Anthony Franco, Staff Writer

The two men could not be much more different. One, an emotional sparkplug who keeps the clubhouse loose and jokingly-proposed batting practice attire that would make baseball traditionalists’ heads spin. The other, a hitting savant with such an innate understanding of his craft that his clubhouse influence extends beyond the nebulous into critiquing teammates’ approach and mechanics, a sort of unofficial player-coach. Greg Brown knew that there was a place for both personalities in professional clubhouses, having just wrapped up a playing career of his own. It took a little longer before he realized that Kike Hernández and J.D. Martinez had the supreme talent to thrive on the field at the highest level.

Following a four-year minor-league playing career, Brown became an area scout for the Astros in 2008, tasked with scouring Florida and Puerto Rico for Houston’s amateur draft the following June. Like all area scouts, Brown set out for diamonds in the rough by attending workouts, games and showcases. In Puerto Rico, the showcase circuit became particularly important. “Obviously, they don’t have a great high school system, so you have to see guys at the events where they’re matched up against the better arms,” Brown told CBBSN. It took multiple looks before Brown realized that the best player on the island was not the one with the most impressive physique or the flashiest physical tools. It was the one with the flashiest on-field personality.

“A high-energy player,” Brown replied when asked his first impression of Kike Hernández. “He didn’t jump out at you (physically). It wasn’t clear he was going to be able to stay in the middle of the field long-term, but his bat was always there.” It’s a common refrain in scouting that a player’s ability to hit is the most difficult thing to gauge. Unlike raw power or speed, which can passably be gleaned just by looking at the player’s build, watching batting practice and clocking home-to-first times, the hit tool is more nuanced. The player’s bat control, pitch recognition and ability to control the strike zone are less apparent visually. It comes as no surprise, then, that hit-first players take longer to appreciate than their more physically-imposing counterparts. With Hernández, it took Brown several months to realize the quality of player in front of him.

“In a lot of ways, he didn’t stand out. He was a guy where it was in aggregate,” Brown admitted. “My first instincts were that he was going to be a pretty good college player, but watching him over time, it was, ‘Why does he have to go to college? He can (hit).’” Hernández’s consistent results gave some hints of the player he could be. In their pre-draft scouting report, Baseball America noted that Hernández had put himself on the fringes of the top ten rounds thanks to an impressive performance on the showcase circuit against the region’s top pitching prospects. Nevertheless, tabbing Hernández as a fringe tenth-rounder comes off as damning with faint praise. That’s hardly the mark of a future impact big leaguer.

Brown agreed that that valuation was too low. “Every time I saw him, I thought he was a line drive, doubles-hitting machine,” he recalled. “The energy that he played with and his ability to turn around fastballs spoke volumes to us as him being an advanced hitter. Finding advanced hitters with tools is a really difficult thing.”

Based upon Brown’s recommendation, Houston tabbed Hernández in the sixth round that year, a move which Brown remembers as raising some eyebrows from rival organizations turned off by Hernández’s lack of apparent physical gifts. There was some validity to the criticism. The hit tool is the most fundamental for a position player, to be sure, but it can’t be the player’s only virtue. There are plenty of players floating around the high minors who have impressive bat-to-ball skills but lack the requisite power to be impact offensive performers or the athleticism to contribute defensively. It would have been easy to see Hernández falling into this bucket.

In fact, there are indications that the Astros player development personnel were similarly bearish. He was groomed early for the multi-positional flexibility for which he’s now known, but it was motivated more out of necessity than by any grand recognition of Hernández’s potential to fill a niche more valued than ever before. By Low-A, he was logging more time in left field, a position more valuable than only first base on the traditional defensive spectrum, than anywhere else. That’s hardly the profile of a player a team envisions someday starting a World Series game in center field. So what’s changed? How has Hernández transformed from a player without a position to one who plays all of them? (Brown went out of his way to opine that Hernández would make for a viable catcher if given the opportunity, the one place he hasn’t lined up on an MLB diamond).

