The Kid Forgotten

>The best I can tell, Tom Seaver’s name is first mentioned in the New York Times on October 18, 1966, in a short article detailing the Mets’ roster maneuvering to protect players from the Rule 5 draft. Seaver is mentioned only in passing, alongside the names of Jerry Koosman, Ken Boswell, and, uh, Terry Christman, as four of the minor leaguers the Mets placed on the 40-man roster. The article is only 600-or-so words, and most of them are focused on Larry Stahl, whom the Mets acquired from the Kansas City Athletics the same day. Seaver is just one more name on a list, a transactional footnote buried in the middle of the page.

The point of that being, if you were a Met fan back in the 1960’s, you were probably only made aware of the existence of George Thomas Seaver when he suddenly appeared on the mound April 13, 1967, or at the earliest, during spring training of that same year. Little hype, little fanfare, anointed with no nicknames before throwing a pitch. He was a mega-prospect with a controversial signing process, only there weren’t mega prospects back then. He wasn’t there one season, then, suddenly, the next, he was dropping and driving his way to Rookie of the Year. Seaver just appeared.

***

The best I can tell, Fernando Martinez’s name is first mentioned by the New York Times on July 23, 2005, the day after Martinez took batting practice at Shea Stadium in front of Mets officials, after he had signed a mega-deal earlier in the month. Martinez receives a handful of paragraphs in a story about game that took place on Merengue Night. And he appears again and again over the next few years.

The point of that being, if you are a Met fan today, you have been made aware of the existence of Jesus Fernando Martinez since July of 2005. The world has been aware of Fernando Martinez for just three months less than it has been aware of Pope Benedict XVI. The last Star Wars movie predates Fernando Martinez by two months, and America was introduced to Martinez three months before it saw the Colbert Report for the first time. Fernando Martinez has existed as a spec on the horizon, growing closer and closer with each passing day, since 2005. That’s a long time in prospect land.

So. Things have changed in between Tom Terrific and Fernando Martinez.

***

When Martinez arrived in New York on May 26, 2009, like a lot of fans, I had been loosely following his rise for years. Before I ever saw him play a game, or just saw him, period, I knew that he was:

(cue the theme from “The Natural“)

FERNANDO MARTINEZ – THE TEENAGE HITTING MACHINE, POSSESSOR OF THE QUICKEST HANDS IN THE WEST. LOOK UPON HIM AND DESPAIR, MERE MORTALS.

F-mart. The Fernanchise. Fartinez – okay, that’s probably a bad nickname. I knew he was from the Dominican Republic, that he had signed for a monster bonus, and that he hit left handed. I knew he was injured a lot, but also that he was mashing the ball in AAA Buffalo when the Mets called him up. I’m not entirely sure I knew what he looked like, but I knew he was just 20-years-old, and I knew he was late because he was supposed to already be manning a corner spot when Citi Field had opened. Most of all, I knew that he was Fernando Martinez, and he was the future.

But then the future hit .176, failed to run out a pop-up in his first week, and fell down in the outfield. The future literally fell on his face.

I was under the impression metaphorical moments like that only happened in movies.

After having his every at-bat followed for years, Fernando Martinez has disappeared this spring under the shadow of Marino Rivera and Adrian Gonzalez – oh sorry, I got mixed up. They’re just all so similar – under the shadow of Jenrry Mejia and Ike Davis. Martinez goes 4-4 with two home runs on Saturday. Flushing shrugs. The teenage hitting machine no more – now the adolescent disappointment. All because Martinez hit .176/.242/.275 in 100 PA as a 20-year-old.

Which got me wondering: just how many 20-year-old position players have there been in the major leagues over the past five seasons? And how did they do?

The answer to part one is ten.* Fernando Martinez and Elvis Andrus in 2009; Conor Gillaspie, Justin Upton, and Travis Synder in 2008; Justin Upton (again, and just 19 this time) and Camron Maybin in 2007; Adam Jones and Delmon Young in 2006; and Melky Cabrera and Ryan Zimmerman in 2005.

*I’m going by baseball-reference age here – in other words 20-or-younger on June 30 the year they played – and it’s actually eleven seasons by ten players, because Justin Upton played as both a 19-year-old and 20-year-old.

