This spring, in an effort to familiarize myself with more local prospects, I took to the road. One day, after watching J.P. Crawford's Lakewood squad beat out Michael Young and Rio Ruiz's alma mater, Bishop Amat, I contemplated whether or not I wanted to make the long drive down to Orange County to see Orange Lutheran take on Servite. I'd heard good things about OLu's center fielder, Jason Martin (a Long Beach State commit).
I decided to make the drive, and I was glad I did. Gathered around an enthusiastic Orange Lutheran fanbase (who'd thoughtfully brought heaters attached to propane tanks), I settled in to watch Martin, who wore the number five on his back and sported high striped socks. He was listed at 5'10", 180 pounds, but he couldn't have tipped the scales at any more than 165, even with bricks in his pocket.
For someone so young, Martin displayed excellent plate discipline and speed. His outfield routes were very good, and he flashed a strong arm. Reading that is all well and good, or you could watch the video I took (it's not exceptional, but it gets the job done.)
Perfect Game also took some video of Martin, albeit from a different game. It's better because they're Perfect Game and they're really good at everything they do:
Go back and watch the final swing in the Perfect Game video. Do you see how jerky it is? Martin loads, sets his front foot, drops the bat head, and then swings. We'll get back to that later. (Feel free to remember his secondary leads in the first video, too. We'll get to those, too.)
After both of these videos were taken, the Houston Astros drafted the seventeen-year-old Martin in the eighth round, signed him to a contract with a $159,700 bonus, and sent him to the Gulf Coast League, where he played fifty games - all but two of them in center field.
Martin put up good numbers there, too. According to FanGraphs, he boasted a 13.6% walk rate, a 14.5% strikeout rate, a .344 wOBA, and a wRC+ of 114. He also stole 11 bases in 18 attempts. Those 7 caught stealings, combined with just 12 extra-base hits in 214 plate appearances, were the only real downside, as his defense also drew rave reviews from people I talked to.
It's easy to see how Martin became just the fourth player to be drafted out of Orange Lutheran, which plays in Orange County's Trinity League with national powerhouses like Mater Dei and JSerra. The other three - Gerrit Cole, Brandon Maurer, and Aaron Gates - were all drafted in 2008, the year before Jason's freshman year (though only Maurer signed out of high school). The Astros' second-round pick this year, Andrew Thurman, also went to Orange Lutheran, but wasn't drafted until he proved his worth at UC Irvine.
When he pulled up at Hart Park - the site of his high school glory days - I scarcely recognized him. And it wasn't just the brand new Mercedes. Known at the time of the draft as a raw prospect, he stood taller than I remembered him. He'd clearly been in the weight room, too, and had put on at least ten pounds of muscle. In two days, he was set to head back out to Florida for instructionals. Though he grew up in the shadow of Angels Stadium, a lifelong Halos fan, you could see the fire in his eyes when he thought about the Astros' future - and about his place in it.
(interview has been edited for clarity)
Did you play any other sports in high school?
I did play football, my freshman and sophomore years. I started at corner on varsity my sophomore year and broke my leg. After that, I was done.
Focusing on baseball seems to have worked out for you. You were a third-team All-American this year. How does that process work?
I found out by looking on Perfect Game's website.
Really? No phone call?
No. I looked under my name and it said All-American. I was like, "Oh, okay." So that's how I found out about it.
I feel like they should give you something. At least like a bowling trophy. What about your California All-Region First Team selection. Still nothing?
When I played in the (Orange County All-Star Game), they did a thing before, where they took some pictures.
But they didn't give you anything.
I don't have anything.
They should work on that. Okay, so take us through the draft process.
I enjoyed the whole process. Meeting with all the teams; the dinners. I got a lot of good information. Draft day was pretty stressful. For all the players, it was pretty stressful. But overall, it was great.
Did you have a pretty good idea of the Astros' interest?
Yeah. I met with Brad (Budzinski). There were a few teams that were interested. The Astros were one of them.
What was the first thing you did after you got the call?
My family and I were going crazy. The whole house was just going crazy! We were all really excited. I got a whole bunch of phone calls. It was just a great time. I was home about a week after the call, and they sent me out to Florida. That was a fun week.
Was that your first time away from home for that long?
Definitely. I'd done some showcases, but that's just a weekend. I hadn't been out for that long ever.
That must have been tough. My first job was at McDonald's. Yours was in the Gulf Coast League, twenty-five hundred miles away from home.
It was tough to start, but then I started loosening up and meeting the team; making friends. My family came out for a week and saw me. I had a great time my first season. I feel like it's going good.
And here you are, just seventeen years old. Were there any specific challenges being that young in your first season of professional ball?
I think the biggest thing was just being away from home. Some of my teammates have, especially going to college. That was probably the biggest thing. Another thing is playing baseball every day. It's hard on your body; you're out there every single day. Drink a lot of water. I learned to do that. Eat healthier. Working out.
What about on the diamond? Were there any mechanical adjustments the Astros made to your swing?
I wasn't really fluid with my swing. When I'd load, I would pause and then go to the ball, or I wouldn't load at all, and just go straight to the ball. The biggest thing I was working on was just staying fluid, all one motion with my load and going straight to the ball.
Did you gain any sort of advantage from having played against premium competition, both in Perfect Game showcases and here in the Trinity League?