It comes back to the one thing about Hernández that has always stood out: his passion for baseball. Hernández committed to his conditioning in a way that, perhaps surprisingly, not all pro players are able or willing, surpassing the expectations of even his most ardent supporter. “Center field was never in my mind,” Brown conceded. “In hindsight, though, this guy’s a really good baseball player. “His body has gotten a lot better as he’s gotten older. The frame was good then, but he’s become more athletic. He’s become a better runner as he’s gotten older.”

Indeed, Hernández has gotten better at pretty much everything since as he’s gotten older. Casual fans may only be familiar with his ability to move around the field and his infectious personality that’s apparent in the dugout, but the player whose physical tools many scouts had panned now contributes in all facets of the game. Per Fangraphs, Hernández rated as an above-average hitter, defender and baserunner this year, an all-around contributor whose versatility extends beyond his various mitts. (Admittedly, he’s a terrible pitcher, although he’s taken that in endearingly good spirits, too). Even if one were to wave away anything Hernández offers in the clubhouse as unquantifiable fluff, he’s unquestionably a good player, significantly better than his sixth-round status and modest signing bonus would have indicated. Brown cautions against waving away those intangibles, though. “He’s got passion to play. He’s got joy. He has a way of affecting the game that goes beyond the box score. It’s just different. It allows you to play above your tools,” Brown opined. “His best baseball’s still ahead of him.”

For as good as Hernández is, though, he wasn’t best Brown’s best find that year. That player came fourteen rounds later, in the form of a slugger with an unorthodox swing and a more unorthodox approach to hitting. J.D. Martinez has always possessed a supremely methodical attention to detail on hitting mechanics, resulting in a fair share of acrimonious conversations with coaches and advisors, Brown included. It’s tough to imagine Martinez popping up in the dugout in a banana suit, as Hernández did during an extra inning game in 2015.

Their stories aren’t all that different, though. Again, Brown had to overlook some physical drawbacks in deference to the player’s work habits and results. Despite the 420-pick gap favoring Hernández, Brown thought the players were comparable, if not favoring Martinez outright. It makes sense, since he had a multiyear look at Martinez’s on-field exploits and off-field dedication to his craft.

Martinez spent 2007-2009 at Nova Southeastern University, a Division II school about thirty miles from his hometown of Miami. Unsurprisingly the best hitter in program history, Martinez crossed paths with Brown (not entirely coincidentally, the program’s head coach for the past eight seasons) in workouts during the tail end of the latter’s playing career. Even before joining the Astros, Brown had an intimate awareness of Martinez’s abilities and work habits. That knowledge proved valuable because Martinez’s unorthodox, linear swing path turned off some area scouts.

Brown, too, thought mechanical adjustments were in order, but he adopted a more positive spin on Martinez’s present flaws. “He hit his way to the big leagues with that, which speaks to how great his hand-eye coordination is and his acumen to hit,” Brown noted. “J.D., I thought (draft day), was a big-league hitter…. I had a third-round grade on him. Had he played at a bigger school, I thought he might’ve been a first-round pick. I was in the minority there.”

At first glance, that idea seems absurd. Even if Brown were Martinez’s biggest fan (and it’s clear that he was), how does a player who any professional scout thinks is a third-round talent, one without concerns about character or an outlandish price tag, fall into the 20th round? The answer lies in the structure of MLB scouting departments. Typically, area scouts report notable amateur prospects to their bosses responsible for broader coverage, known as crosscheckers, who attempt to see as many players as possible over a given region. Tasked with broader coverage, crosscheckers may not be afforded the luxury of multiple looks at the same prospect over time, an opportunity that area scouts have. Brown, for instance, noted that he saw Hernández in person on five different occasions leading up to the draft, and his history with Martinez went back even further.

Martinez, though, was a difficult player to evaluate, given the flaws in his hitting mechanics. Area scouts confident in his makeup and hand-eye coordination were higher, Brown recalls, than their bosses, whose limited looks revealed only a bizarre swing path and subpar quality of competition. Brown credits former Astros scouting director Bobby Heck for trusting his glowing recommendations, only half-jokingly stating that he would have resigned had the team not drafted Martinez at some point. Former Braves’ front official- and current Fangraphs prospect writer- Kiley McDaniel once noted that MLB scouting departments often structure the back end of their drafts to appease their scouts, taking players they don’t believe in to keep the lower-level employees who recommend them happy. Maybe Heck was convinced by Brown’s evaluation, maybe he only took Martinez to appease Brown, expecting him to wash out in the minor leagues. Whatever the reason, the team ended up with a top ten overall talent in the 20th round. They just didn’t know it.

