CORAL GABLES, Fla.—Harold Martinez lowered his hands and raised his stats.
The Miami Hurricanes third baseman made the adjustment just before the start of the 2010 season, and the results were immediate. He went from nine homers as a freshman to a sophomore season in which he slugged 21, tied for the ACC lead.
“In 2009, I had my hands above my head,” Martinez said. “I worked with the coaching staff to lower my hands to my shoulder area, where they could be closer to the ball.
“I wanted to get more extension on my swing and make more consistent contact. The more consistent contact I make, the more chances I have to hit homers.”
Canes Coach Jim Morris said confidence was a big factor in Martinez’s new stance.
“If he feels good about it, that’s the most important thing,” Morris said. “It’s a constant change thing. You have to make adjustments. But he has a lot of potential. The ball jumps off his bat.”
Martinez, though, still has work to do if he is to improve his current 2011 draft projection, which is in the second- or third-round area.
Some scouts have questioned whether Martinez, a righthanded hitter, has the bat speed to handle premium velocity. If he gets a fastball under 90 miles per hour, he can hit it a mile. But the perception is that he struggles with guys who throw harder than 90.
Canes hitting coach Joe Mercadante disagrees.
“Harold has the bat speed and the confidence to hit anyone’s fastball,” Mercadante said. “If you go back to last season, he had some pretty good weekends against top arms. The tough part was that he wasn’t thrown many fastballs.”
Martinez’s defense has also been questioned. His 21 errors last season were the most on the team. But that is a problem he feels he can fix.
“Most of my errors—at least 17—were on throws,” said Martinez, who played shortstop at Miami’s Braddock High and was a 19th-round pick by the Texas Rangers. “I didn’t miss many ground balls. Sometimes I have to be more cautious on slow rollers. When I have no shot of getting the runner, I have to put the ball in my pocket.”
Morris sees it a bit differently, recalling that his errors were virtually split between throwing and fielding.
“The thing he does best is he has a great arm, and the best plays he makes are on slow rollers,” Morris said. “We had him playing a step or two deeper this fall, which helped him get an extra split-second to read ground balls. If you get good hops, it’s much easier.
“He has to cut down on his errors if he wants to play third base at the next level. But his arm is there. He can play as deep as he wants.”
Bigger And Stronger
Martinez said he has grown into his position at third base, getting bigger and stronger the past couple of years. But the 6-foot-3, 208-pounder said he has some experience at first base and as a corner outfielder and would be play anywhere he’s needed.
That ability to adjust to new surroundings is perhaps a byproduct of his upbringing. Born in Cuba, Martinez was just a toddler when his father, Alexis, grew tired of living in a communist country where his son cried for food that was not always readily available.
In a story that seems destined for the big screen, Alexis defected from Cuba by swimming 6.2 miles to the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay. He had to contend with the strong currents, the potential of sharks and the very real possibility that he could be caught by the Cuban coast guard, which is known to shoot defectors.
Two years later, in 1993, Alexis sent for his wife and Harold, who was 3 years old at the time.
“I really admire what my father did,” Martinez said. “He wanted a better life for us, and he had the courage to make it happen.”
Martinez said his father was an Olympic-caliber water polo player in Cuba, and his mother had the same potential in synchronized swimming. But Martinez has been devoted to baseball since age 3, when he used a plastic bat to hit a tennis ball over a two-story building.
At UM, Martinez said his longest shot traveled about 465 feet, over the left-center field fence and onto the track.
“My hand speed generates the power,” Martinez said. “Even when I was skinny and young, I still hit it far. I just swing as hard as I can on every pitch.”
Martinez took this past summer off while he recovered from a staph infection in his left leg, which developed after he fouled two balls off his shin.
“Basically, I had a hole in my shin,” Martinez said. “But I’m a 100 percent now.”
The Hurricanes will need him healthy if they are to improve on last season’s finish, when they lost to Florida in super regionals. The Canes won four College World Series titles from 1982 to 2001 – but none since.
“You always want to get to Omaha (for the CWS),” Martinez said. “We have a lot of good hitters coming back, guys who will become more known this season.”
Still, there are some perceived holes in the lineup, most notably at catcher, first base and second base, where the Canes will have to replace Yasmani Grandal, Scott Lawson and Frank Ratcliff.
Grandal, a first-round pick of the Reds last year, will be the toughest to replace because he provided rare production for a catcher, using a patient approach to lead the team in walks, slugging and on-base percentage.
It is a lesson Martinez is trying to learn. Last year, Grandal was the hitter that pitchers avoided. This year, Martinez will likely be that guy.
“I always think they are going to throw to me,” said Martinez, unfazed. “I go up there aggressive. But if they walk me, they walk me.”