The fact Eric Martins was selected to serve as the Pacific Coast League's hitting coach for Wednesday's Triple-A All-Star Game in El Paso, Texas, wasn't exactly shocking. After all, he's spent this season doling out hitting advice to an Aviators team that leads the PCL in batting average, hits, doubles, triples, and on-base percentage, and ranks second in runs scored and RBI.
Just how deep is the lineup that Martins tutors? Seven players who have appeared in at least 43 of the team's 90 games entered the All-Star break with a batting average over .300: Corban Joseph (.395), Nick Martini (.335), Skye Bolt (.318), Mark Payton (.312), Beau Taylor (.309), Jorge Mateo (.308) and Sheldon Neuse (.305). Also, four players (Mateo, Joseph, Neuse and Dustin Fowler) have at least 92 hits, and six (Seth Brown, Neuse, Fowler, Mateo, Franklin Barreto and Payton) have double-digit home runs.
So of course when it came time to select a hitting coach for his All-Star team, PCL president Branch Rickey's first call was to Martins.
No, the real surprise is that Martins ended up becoming a minor-league hitting coach in the first place - not because he's not qualified (he clearly is), but because it wasn't a career path he initially desired or pursued. After his 11-year playing career ended in 2004, Martins took a couple of years away from baseball before becoming a Southern California-based scout for the Oakland A's, serving in that role from 2007-14.
Martins enjoyed the job and had no intention of returning to the field full time, but Keith Lippman, Oakland's executive director of player development, needed someone to tutor a crop of young, promising A's hitters - including future All-Star third baseman Matt Chapman, whom Martins signed in 2014. So Lippman turned to Martins, who somewhat reluctantly accepted the post and headed to Midland, Texas, where he spent a year in Double-A, followed by three seasons at Triple-A Nashville. Now the 45-year-old Southern California native is back on West Coast working with a talented mix of young and veteran Aviators hitters who are on the doorstep of the big leagues.
We recently caught up with Martins and discussed his All-Star selection, the underrated qualities of a hitting coach, and the joys of getting to swing the bat at hitter-friendly Las Vegas Ballpark.
How did it feel to learn you'd been selected to coach in the Triple-A All-Star game?
It was awesome. Branch called me to let me know and asked if I was going to be around, and of course I'm happy to do it. Obviously I couldn't do it without these guys [Aviators hitters]. They make me look good. I just throw the balls to them in batting practice, and they hit 'em! [Laughs.] Nah, obviously there's more to it than that. But it's a great honor, and I'm looking forward to it.
How did you go from scout to hitting coach?
Besides being a scout during the season, I also coached for the A's in the Arizona Instructional League. And our farm director, Keith Lippman, kept saying to me, "You should get on the coaching side!" But quite honestly, I was happy being home, because I'd been away for so many years [as a player]. Being a scout, I was able to stay home and still be involved in the game.
Then the year after I drafted Matt Chapman, I was in the Instructional League when Lippman called me again. This was 2015, the year the A's had all those talented young hitters - Ryon Healy, Daniel Robertson, Chad Pinder, Matt Olson - who were going to Double-A, and Lippman basically said, "Hey, I want you to go with that group - I need you to go with that group." So I thought about it for a couple of days. I love being on the field anyway - any chance I had to be on the field during the offseason, I would do it. So I went to Midland that year with those guys, and we won a Texas League championship.
What do you make of the hitters you have with the Aviators this season?
We've got a lot of guys who can do a lot of things, which is awesome. You've seen Mateo what he can do. Neuse has put together a great year. Then you've got Fowler, Brown, Barreto - it's a talented group of guys.
It's pretty obvious by now that Las Vegas Ballpark is a hitter's paradise. How, if at all, does your job change when you're a hitting coach for a team that plays half its games in a hitter-friendly park?
It's a completely different environment than what I'd been accustomed to since becoming a hitting coach. I love Nashville - love the stadium and the city - but that's a tough place to hit. So was Midland. And a lot of hitting has to do with confidence. In Nashville, you could square up four baseballs and come away 0-for-4, and my job is to tell the guys, "Hey, you hit this ball this hard - it's a hit anywhere else." But at the end of the day, you want to see some results to give you some confidence. You can only stay [mentally] strong so long.