Of those ten players, just four came to the plate 100 or more times: Martinez, Elvis Andrus, Justin Upton (twice), and Delmon Young. Of those four, Upton in 2008 and Andrus in 2009 are the only two who exceeded 152 plate appearances.

If we take those two out of the group – so we remove Justin Upton’s 2008 because he had already played in the majors for a year, and Elvis Andrus’ 2009 because he is a hound dog freak and ruins this exercise by making up a third of the sample otherwise – the nine remaining 20-or-younger players combined to do this:

680 PA, .252/.295/.384, .679 OPS, 46 doubles, but just 10 home runs, and they struck out in 22.8% of their plate appearances.

To put that in words instead of numbers, 20-year-olds are not generally ready to contribute as position players in the major leagues. Out of all the 20-year-olds in professional baseball over the past five years – all of them – only two have been able to contribute to their major league teams in meaningful ways. Two. And they’re both freaks because they were able to do that, because only freak talents can do that. Alex Rodriguez could handle the major leagues as a teenager. Ken Griffey Jr. handled the majors as a teenager. Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Willie Mays could all do it. But most other great players either couldn’t or didn’t.

So to put it one more way, Fernando Martinez’ 2009 performance should not be considered disappointing – it would have been great for him to hit well, it would have made him a freak talent, and everyone could have bought #26 F-Mart jerseys. But he was quite young and probably had no business being in the major leagues. In fact, it’s an impressive feat in itself that Martinez was even invited as a 20-year-old. Only nine others have done it over the past five seasons – in this case, Patroclus wasn’t ready and found himself overwhelmed by Hector. It would have happened to most players. That Martinez even got so far should be a testament to his underlying skill. That he failed should only indicate that he needs more time.

Fernando Martinez has had to overcome a lot of things to get to where he is today. He has had to overcome a House-like number of injuries, he has had to overcome the organization’s promotional philosophy that seems to be “let’s see if our prospects can survive the bends when we bring them up too fast”, and he has had to overcome being two or three years younger than everyone as he moved through the minor league levels. Now he has to overcome a 2009, and a career in general, that some consider disappointing. He’s not a big league starter at age 21? What a failure. The Fernanchise no more. The hype and aura have been stripped away, leaving just Fernando Martinez, falling on his face in center field.

And he’s only 21.

Thankfully, there exists a simplest of solutions for what ails Fernando Martinez, which I have uncovered after hours of laborious research and deep philosophizing:

Just hit.

And he can. It just might take him a little longer then the teenage years he’s had.

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6 Comments

Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

6 responses to “The Kid Forgotten

  1. Rob

    >Thank you. This is terrific. I've been very glad that Martinez has been somewhat under the radar recently. Let the kid develop without the spotlight and expectations.

  2. Greg from Faith and Fear

    >The first George Thomas Seaver reference came before the 1966 season, but it would have been hard to find on a simple search since the Times got it wrong. They returned to the amateur pitcher they won in a lottery as "George Fever".

  3. Bags

    >I think the problem was more that he was the only prospect worth touting. At the time Davis and havens lookked like busts in Brooklyn, no one had heard of Nieuwenhuis, Mejia was just signed…The point is now FMart is one of a number of blossoming prospects and that's a good thing. As is being underestimated. I know Beltran's and Francouer's future could be impacted on the Captain Kirk and Fmart's performances. As is Murphy's from Davis and Thole as a catcher. Tejada is hitting well and if Reyes doesn't come back could find himself starting or if he does could replace Castillo.I can't remember the last time the Mets had this many prospects capable of playing by the end of the season and it's a good thing. I'm glad Fmart isn't the only hope it's too much pressure for any one player.

  4. Patrick Flood

    >@ Greg from Faith and FearYou know, I tried searching for all variations of "George", "Thomas", and "Seaver" – For some reason, I didn't think to try "George Fever." Now I know better.

  5. Greg from Faith and Fear

    >And by "Fever," I meant "Feaver". April 4, 1966. As Casey Stengel might have said and maybe even spelled correctly, you could look it up.

  6. Anonymous

    >The Quote is "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Shelley would be disappointed.

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