DENVER – Austin Martin kibbitzed with Xavier Edwards, Tyler Soderstrom and Jeter Downs, shared several laughs with hitting coach Rachel Belkovic during a lengthy conversation in the dugout and then charged onto the field first when it was his turn to play in the Futures Game.
Irrepressible as usual, the gilt-edged Toronto Blue Jays prospect carried himself with the same ease and sense of belonging he demonstrated during summer camp last year and big-league spring training a mere half-season ago. Subbing in at shortstop for Bobby Witt Jr., of the Kansas City Royals in the bottom of the fourth inning, the 22-year-old darted around the infield, his long ponytail bouncing off the white jerseys worn by American League side.
He worked a walk in his first plate appearance after falling behind 1-2 to Washington Nationals fireballer Cade Cavalli, spitting on three balls between 99.3-99.7 m.p.h. to earn his base. Two innings later, in the seventh and final inning of an 8-3 win for the National League, Martin stayed back on an 80 m.p.h. changeup from Milwaukee Brewers lefty Ethan Small and inside-outed the ball to left field for an RBI single.
Add in a near defensive gem in the sixth, when he ranged to his left and got a glove on a smash by Atlanta’s Drew Waters but couldn’t lock it down for the out, and it was a pretty solid showing.
“I took the same approach to this as big-league camp,” Martin said in an interview afterwards. “These guys are talented and they're good at what they do for a reason. Me, I like to sit back and observe and just see the process, see how these guys operate. There are always things that you can take from other people that you could apply to yourself. So that's my mentality, just try to get to know these guys – I'll be playing against them in the future – and learn as much as I can.”
That Martin, in his first full season of pro ball after being selected fifth overall last year and spending 2020 at the alternate training site, was selected to represent the Blue Jays at the prospect showcase is no surprise. Widely considered the best hitter in his draft class, he’s holding his own in a double-A loop where he’s 2.1 years below the average age, batting .273/.394/.379 through 44 games with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.
All the more impressive is that rather than chasing numbers, as a highly touted prospect might be tempted to do, he’s instead spent the season learning to “stretch out his moves a little more so he can adjust to different pitches,” said Fisher Cats hitting coach Matt Hague.
The end goal is to give him “the ability to physically control his swing, being able to stay neutral longer so you can adjust to anything,” explained Hague. “His competitiveness and ability to control the strike zone and stay in at-bats is elite. He's never out of at-bats even if his swing breaks down. So it's getting him to understand why it breaks down at certain times, when it breaks down, are there certain sequences where it tends to break down, and just having him basically become aware of that.”
Martin described the adjustments as “trying to exaggerate my movements,” and feels he’s integrated them well enough that they feel natural. He cited some recent cage-work with Hague 20 minutes before a June 19 game in which he carried the feeling into his at-bats and proceeded to go 5-for-6 with two doubles and four RBIs, all of which helped him to better trust the process.
“If you stay comfortable in this game, this game will eat you alive,” he said of being open-minded. “You have to try to improve somehow, some way every single day. That's it, man. I just know that I need to get better. I mean, I'm a good baseball player, a really good baseball player, but I know that I could be great. And that's really what I'm striving for, just to see what kind of player that I could become. I'm just trying to maximize Austin Martin.”
That determination and the way he works immediately captured the attention of Hague, who played 11 seasons of pro ball, including one in Japan, and had cups of coffee in the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Blue Jays in 2015 before he joined the player development staff.
Together they’ve established a competitive practice environment in which the work is designed to produce a specific result. Martin keeps Hague on his toes by being “very hungry for the why and how,” requiring use of all the training and technological tools the Blue Jays have available.
That he does it all in a relentlessly demanding yet perpetually positive manner has earned him the respect of his clubhouse and the credibility to be among the Fisher Cats’ leaders, said Hague.
“He holds guys to a standard and I think it's kind of unheard of for a first-year guy coming out of college at the double-A level to hold team meetings or player meetings and make sure the standards are being met in a positive way,” Hague continued. “He's a very personable guy that everybody gravitates towards. He's not necessarily a massive vocal leader. He's more like a lead by example type, but he will hold his teammates accountable. And his teammates feel that he cares about them and it's kind of infectious with how he goes about his at-bats. He takes care of himself. As far as preparation and his work in the cages, that's consistent. That's a reflection of him wanting to be really good and compete at a high level.”
Martin treads carefully on that ground.
“First things first, I don't ever try to step on anybody's toes,” he said. “I didn't come into this season being like rah-rah. I did my work and I tried to earn my teammates' trust and I earned that. That's really what it comes down to. My teammates trust me, they understand that I show up to the field the same person every day. I work hard and just try to set the example as best as I can. It's not necessarily a position that I was looking to be in, but I'm super grateful for it and I'm grateful that my teammates have that trust in me.
"I've been on successful teams. I know how they operate. I know what goes on in the clubhouse. Things that I've learned in the college level have really translated to here because at the end of the day, you're just trying to win ballgames.”
All of that has made Martin’s season a crash course in the pro game, using his ample gifts, the best of his experience at Vanderbilt and his burning desire to max out his career. Combined with the type of strike-zone control and tenacious at-bats that push players from level to level, his willingness to do the underlying work bodes well for his progression.
“The pro game is faster than college. Guys throw harder. Guys throw a lot more breaking balls in different counts that you wouldn't expect. You don't really get a hitter's count that much,” said Martin. “In college if you're up, 2-0, 3-0, you know you're getting a fastball, for sure. Here you're getting 3-0 sliders, 2-0 sliders, so it's a different game. You need to keep improving and getting better.
"I feel like I've adjusted to the level of the speed of the game and now it's just a matter of me improving my own personal skills, letting that transfer and take off from there.”