Photo by Mike Strasinger/Nashville Sounds

Oakland A's minor league hitting instructor Eric Martins on the Nashville Sounds

The Nashville Sounds fielded one of the youngest everyday line-ups in the Pacific Coast League this season, but that didn't stop them from being one of the best offensive teams in the PCL. We spoke with Sounds' hitting coach Eric Martins about his 2016 squad.

After a successful run as a scout for the Oakland A's, Eric Martins made the transition last season to the coaching side of the organization. Martins, a 1994 17th-round pick of the A's, spent seven seasons as a minor league player in the A's system, playing at every minor league level except rookie ball. As a scout in the Southern California region, he signed several top prospects, including current A's prospect Matt Chapman, current Rays prospect Daniel Robertson and Texas Rangers' starter A.J. GriffinHis first coaching assignment with the A's came as the hitting coach for the Double-A Midland RockHounds, where he helped lead the RockHounds to the Texas League title.

In 2016, Martins joined many of his 2015 Midland hitters in Triple-A Nashville. The Sounds posted the best record in the PCL and were the best hitting club in the American Conference, scoring 715 runs (5.03 per game) and finishing second in the PCL in homeruns (148). Along the way, the Sounds graduated several hitters to Oakland, including standout rookies Ryon Healy and Bruce Maxwell

Martins recently returned home to Southern California after coaching during the A's fall Instructional League. We spoke on Tuesday about his 2016 Sounds club and about the players he saw at Instructs. In part one of this interview, we dive into the players he worked with in Nashville this season.

OaklandClubhouse: How was it jumping from being a hitting coach at Double-A to Triple-A this season? Was it different working with hitters with that extra year (or more) of experience? 

Eric Martins: Yeah, it is actually, especially with the guys I worked with the year before. I already knew their swings and tendencies and it helps when things are going wrong to have something to go back to. That was the easier part. The rest was just adjusting to the league and being prepared as a hitting coach for these guys. Being prepared as the hitting coach with a report on the pitcher: what is he going to do, how is he going to approach these guys, that was fun. I really enjoyed that part of it, as well. 

OC: Ryon Healy is a guy who you worked with last season and this year and also probably scouted a fair amount when he was an amateur. He really tapped into his in-game power for the first time this season. Was there a mechanical change that he made or was that emergence simply a product of natural maturation as a professional hitter?

EM: I think it was a little bit of everything combined. I hit with him in the off-season [Martins runs hitting clinics during the off-season in Southern California] – I have him and [Matt] Chapman and a few other guys – and I noticed this off-season that he came back and he was a little bit stronger. Ryon, yes, hes a bigger guy, but I think he really worked his butt off in the weightroom and got physically stronger. There were also, I think, a few minor adjustments that he made with his swing, but nothing out of the ordinary. I think just the balls that he was hitting last year that wouldnt quite have the carry and were doubles off the wall were now going over the fence. Once he saw that during the off-season result from the hard work in the gym, I think it helped him stay true to his approach instead of trying to generate power and get top spin and roll over some balls. I think that was kind of a blessing in disguise.

OC: Ryon has played with a lot of the guys that were on the Sounds this season for a couple of years now. When he got up to the big leagues and started having success, did you feel like it gave the guys back in Nashville confidence that they could make that kind of leap, too?

EM: These guys are really close, its ridiculous. Its really fun to watch. I talk about this group of guys a lot and when you add in the [Franklin] Barretos and the Chapmans with it, its a special group. They have played together a long time, they have won together, they support each other. They are really like brothers. They feed off of each other. Once Healy got up there – you could see the excitement from everybody when he got called up – and then these guys said, okay, there is a shot.

There were always rumors around and sometimes the feeling that well, Im just going to be traded anyway – there is that goofing around because it was that time [with the organization focused on making the post-season in the big leagues] – but once Healy got up there, you could see these guys start to realize that they can make it to the next level. These guys are a bunch of baseball players in the true sense of the word. They work hard, they support each other and its a good group.

OC: Another guy who made that jump this year was Bruce Maxwell. He had an interesting year with you last year in that he struggled for much of the year, but seemed to turn it around in August and that carried over into the spring. What adjustments has he made to develop into the hitter that he was projected to be when he was drafted?

EM: Before I started on the coaching side, I think we were trying to tap into his power on the pull-side. Bruce, he drives balls to the leftside and left-center as good as anybody that we have. I think there was some confusion and I think he was trying to do too much and trying to get some backspin to the pull-side, which took away from his ability to hit balls to the opposite field. When you lose that and you cant pull and you cant go back to your money what youre used to, there is a little bit of frustration and a little bit of regress.

