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Martin ready to compete, win with Blue Jays

First-round pick's work ethic impressed at alternate site, fall camp
Ranked as the No. 16 prospect in baseball, Austin Martin was drafted fifth overall by the Blue Jays this year. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press via AP)
@AndrewAtBatt
December 22, 2020

When Vanderbilt's season ended prematurely on March 11 after a win against Toledo, it not only closed the book on Austin Martin's college career, but it also began the longest stretch of his life without a competitive baseball game. Even after going fifth overall in the Draft to the Blue

When Vanderbilt's season ended prematurely on March 11 after a win against Toledo, it not only closed the book on Austin Martin's college career, but it also began the longest stretch of his life without a competitive baseball game.

Even after going fifth overall in the Draft to the Blue Jays and getting reps at the club's alternate site and swing camp this fall, he won't have anything on his official stat line until at least this upcoming spring.

So what's baseball's No. 16 overall prospect looking forward to the most when he gets to step between the lines again in full uniform?

"Winning," Martin said succinctly with a laugh. "But for real, I'm just excited to get back on the field. It's been too long."

His 65-grade hit tool made him arguably the best pure offensive player in the Draft, so the Blue Jays weren't surprised to see the 21-year-old take professional at-bats against the team's pitchers this summer in Rochester. His competitive drive and that desire to win, whether it be in intrasquad games or drills, though, has made him stand out early in his Toronto tenure.

"I talked to Harrison Ray a little bit, one of his teammates at Vandy, and he said the same thing. I mean, if [Martin] can turn it into a competition. he's going to," Blue Jays assistant director of player development Joe Sclafani said. "And he's going to try to find a way to win."

It was a play in an IncrediBall mini-game utilizing a lightweight training ball that Toronto Minor League hitting coordinator Hunter Mense thinks truly encapsulates what Martin brings to the table. In this drill, the rules were pretty simple. The team had a machine set up with hitters working on two-strike counts. They received a point for each ball they hit that bounced once, three if it bounced three times and none if a fielder caught a ball on the fly.

On this summer day, Martin was in the outfield, stationed in right-center. A liner was hit toward the foul line and easily could've been stopped on one bounce for one point. But Martin went into a full sprint to try and make a diving catch. He didn't come up with it, and was on the receiving end of plenty of jabs from his new teammates.

"He slides and sprawls out, and kind of catches his knee. The ball goes flying and he ends up trapping it," Mense said. "But I remember thinking like, 'Holy cow, one, that could've been really bad. But two, it was unbelievable to watch a kid in this meaningless game we have ... watch him absolutely throw everything he has into it.'"

There was another workout this year in the batting cages in which Martin and the rest of the players broke into groups. Sclafani, who saw it firsthand, said the drill started friendly enough before turning into a legitimate competition.

"The amount of trash talk that was going on, it was awesome," Sclafani said. "Like they were putting legit pressure on one another."

These might have been the moments when Martin ingratiated himself with the Blue Jays, but this was a style of play that he became known for in his three seasons at Vanderbilt.

The Trinity Christian Academy product followed up his high-school career with scores of accolades in the NCAA. He was a First Team All-American, an All-SEC First Team member, Golden Spikes semifinalist and College World Series champion, among many other honors, by the time he played in his last collegiate game.

Unsurprisingly, Martin found an early recipe for success. Vanderbilt, a world-class program with plenty of analytical tools in its arsenal, could provide him with as much information as a young athlete could need. Martin, however, put more of an emphasis on his own intuition, reading and reacting to situations and players on the field to make his own assessments in-game.

"Keeping it simple I would say is the biggest part of my game," Martin said. "We play the most complicated, hardest sport in the world, in my opinion. If you try to overcomplicate it, then it's only going to make it harder. I think sometimes less is more, so I just try to keep it simple in that sense."

In 140 games, Martin's uncomplicated mind-set led to a .368/.474/.532 slash line, one of the best in the country during that time. Almost a rarity in today's game, he walked 85 times and whiffed on 82 occasions.

Commodores head coach Tim Corbin continually saw the Florida native's advanced approach in the batter's box every day. What set Martin apart, though, Corbin said, was his innate ability to have a grander sense of the moment.

Batting leadoff for most of his Vandy career, Martin set the tone. In 2019 in particular, the Commodores finished 33-4 with him as the top hitter en route to their second national title.

"I just think about the amount of times he came up to lead off when we really needed to win a game and he got us on the scoreboard right away, whether it was a regional, whether it was College World Series," Corbin said. "And he's done that so many times. I mean, we lose a game one day, and then the very next day, he leads off the game and hits a home run or hits and scores a run in the first.

"That's just him to a T. I tell you, the identifier with him is how he plays when the team needs him to play well. And he does."

A 50-grade power tool at present, Martin finished his college career with 14 roundtrippers and 57 total extra-base hits. Part of what has made Martin so valuable within the game is that ability to step up when things count.

"He's got a game twitch because if you watch him take batting practice and you'd say, 'Ah, that kid won't hit the ball out of the ballpark,'" Corbin said. "When he gets into a game, his strength is exponentially greater than it is in BP."

Another aspect of Martin's game that evolved over time -- and won't show up in any box score -- was his leadership. Corbin said Martin's role always included leading by example on the field, but it grew to include more vocal aspects.