Martinez’s minor-league numbers were off-the-charts, and a weak Houston farm system afforded him the opportunity to climb the ladder quickly. By 2011, he was in the big leagues, on its face a rousing success for a player of his draft ilk. His production dropped off following a promising rookie season, though, and by the end of the 2013 season, it became clear that Martinez’s career was on the brink. Martinez’s decision to systematically reconstruct his swing mechanics to hit the ball in the air has been well-covered. He might be the player most responsible for shattering long-established notions of hitting (to say nothing of the trope that adopting an analytical process somehow inherently takes away from one’s enjoyment of the sport, as Brown stresses Martinez’s love for hitting).

Brown, long since departed from the Astros’ organization, kept in touch with Martinez following his debut and noted that the player’s desire to improve never wavered. “His curiosity (has always been) evident, which played into his willingness to be a sponge when it came to the transition that he made.” Brown takes a brief swipe at the Astros’ front office, noting that the improvements Martinez had made were apparent in the Venezuelan winter leagues and in spring training drills, despite his limited in-game opportunities. Coming from anyone else, such a criticism could be chalked up to hindsight bias; Martinez has been an elite ever since leaving Houston, therefore the Astros made a mistake in letting him go, the circular argument would go. But coming from Martinez’s longest backer, the criticism is in good faith, a testament to Brown’s never-wavering conviction in Martinez’s abilities. The Astros released the outfielder that spring, a move Brown notes was the mutual desire of a front office that wanted to incorporate some younger players and a player frustrated with having fallen out of the bosses’ favor. Martinez emerged as one of baseball’s five best hitters immediately thereafter.

Interestingly, the Astros’ front office has emerged as among the sport’s most respected. It’s hard to argue; they’ve constructed a juggernaut, a 2017 World Series champion and back-to-back 100-win clubs. Yet the prevailing narrative is that J.D. Martinez was their one mistake, the one player they let get away. In retrospect, releasing him was their most egregious mistake, although it’s fair to question whether they could have foreseen his breakout coming. Indeed, even Brown admits he didn’t think Martinez would “be one of the best hitters in baseball, go from a (fringe) player to an MVP player.”
But to call Martinez the Astros’ only blunder would be to overlook Brown’s other critical find that year. The Astros traded away Kike Hernández as a minor piece in a six-player trade with the Marlins shortly after he debuted. That trade, altogether, was a successful one for Houston, who acquired Jake Marisnick, Colin Moran and Francis Martes for Hernández and Jarred Cosart. It’s probably not one that keeps Jeff Lunhow and company up at night. Yet it’s apparent that the Astros didn’t see Hernández becoming the everyday player he’s turned out to be. In retrospect, J.D. Martinez and Kike Hernández would have been justifiable first-round picks, the two combining for 28 wins above replacement, to say nothing of any intangible benefits they bring through their distinct yet valuable personalities. Greg Brown signed both players for the Astros for a sum approximating $200,000, but it wasn’t until after they left Houston that each broke through.

Are there lessons to be learned from these players, each integral parts of their respective championship teams after being overlooked in the draft and discarded by their original organization? For Brown, it’s the value of makeup in scouting. He’s no luddite, extolling the value of analytics in player evaluation and player development. Yet he emphasizes the importance of targeting high-effort players whose work off the field translates into unexpected production on it. “It’s about what’s inside the person,” Brown said of his two key finds. “In both these cases, there were indicators of their passion, their desire. Those are terms that (can carelessly) get thrown around when we like the player, but they were evident with these guys in their work ethic, their obsessiveness with being successful.”
That obsessiveness has aided both Kike Hernández and J.D. Martinez to exceed even the most optimistic of projections. The high man on both from their amateur days beams with pride as he watches that transpire on the world’s biggest stage. “I feel like I’m affecting professional baseball in different facets,” Brown says, reflecting on both his scouting and coaching career. To see the fruits of his labor, all he needs to do is turn on the television.


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