Perfect Game, the Trinity League, scout ball with the Brewers in the Area Codes. That definitely gave me a little advantage.
(As an aside, that Milwaukee Brewers Area Code team was stacked. It featured a lot of high draft picks: Dominic Smith, Phil Bickford, Gosuke Katoh, Chris Rivera, Elliott Barzilli, Stephen Gonsalves, J.P. Crawford, Tyler Alamo, Kevin Franklin, Blake Taylor, Ryan McMahon, and Ian Clarkin, as well as highly-regarded prospects like Jack Flaherty (2014), Jeremy Martinez, and Arden Pabst.)
And your GCL coaches? How were they?
I loved every coach. It was great. Fonzy (Ed Alfonzo) was great. Marty Malloy, the hitting coach. It was really good.
Did you work with Vince Coleman?
Yeah, we worked on stealing bases and outfielding.
Anything specific you can tell us?
The biggest thing was the takeoff. Making sure your weight is on that back foot so you have enough power to push off, and fly into second base.
He's big on secondaries, too, I hear.
Yeah. One big hop, and make sure you're planted while the ball's crossing through the hitting zone.
Is there anything you thought you were really good at in high school, but a year in professional ball has made you question?
I feel like I was really fast in high school. Now that I'm playing with older kids, the speed of the game has changed. More players are faster than they were in high school.
The Astros' Director of Amateur Scouting, Mike Elias, said you had all the ingredients to develop into a prototypical leadoff hitter. Patience at the plate. Speed. Are those things that came to you naturally, or are they things you had to work at?
They came naturally, but of course I work on them. Every day I'm out there, I work on them. My swing. Every day we work on hitting and defense and just try to put it all together when the game comes around. In high school, I led off most of the games. Being a leadoff hitter, you have to take pitches; see a lot of pitches. So I was practicing that in high school. Once I got to the Astros, it was even more important. They really stress that: Making sure you get the right pitch to hit. I took that seriously, and it helped. The staff worked with me on being more selective. Get on base, steal bases, and just play well in the field.
And I'm sure they're hoping - and you're hoping - that the power will develop as you get stronger and work counts a little more.
Yeah. I'm in the weight room. Working on not always looking to go (opposite field) - not just trying to flare that ball over there. If you get a middle-in pitch, just drive it. Turn on it.
No home runs yet.
Almost. I almost had a couple.
No, you didn't.
I did! I almost had a couple. I was mad, like what do I have to do?
Let's talk about the stolen bases. You had eleven, but you got caught seven times. Do the coaches dictate when you run?
Towards the end, I had the green light every time I got on, but at the beginning and towards the middle part of the season, we could only go when they said we could go. When they gave us the sign.
What's your 60 time?
I think my fastest was 6.61.
Vince Coleman will fix that.
I worked with him a lot, but not as much as I wanted to. I know we're gonna be good together.
What's a GCL clubhouse like?
It's a little crazy. Towards the end - another adjustment I needed to make - there's a lot of Spanish speakers. A lot of Dominican players, especially towards the end. There were about eight kids from America, and the rest were from other places, speaking Spanish. So they kind of have their own little dialect, and the Americans have their dialect. But it's different. It's something you get used to. I picked up on a lot of Spanish. While I was out there, I figured I needed to learn it. So I started doing Rosetta Stone out there. In my free time, I was doing Rosetta Stone.
I'm imagining Jason Martin, after a full day of practice and a doubleheader, going home and popping in the Rosetta Stone.
Back in the hotel, on my laptop.
Do you have any thoughts on the Astros' rebuilding process?
I wasn't told much about it, but I can see how good their minor league system is. Everybody talks about it. About how good the Astros minor league system is.
Obviously, you're one of those pieces that they're hoping can turn the franchise around. Is that something you think about?
It's something I think about every day when I go out to work. It helps me go harder. Just trying to move my way up and each day, just get better.
Aside from being shorter, what's the biggest difference between this offseason and your high school offseasons?
It's a lot more rest. I'm usually not that tired after a high school season. I can't really do much, because I'm just so tired, so I'm just resting. Just trying to get myself ready to go back to instructs.
What are you anticipating when you get there?
Meeting a lot of new people, and just going hard. Just showing the coaches what I have. Just try to make it not be a hard decision to move me up. Right now, I just keep swinging the bat and keep my body in shape. We're going to go over a lot in instructs.
What's a day of work for you?
I get up around six. Go down, get breakfast at the hotel. Take the van to the field, get to the field around 7:30. We go out for early work - bunting or hitting, or maybe taking fly balls. Something like that. Then we come back in, and the practice starts at 8:40, and we're out there at practice, taking BP, infield, outfield, pop-up priorities. We come back in, lunch is at 10:45. We eat lunch and then come back in to get dressed for the game. We're out there for the game at 11:30 and the game starts at twelve. Then, two or three days out of the week, we go and lift after the game. If we don't have lifting, then we're done. If we have lifting, we lift and then we're done.
Then you go home and pop in the Rosetta Stone.
Right. I go back and go on that Rosetta Stone. It really helps. I was able to communicate with the guys.
Who's your roommate?
Jacob Nottingham. We knew each other from showcases and scout teams.
Alright, I won't take up any more of your time. I really appreciate you meeting with me. Congratulations on a great season, and best of luck at instructionals.
I really appreciate it. Thank you.