"I think the piece that's unique to him is the amount of time he spends with other guys on the team teaching and talking about the game, he enjoys that," Corbin said. "I always told him, 'I don't know what you want to do when you leave the game someday.' I've always thought he could be a very good teacher inside the game of baseball, if that's something he ever wanted to do, because it comes very easily easy to him and he teaches it the way he thinks it, which is simple."

Austin Martin's .392 average in 2019 was the highest for a Vanderbilt player in 15 years. Vanderbilt University

Growing into that leadership role also made the end of the 2020 season a little more difficult than normal. After the mid-week win at Toledo on March 11, the team got word in 10-minute increments that things were being shut down. First conference play was getting moved back, then it was the school shutting down and finally word broke that the college playoffs were canceled.

"I was an older guy this year and, in a sense, a leader of the team and this was my team this year, so I was just upset," Martin said. "We had all these guys that worked so hard in the fall just to try to reset for our goal. We just got a little taste of it together and then everything just gets shut down unexpectedly."

Like many others, Martin's college career came to an unceremonious end with the coronavirus pandemic. Coupled with the uncertainty everyone experienced, it also presented a unique dynamic for him in a Draft year. He would be back home when he'd normally be gearing for a deep playoff run. Previously, he had watched now-Marlins prospect and former Vandy teammate JJ Bleday handle himself on the field leading up the Draft.

But at this point there wouldn't be anything he could do to add or detract from his Draft stock. All he could really do was stay in shape and wait for June 10.

There was an "anxious excitement" leading up to the day, with some projections having him go as high as the first two picks. Martin said he was 95 percent sure he'd go elsewhere, and he was selected fifth overall by the Blue Jays. Sclafani said the club was "over the moon" about getting someone projected as highly as Martin, and added the culture fit was perfect.

Martin was on the same page.

"I didn't know how to feel when I heard my name called. I think my body kind of completely went numb," Martin said. "Your dreams kind of come true. And then for me, it plays in my favor because I play to win and [I was] able to go into an organization that has the same mind-set. We share the same mind-set, the same goal."

That goal was put on hold, at least temporarily. Normally Martin would've been assigned to his first professional team, taking the summer to learn the ropes of his new organization and Minor League travel.

But in 2020, that wasn't the case.

Instead, he went to the club's alternate site in western New York alongside a group ranging from Rookie-level players to plenty of guys with Major League service time.

"If it was a normal year and he gets drafted, he goes to Lansing or he goes to Vancouver, and he's the absolute dude that's there, right?" Mense said. "And then the alternate site, you got guys that have played in the big leagues for five, six years. You got guys who were also first-round Draft picks. You got guys that signed for a bunch of money. So he was able to lean on those guys a little bit for their support."

Even against upper-level pitching, Martin was never overmatched and succeeded plenty in his first stint as a professional. He swung at good pitches, controlled the tempo in the box and used his pure ability to flat-out hit. The swing mechanics and foundation were present, and in time, Mense said, the "danger piece" will come as Martin gets older and a little stronger.

But what the hitting coordinator said made Martin even better was when things didn't exactly go his way.

"He's so observant and he's so competitive that when he failed at something or when something doesn't go the way he thinks it's going to or that he wants it to, he will figure out a way to get it done," Mense said. "And those are the guys you see in professional baseball that make it and that are pretty successful because they will find ways. And he's got that in him."

Martin said he and Mense connected early on this summer, in large part because of their competitive nature. Asking the right questions on how he can improve has helped Martin in these early stages of professional development.

"He's extremely intelligent. He understands what's good for him and what's not," Mense said. "Along the way, we'll work together. And it's not me telling you what to do and it's not me suggesting it, it's us coming up with a plan together."

One plan that hasn't been fully set in stone is where he'll end up playing on the diamond. Martin did everything but catch and pitch at Vanderbilt, where he always "showed up with a tool kit and seven different gloves," according to Corbin.

At the Draft, Martin was announced as a shortstop, and he noted that he spent the bulk of his time there at the alternate site. He'd only played two games at short in college, and there are the projections that point to him maybe moving to the outfield or second base at some point. There's the additional question of where the club's third-ranked prospect, Jordan Groshans, a shortstop by trade, will end up defensively. The two already are pushing each other to be better players, and as Sclafani noted, "it's a good problem for us to have if we have too many good players at one position."

Mense said Martin's plug-and-play attitude was tangible on Day 1 at the alternate site.

"When you ask him where he wants to play he's like, 'Man, I don't care. I just want to be out there. I just want to play.' And it's 100 percent genuine when he says it. He just legitimately wants to be out there on the field."

In the end, Martin said he knows the versatility is part of his game and where he plays is irrelevant. It all comes back to the same things: winning and having fun.

"I love the game. I love playing. I love everything about it," he said. "Even though I get paid for it now and it's technically my job, it's a game to have fun. I know it gets stressful and it's a game of failure, but once you understand that, it's fun."

There's one conversation Mense had with Martin this summer that he hopes the budding star doesn't forget any time soon, especially once Minor League play resumes and there's the daily grind of late-night bus rides.

"He's like, 'Man, if I ever lose this competitive feel that I have, or if I start feeling that it's mundane or it's monotonous day after day, I don't know if this is for me,'" Mense recalled. "And it's really cool to hear him say that. And we all said, 'Don't ever forget you said that, and don't ever lose that, because it's such a key piece.' For him competition isn't just between the white lines. Competition is getting better. Competition is watching himself grow.

"And as he finds that from the daily grind, I think you'll see the kid absolutely take off."

Andrew Battifarano is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter, @AndrewAtBatt.