Matt Martin’s job title with the Detroit Tigers sounds better suited for the NFL’s Detroit Lions. But as defensive coordinator, he is symbolic of baseball’s evolution from home run derby to small ball.
“When teams were averaging 5-6 runs a game, poor defense could be overcome,” Martin says. “But when it’s 3-2 or 2-1, there’s more emphasis on defense. That one error the final week of the season could cost you a chance to make the playoffs.”
Or, as New York Mets infielders Daniel Murphy and Lucas Duda showed this fall, it can cost you a World Series.
Martin started using Valle training gloves five years ago, when he was infield coordinator for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“We had an outstanding clubhouse manager who knew I was always looking for any type of advantage,” Martin says. “I tried out Valle gloves, loved how they felt and got a bunch of our infielders to buy them. They’re just a really good training tool.”
When the Lubbock, Texas native moved to the Tigers, he even had defensive-minded stars like Miguel Cabrera and Yoenis Cespedes use Valle gloves. Cespedes earned his first Gold Glove in 2015, and Cabrera was a finalist at first base, losing out to three-time winner Eric Hosmer of the world champion Kansas City Royals.
“They loved them,” Martin says. “Some others feel like what they are: training gloves. But Valle gloves feel so realist. That’s why players like them so much.”
Martin joined the Tigers in November 2013. He spent 18 years as a minor-league coach, manager or instructor and before that played four seasons in the Reds minor-league system after being selected in the 36th round of the 1991 draft.
“No disrespect to Omar Vizquel (the former star shortstop hired as Detroit’s hitting coach), but the difference maker on defense for the Tigers will be Matt Martin,” former Tigers outfielder Gabe Kepler tweeted. “Incredibly bold and innovative hire.
Martin says there are only “a couple others” in Major League Baseball who have the same duties he enjoys.
While sluggers and power pitchers receive the glory and the huge salaries, Martin feels defense finally is starting to get the credit it has long deserved. He says many baseball people were shocked when the Atlanta Braves traded shortstop Andrelton Simmons to the Los Angeles Angels recently for shortstop Erick Aybar and two top pitching prospects.
Simmons is arguably the best defensive shortstop in baseball, winning the Gold Glove in 2013 and 2014 and being selected Wilson Defensive Player of the Year for 2015.
“Time will tell who got the better end of that deal, but Simmons is such a premium shortstop,” Martin said. “A lot of people can’t believe he was traded.”
Martin points to the Royals as Exhibit A on why defense is critical.
“You’re at such a premium when you have a defensive-minded catcher, shortstop and center fielder,” he says. “We’ve seen the Royals 40 times over the past two years. They are proof that, if a game is close, defense can be the deciding factor.”
Martin doesn’t feel Little League coaches emphasize defense enough.
“It’s usually thrown in there at the end of practice,” he says. “Coaches need to make it an emphasis of practice. And it’s fine for kids to play baseball, but do some other type of athletic skills as well. Omar Vizquel is a good friend of mine. He has a strong soccer background, and that made his feet great as an infielder.”
Martin is looking forward to working with Tigers catcher James McCann this winter. McCann will visit the coach at his home in Texas.
“He loves the Valle mini catcher’s gloves,” Martin says. “It feels like a real glove. And that’s what players want. They want to have that realistic feel.”