Mariners Insider Blog

New leadoff man? Hot Leonys Martin, not Norichika Aoki, bats first again

Leonys Martin is, at least for Sunday through Monday, the Mariners’ new leadoff hitter. The hot-hitting Martin is taking the job Norichika Aoki primarily had for the first 43 games of this season.
Leonys Martin is, at least for Sunday through Monday, the Mariners’ new leadoff hitter. The hot-hitting Martin is taking the job Norichika Aoki primarily had for the first 43 games of this season. AP

(Pinch-hitting Monday out at the yard for the indefatigable Bob Dutton, whose plane connections betrayed him Monday on his way home from Ohio and the Mariners’ just-completed trip.)

Like their season in general, that November trade for Leonys Martin is working out pretty well so far for the Mariners, eh?

For the second consecutive game -- and to begin an eight-game homestand -- it was Martin and not usual No. 1-hitter Norichika Aoki batting lead off for the Mariners.

First-place Seattle (26-17) had Martin, its center fielder acquired in a November trade with Texas, atop the lineup Monday night against tough Oakland left-hander Rich Hill. It was Martin’s third time batting first this season -- but 107th time in his career.

Aoki has hit leadoff 36 times this season. He was 5 for 21 (.238) during Seattle’s 5-1 road trip through Baltimore and Cincinnati that ended Sunday. That was actually four points higher than Aoki’s season average.

“Just riding the hot hand,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said before Monday’s opener to an eight-game homestand.

How hot? With hits in his first two at-bats versus Hill Monday, Martin was batting .444 (16 for 36) with an All-Star-like on-base percentage of .524 over his last 11 games. The top OBP in the American League this season entering Monday was .413 by Boston’s Jackie Bradley Jr. and Houston’s Jose Altuve.

In those last 10 games Martin had hit three of his surprising eight home runs. That already had tied his career high he set as a rookie with the Rangers in 2013. And that was all while hitting in the bottom-third of the lineup for every game except Sunday’s win at the Reds.

“I’ve been working really hard in the batting cage with Edgar (Martinez, Seattle’s hitting coach),” Martin said. “Doing a lot of things to put hits together and get better.”

Aoki’s on-base percentage the last 10 games entering Monday was .325. He batted eighth on Monday, his first time below No. 2 this season.

“It’s not really anything Aoki’s done wrong,” Servais said. “It’s just an opportunity to ride the hot hand with Leonys at the top of the lineup. He can steal bases; he’s a threat there at the top of the lineup...

“Aoki’s got a proven track record, no doubt. But, again, just going to ride the hot hand. There’s nothing to read anything into it. That’s just what it is.”

The first-year manager also said we all scrutinize these lineup machinations more than he does.

But the sample size of one-fourth this Mariners season hints the 28-year-old Martin could be up for this leadoff job for a longer term.

Aside from the hot hitting, Martin has been excelling in two other specialties of a leadoff man: getting walked and stealing bases. Entering Monday he had already matched his walk total of 16 from 2015, when he played in 95 games for the Rangers. He’s on pace to surpass his career high of 49 walks for a season he set in 2013.

“That’s part of my game, see a lot of pitches and get on base,” Martin said before Monday’s batting practice.

And he had stolen seven bases in 10 tries.

Though Aoki had 18 walks in 41 games entering Monday, he had been caught stealing on six of his first eight attempts this season. He’s also eight years older than Martin.

Martin shrugged over batting leadoff, which he did 33 times last season for Texas and 40 times in 2014.

“No matter where I hit in the lineup, I’m still going to play my game. I try to get on base,” he said. “After the first inning, everybody can be a leadoff guy.”

Oh, yeah, about that trade: Amid the spate of deals and signings general manager Jerry DiPoto made to begin his new regime last November, Seattle sent one-time closer Tom Wilhelmsen, outfielder James Jones and Triple-A third baseman Patrick Kivlehan to Texas for Martin and right-hander Anthony Bass.

Bass chose to sign to play in Japan. Wilhelmsen should have.

The 32-year old allowed 25 hits and 17 runs in his 15 1-3 innings with the Rangers. That 9.98 ERA got him demoted to Triple-A Round Rock last week. That’s where Jones, 27, was bating .250 with a .309 on-base percentage through 36 games entering Monday.

Kivlehan, the player to be named later in the deal, was batting .184 with a .252 OBP and .262 slugging percentage through 36 games for Round Rock. He hit .256 with a .453 slugging percentage last season in 123 games for Tacoma.

Meanwhile, Martin is batting first for the top team in the AL West that led Texas by 1 1/2 games entering Monday.

SHORT HOPS: Servais said he doesn’t expect SS Ketel Marte, who went on the 15-day disabled list Sunday with a sprained left thumb, to do any baseball-related work during this homestand. ... Chris Taylor started at SS Monday, after his call-up and one long night Saturday into Sunday to get to Cincinnati from Tacoma. Servais said Taylor and Shawn O’Malley will generally alternate starts for now while Marte mends.