When I got him last year, I said, lets get you back to being the hitter that you are used to being and the hitter that we drafted, which is using left field. Well get back to having you pull the ball, but first we need to get you going the other way, the way you hit the ball best. That way youll have some confidence in the box and youll string some hits together and start driving some baseballs.

There were some flashes of it last year. In a two-three week span, he went up and he pulled some balls and back-spinned some balls. This year was an extension of what we worked on last year. Bruce is one of the hardest working guys that we have. Hes the first one to the field, getting his running in. By the time I get to the field, hes already like Ive already done my tee routine. This is what we need to do with toss. And we went from there and put together some drills for him that kind of honed in on that pull-side power but also still gave him the ability to hit balls the other way and make him the complete hitter that he is right now.

OC: Another player you have worked with a long time is Matt Chapman. You were his signing scout and you had a chance to coach him at the tail-end of this season and will likely work with him again next season. Hes obviously got the power and the defense is there, but the strike-outs are really high. What is the next step that he needs to make, in your opinion, to get to the big league level? 

EM: Matt, hes freakishly strong and athletic. Hes going to get away with some bad swings here and there because he is so freakishly strong. The biggest thing for him is getting some consistent rhythm. Hes kind of a stagnant hitter, and he needs a little rhythm and separation. We tried some things with him while being careful not to take away from his power. When a hitter is finding rhythm, he really has to feel it rather than it being forced. He needs to find some rhythm and separation without it feeling unnatural for him. 

We worked on some things last off-season. He had a little bit of a leg kick and it carried over into the spring, which he really liked, but then he lost his feel for it during the season. It kind of never came back. It was a year of adjustments for him. Its really unbelievable when you look at his power numbers that it was a year of adjustments for him.

OC: He accidentally hit 36 homeruns. 

EM: [laughs] Exactly. Accidentally ran into 36 balls and almost drove-in 100. Thats the scary part. When it finally gets there, its going to be really good. Hes so good and hes so strong that its just a matter of him finding that consistent separation and rhythm thats going to take him to the next level. That will allow him put some more balls into play. 

OC: Do you think hell be able to have more of a normal off-season this year after having to work back from those injuries in 2015 last winter?

EM: Absolutely. Hes another kid who gets after it during the off-season. I talked to him a couple of days ago and he had already started to get back after it and had started lifting a little bit in the gym. In about another month and a half, Ill start to get together with him and Healy and probably [Andrew] Lambo and a few of those guys. He works hard. Hes looking forward getting a little bit of downtime this off-season and resting up a bit. He had a freakish injury at the end of this season when he fouled a ball off of his calf. Thats healed up now. Hell allowed his body to recuperate because he had more than 500 at-bats this season for the first time.

Its a little bit of a grind, but hes already itching. We talked and hes already asking when can we get together? I said, well talk after Thanksgiving. [laughs] But hes excited about the time off and is already back in the weightroom and hes getting ready for next year.

OC: I believe Jaycob Brugman won the MVP award for the Sounds this year. Youve had two seasons working with him now. What kind of hitter do you see him growing into?

EM: Brugman is a smart hitter. He can use the field. He has some power. Hes clutch in situations where we need him to drive-in some runs. He had more than 80 RBI out of the lead-off spot this year. Bruggy is smart. He studies the pitchers, he puts together a plan, he has an approach and he very rarely strays away from his approach. And its pretty solid. Hes done a good job developing that. He hits a ton of doubles. He works well out of the leadoff spot and I really like his approach there. Hes one of those guys who gives you a quality at-bat every time he is up there. 

Whether it is a strike-out or a hit, hes gone up there and he battles every time. Thats one thing that he has really concentrated on these past few years is having good at-bats. Have a good approach, stick with it and try not to stray from who he is as a hitter. Hes done a good job with that and is probably one of our smartest hitters. He will really break-down a pitcher. Hell study the scouting report and hell formulate his own plan. There were a couple of times this year where he will ask me, what should I do against this guy? and Ill say look for this pitch. One time, he hit a homerun and he gave me all of the credit. I said, youre the one who hit. I just suggested looking for that pitch one time. [laughs] But thats the kind of kid that he is. Hes a hard-working kid who is a blue collar player and I think he can have a long career in the big leagues. 

OC: Brugman doesnt have the traditional walk numbers of a typical lead-off hitter, but do you think that because he has such a focused plan for each pitcher that he is able to help hitters batting behind him because they can see how he is attacking a particular pitcher?

EM: Absolutely. The lead-off role has kind of evolved over the years. Bruggy is a guy who sees a lot of pitches, even if he doesnt walk a lot. He fouls off a lot of pitches. Hes a really good teammate in terms of that. Hell see a lot of pitches, hell foul some off and when hes not at the plate, hes talking to the guys and letting them know what this guy has. He has the knack for finding the barrel and a knack for fouling pitches off. I used him as an example in Instructional League with our younger hitters in talking about fouling pitches off and having good at-bats. I showed them two at-bats from Brugman where they were 11-12 pitches each and then he ended up getting a hit in those at-bats. Thats the kind of hand-eye coordination Bruggy has right there.

