting, Mike Daly, had similarly vague thoughts:
"We feel like he can throw."
"We feel like he's a guy who's going to be able to...really defend center field."
In Cuba, it would appear, Martin's arm didn't turn any heads. After a half-season in the minors, though — in which he notched six assists — evaluators' views shifted. From Kevin Goldstein:
He has good instincts in center field and an outstanding arm.
Entering the United States, Martin had the reputation of a good hitter, which may have overshadowed his formidable arm. While the former skill translated to the minors (in which he batted a combined .323/.388/.503), it has yet to carry over to the show: He owns a flaccid 87 wRC+ in 1151 big-league plate appearances. The latter trait, on the other hand, has obviously made the jump, and has elevated him to respectability — in the past two seasons, his 6.3 WAR ranks a solid 56th among 122 qualifiers.
Let's focus in on the first of those two campaigns, which saw Martin cut down 11 runners from center, tied for the highest in baseball; he rode those throws to the most valuable center-field arm in the majors. Nonetheless, he could have done better. He held hitters a mere 43.7% of the time, which actually came in lower than the MLB average for center fielders that year (44.6%).
During the following season, Martin took a step forward. Not only did he equal his assist number from the previous year (albeit in nearly 300 more innings), he pumped his hold rate up to 50.5%. That deadly combination gave him a massive lead for arm runs saved among center fielders.
Martin really improved in a few regards. During a game early in 2014, an incident caught the eye of Ron Washington:
The issue arose during the fourth inning Saturday night when Martin tried to throw out Jackie Bradley Jr. as he went from first to third on a single. Bradley beat the throw, and Dustin Pedroia moved up to second on the play.
If Martin throws to third in that situation, Washington said, he must be certain to catch the runner. If there is any doubt, throw to second and keep the double play in order.
Martin encountered this scenario 56 times in 2013. While three of those resulted in an out at third — a 5.3% rate that came in well above the 1.6% leaguewide mark — he only held the runner on 34 occasions. That 60.7% clip fell short of the 65.1% of a typical center fielder. Perhaps Martin took his now-departed manager's words to heart: In 2014, he upped the latter rate to 69.3%, more than making up for the fact that he only hosed one runner.
In addition, sacrifice flies gave Martin some trouble the year before last. 16 times during that year, the batter hit a fly ball to him, with less than two outs, and a runner on third; the runner scored on every occasion. No specific turning point exists for this plot, as did for the one above, but Martin still markedly progressed. The next year, he held 7 of 22 (31.8%, compared to 12.0% for all center fielders) baserunners, while accounting for two of baseball's eight outs at home.
Those achievements deserve some credit for Martin's advancement; however, the GIF at the top of this post illustrates the real cause of his rise. In his rookie year, he didn't exactly struggle when he tried to gun down runners at home after a single; of the 38 times that this happened, he held seven, which put him just over the MLB-wide mark of 18.1%. Together with his five cutdowns of baserunners, this situation didn't trouble him too much. Then along came his sophomore campaign, in which he faced this event 57 times. Five of those ended in an out, the same as the preceding year. However, 21 others had the runner stop at third; the subsequent 36.8% rate represented a near-doubling of his debut number, and easily led the majors.
Martin isn't the only center fielder with a potent arm. Adam Jones, Juan Lagares, and Billy Hamilton (among others) have made some noise with their assassinations of runners. Maybe they, along with Martin, will change the stereotype of the men who patrol the middle of the outfield. One thing's for sure, though: If Martin keeps doing this, and this, and this, he'll receive his due coverage.
. . .
Ryan Romano is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Birds Watcher and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.