So you come here [to Las Vegas Ballpark] and you square up some baseballs, you get rewarded, and it builds that confidence for a lot of these guys. They start to realize, "Hey, if I hit the baseball good, I've got a chance to get the result I want," even though [hitting] isn't always about results.
What's the most difficult part of your job, and the most rewarding?
The most difficult thing is just trying to talk guys off the ledge, keeping them positive and moving forward and progressing and getting better. Because their big picture is to get to the big leagues or get back to the big leagues. Once they reach this level, they're so close, so they live and die by every at-bat every day. And they start thinking, "Oh no, I went 0-for-4; they're not going to call me up." So I'm more of a psychologist than anything.
It's about painting the big picture for them - the process that it takes - and trying to connect with each guy differently. Because I'm not cookie-cutter; I have a different relationship with each guy. … There are some guys I can be more stern with, while there are other guys I might have to pat on the back a little bit more because they need that confidence boost. So all of that is difficult, but I enjoy that part of it.
The rewarding part is seeing a guy get to the big leagues for the first time after putting in all the hard work here. Or the guy who struggled early on [in Triple-A] and turned it around - a guy like Neuse, who was hitting .190 in Nashville last year up until the middle of June and finished the year hitting .263. That was a big accomplishment, so those are the rewarding things.
What's the one thing most fans don't realize about hitting coaches - maybe the most underappreciated quality?
We spend a lot of time at the ballpark - and the players do, as well. I'm here every day between 12-12:30 p.m. [before a 7 p.m. game], getting scouting reports ready for the guys, breaking down the pitchers of our next opponent, doing early hitting work with the guys on the field, running back to the batting cage and getting the rest of the guys going, then organizing batting practice. I also watch film on each of our players, so you have an answer for them when they come to you searching for a little something. So there's a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes, which I enjoy.
Hitting coaches don't get a lot of the recognition, but we're not here for the recognition. It's about getting them ready for the big leagues so when they get there, they're able to perform and can help the big-league team win. That's all that matters to me.
You don't have to be more than a casual baseball fan to realize that home runs and strikeouts are through the roof at all levels of baseball, while there's far less emphasis on the importance of making contact and moving runners. Was it difficult for you to adapt to this modern hitting approach?
Well, as an organization, we preach [hitting] low line drives. As for the punchouts, all we care about is how guys are striking out. If they're striking out on pitches that are in the strike zone, well, maybe the pitcher's got some good stuff. But if we're chasing pitches out of the zone, that's when it becomes a concern. We're trying to work on guys making more contact, hitting low line drives - that's our emphasis as an organization. We're not really preaching hitting home runs; if the result of a good swing is a low line drive, that's going to create the home runs.
Exit velocity and launch angle are among the new-age terms often used when talking about hitting. But in your eyes, what's the most important component to becoming a great hitter?
There are several: Being able to hit a fastball, having barrel accuracy, being balanced, being able to square up a baseball consistently. If you have a lot of swings and misses, the game's going to be tough, no matter what level you're playing. But if you can consistently hit a fastball - get the barrel of the bat to it - control the strike zone and have good balance, you're going to be successful.
Who's your favorite hitter of all time?
I was a big fan of Johnny Ray. He was a second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates [from the early to mid-1980s], and he ended his career with the Angels, which for me was awesome because I grew up in Southern California so I got to see him play. He's the reason why I wear No. 3. Not too many people know about him, but for some reason I loved Johnny Ray. So I would say Johnny and probably Barry Larkin are my two guys I liked to watch hit.
Let's say you could build your ideal hitter using different skills from the game's greatest hitters - so eyesight, swing, footwork, brain, plate discipline, power, ability to make contact, etc. What would that player look like?
I would take Barry Bonds' power and plate discipline. Joey Votto's got great plate discipline, too - those two guys were impeccable. They don't swing at bad pitches. Then give me Mike Trout's overall hitting abilities. I'd also throw in Miguel Cabrera, because he was - and still is - one of the best hitters of all time. And then obviously I would have to take Tony Gwynn's hand-eye coordination - just the way he could manipulate the baseball was amazing.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.