OC: Joey Wendle is another guy who can make a lot of contact but doesnt walk a whole lot. He got off to a slow start this season but was one of the PCLs top hitters during the second half of the year. Was it a matter of swinging at the right pitches for him, or was there something else that clicked in for him during the second half? 

EM: Thats the thing with Joey. He has the ability to hit and touch any pitch. A lot of times that is to his detriment. He has the ability to swing at any ball in the zone and make solid contact with it. Its a good trait to have but it is also your biggest enemy because maybe you start swinging out of the zone when you are ahead in the count. You go from maybe being 3-1 to fouling off a pitch out of the zone and being at 2-2. That was the thing that I worked with him this year. It wasnt a matter of asking him to walk more. It was more a matter of working with him to be more selective. He has that ability to touch baseballs but there would be times where he would come up and thered be a 2-0 pitch and hed swing at a slider and pop-up or something like that.

So we worked on honing in his selectivity, while still allowing him to be aggressive. With the Oakland As, we are known for walking but we are known for walking because we are selective hitters, not because we are passive. Thats the thing with Joey. Hes so aggressive, its hard for a hitting coach to take away that aggressiveness. You just have to show him his batted balls in play chart and show him videos of where he is ahead in the count and he swung at a pitchers pitch for him to see okay, youre right. I shouldnt have swung at this pitch because my approach is telling me to do something different even though it looked like I pitch that I could handle.

I think that was the next phase for him that clicked in the second half of the year. He hit close to .300 versus left-handed pitching during the second half down in Triple-A and that was huge for him. He took that momentum and his at-bats started getting better and his year started to be reminiscent of the year before. Quite honestly, a lot of his numbers this year were better than they were last year when all was said and done. 

OC: Hes playing some shortstop in Mexico this fall/winter. Having seen him play second base all year, do you think he has the athleticism to move around to a few different spots in the infield? 

EM: Absolutely. Joeys an excellent athlete. Hes been regulated to second base because that is where we took him, but he did an outstanding job at second base this year. I think only made 10 errors this year [eight] and some of them were difficult. But with the way the As move players around, that really prompted him to want to [play winterball and learn a new position]. That was something that he chose to do to better his chances to stick with the team. That just shows you what kind of player Joey is. Hes not stubborn and saying I should be the second baseman next year. He wants to have as many options available to help the club.

OC: We talked a lot about Chad Pinder last off-season. Hes another guy who has moved around a lot defensively when the organization has asked him to. It seemed like he had to make a lot of adjustments offensively this year. Where do you feel like he ended up when the season ended?

EM: All said and done, I think that Chad made some huge strides this year. We took a team to Triple-A this year that was really, really young. They were coming off of some pretty good years, but it is a whole different competition level when you get to Triple-A. Guys that have gone up and come back from the big leagues. Guys who really know how to pitch. That jump the biggest challenge until you get to the big leagues, when everybody knows how to pitch, and so you have to make those adjustments. Chad is coming in with the Texas League MVP and so he is going to come in with a huge target on his back and he is going to be pitched differently. It was an adjustment period for a lot of those guys. You arent going to get a 2-0 fastball; youll get a 2-0 cutter. These guys are going to pitch backwards and they know how to pitch to the scouting report and they know how to pitch to weaknesses. There is an adjustment that you have to make mentally on top of having to make mechanical adjustments that will come up every and awhile during the season.

With Chad, it was the same thing. He started off a little slowly. He was being pitched to differently. We made some adjustments with him physically with his mechanics that helped him. He was able to get back and he had that good June when he went off at the plate and got back to being Chad Pinder. Hes just a grinder. Hes a good baseball player. He has the ability to drive balls to all parts of the field. Hes strong. Hes really in-tune with what is going on and what the pitcher is trying to do to him now.

At the beginning of the year, it was a struggle for these guys because they are young. They are 22-23 year-old guys and we are looking across the diamond and some of these guys have five, six, eight years, and here we are in our first year in Triple-A. It was good to see those guys kind of get it by the end of the year. That was the really good part. 

OC: By the end of the year, the Sounds were really the best team in the PCL. If the As hadnt needed your entire pitching staff and much of your starting line-up, you probably would have won another title. Was there a coalescing moment where you really felt like the team came together and really got it?

EM: Its funny, but we talk about the ballpark in Nashville and how its not very hitter-friendly. You walk out there and think oh finally we get out of the wind of Midland and then you start hitting some balls in Nashville at night when the thick air and the humidity kicks in and youre like oh my God. I think it all turned around when we made a trip to Vegas and Salt Lake City. I think it was late-May or June. That trip everything kind of clicked together. We went to Vegas – obviously a very hitter-friendly ballpark – and it was unbelievable the damage that we did in those four games. Everybody got that confidence. Then we got to Salt Lake and carried it on there. Thats when we went on that tremendous run and everything started to click.

I think we played a lot of home games early and we played the Oklahoma City Dodgers, who were stacked on the mound. So there was nothing that we could do right and the ingredients – a tough ballpark to hit in and some great pitching – were working against us. We got back on the road and I think our road record, our road slugging and our road average were incredible this year. Those guys got a little bit of confidence once we got out of Nashville. Nashville is great, dont get me wrong. And its a beautiful ballpark. I think some of the confidence from the road would carry over at home, even though they would still hit some balls that wouldnt go anywhere.

OC: That gets them used to the Coliseum, right? [laughs]

EM: Exactly. [laughs] I told them, it isnt going to get any easier.

OC: Welcome to the marine layer.

EM: Yes, welcome to the marine layer. [laughs]

OC: Renato Nunez and Matt Olson tend to get bunched together because they have played together for so long. Both had their ups-and-downs this season. Are they at similar points in their development? 

EM: They are working on different things. Sometimes we forget that they are only 22-years-old. They had monster years in the Cal League. Renato had a decent year in a small sample in the Texas League last year. Matt had a down year statistically last year, but if you were there all year, quite honestly, his numbers would have been around .240-.250 with 25-30 homers in that league [under neutral ballpark circumstances]. Thats not a good left-handed hitting league. Both of those guys are different.

Renato carried us early in the year. Hes got all of the talent in the world. He just needs to work on his plate discipline and his aggressiveness. He went through a phase last year when he was struggling against left-handed pitching. I said to him, Renato, what do we do in Oakland? We platoon. If you cant hit left-handed pitching, what role will you have on the team? Renato is really smart. You have to almost put things in front of him so he can see it for him to make adjustments. You can talk to him forever, but when you put something in front of him to show him what needs to be fixed, he makes it a point to work on it. I still believe that Renato can be one of the most feared hitters around. He has the ability to hit for average and power. We have seen it in glimpses that he can do both. Hes just at that stage where he is 21-22 and he has to mature a little bit more and stick to an approach.

You look at Matt Olson, hes also 22-year-old. Still has the beautiful swing. Still has the good approach. Now we are starting to try to open up the field for him a little bit. Allow him to use left-center field. Now he is starting to get that huge shift against him. We need to allow him to get some hits to the left side to get him that confidence and maybe have teams thinking that they shouldnt use the big shift on him that much anymore. Its going to continue.

These guys are still young. They are still going to have to make those adjustments. Last year was probably Olsons draft year if he had gone to college. Here he is a step away from sticking in the big leagues, and he still hasnt yet done what he will eventually be able to do. He is going to control the strike-zone, hit homers and hes going to walk a ton. I dont see him being a high average guy, but hes going to be a high walk guy with power. Nunez, I believe, has the total package, if he can just consistently square up his approach and be more selective.

OC: Renato got into a few games in left field at the end of the year. How did he look out there?

EM: Im really pleasantly surprised and happy with how he took to it. I was a little worried about how he was going to take the news at first. Quite honestly, he went out there and he worked his butt off. And it was okay. It wasnt as bad as anticipated. I hate to say that, but its the truth. He went out there and he did okay. He will need a lot of work out there. Hes not a natural athlete and hes not fleet-of-foot, but he took some decent routes and he wasnt afraid of the wall. He made some nice plays out there. He liked it and he went out there and worked on it every day. I was happy to see that.

He was actually just fine at third base this year. He made a few errors here and there, but he made some nice plays. Renato has actually cleaned up defensively a lot more than people give him credit for. Hes in a lot better shape now and he moves around a lot better. I think first base remains an option for him, too. I think that being able to go out to left field and know that that is an option for him will help him a lot.

OC: You got to see Franklin Barreto for the final week of the season and in the post-season. What kind of hitter do you think hes on the path to becoming?

EM: Hes exciting. [laughs] Hes really exciting. The short sample size that I had with him during the regular season and the playoffs, he was fun to watch. He is the kind of player who can make things happen with his speed and his power and his ability to hit. Its a short stroke. He has the ability to use all fields and he can go out of any part of the field. He can run. He drives balls into the gap. Its exciting to see where he is at at such a young age and the potential that he has. He still has some adjustments to make, but you can see what the hype is about with this kid. Hes a special player.

Stay tuned for part two of this interview, when we discuss hitters that competed in the A's fall Instructional League.

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