Casey Martin hoped to work on his plate discipline and infield skills during the offseason in preparation for his junior season at the University of Arkansas this spring.
But his offseason schedule didn’t go as anticipated. The speedy shortstop underwent surgery in October to remove a broken hamate bone in his left hand after suffering the injury during fall practice.
It limited him for at least the next two months. He picked up a bat towards the end of October but was able to only swing the bat at about 30-40 percent of his usual capabilities, he estimated. He also couldn’t squeeze his hand in his glove until the end of December.
Although the injury slowed him down, Martin is healthy and ready to begin the season in what will be a critical year for determining his baseball future.
“It took a little longer than it expected, but I am 100 percent now and ready for the start of the season,” Martin said.
Martin enters this spring as one of the top players in the country after being a key piece the last two seasons to Arkansas advancing to the College World Series each year.
Martin also is regarded as a top prospect for June’s MLB draft and enters the spring as a potential top-10 pick. A strong junior season would solidify his chances of being a first-round pick and put him in consideration for being one of the first players selected in the draft.
As a senior in high school in 2017, Martin didn’t experience much professional attention. That didn’t bother him, however, as he wanted to attend Arkansas, which is a program that consistently pumps out talent for the pro ranks.
“It’s a little different than in high school,” said Martin on the draft. “We went through it a little bit, and then when the day came, my name was never called. I honesty wasn’t too worried about that at that point. I wanted to come here and play here. It is a little different now, but I’m trying not to worry about it and just perform to my best.”
Martin made an immediate impact at the plate as a freshman in 2018. He hit a notable .345 with 14 doubles, 13 home runs and 49 RBIs in 252 at-bats. He swiped eight bases and drew 27 walks while striking out 64 times.
Opposing teams exploited Martin’s weaknesses at the plate last season. Pitchers challenged him with off-speed pitches out of the zone and high fastballs. He was susceptible to both those areas, which caused him to strike out at a higher clip last season.
Despite striking out 71 times in 261 at-bats, Martin remained productive as a sophomore. He hit .287 with 19 doubles, three triples, 15 home runs and 53 RBIs. He also drew 29 walks and stole 10 bases.
The 5-foot-11, 175-pound right-handed hitter offers an exciting combination of power and speed. He’s one of the best athletes in this year’s draft class due to his elite speed, which he uses in all facets of the game.
He’s working on his technique with stealing bases and trying to figure out the opportune times to try to swipe a bag, he said. His stolen base total over his first two years isn’t an indicator of his abilities. Instead, it’s a reflection of the depth in Arkansas’ lineup and the team’s unwillingness to risk an out, he explained.
“My speed, honestly,” said Martin on his biggest strength. “I know everyone says that, but that’s real. It’s just God-given ability.”
Although Martin’s offseason was interrupted with the injury, his top priority was pitch recognition and improving his patience at the plate. He hopes that offseason work pays dividends this spring.
“The one thing that I want to improve on is just my pitch recognition because I’ve struggled with that since I’ve gotten up here,” Martin said. “My freshman year I struggled with it, and last year, I really struggled with it. That’s the one thing that 100 percent I want to keep improving on and getting better on every day. If I can get that down, then I can play the game for a long time.”
Martin played third base his freshman year before sliding over to shortstop last season. He has the quickness and solid arm strength but has struggled defensively in his first two years, committing 15 errors in 2018 and 23 errors last year.
Although Martin would profile well in center field, he believes he can stick at shortstop long term, especially if he shows improvement defensively this spring.
“A lot of the scouts have asked me that, and I tell them all the same thing,” Martin said. “I don’t see why I can’t. Just because I am small and undersized isn’t a good enough reason, honestly. I have defeated the odds since I came here, so I don’t know why I’d stop now.”
Arkansas enters this season as one of the top teams in the country with its lineup headlined by Martin and outfielder Heston Kjerstad, who also is a projected first-round pick in this year’s draft. The rotation will feature slightly more youth than the last two years with sophomores Connor Noland and Patrick Wicklander leading the way.
The Razorbacks have qualified for the NCAA Tournament in each of the last three years and in 17 of the last 18 years. They appeared in the College World Series the last two years, finishing as the runner-up in 2018.
“With it being my last year, I just want to make a bigger name for myself and let people remember me as a certain player and not the guy who just came in and played and was good,” Martin said. “I want to be remembered for someone who put in the work, cared about his teammates and made people around me better.
“As for my team, I just want to win a national championship with them. Everyone is well deserved, especially Coach Van Horn. What he’s done with the program is amazing. He definitely deserves it more than any of us. That’s what I want to bring back this year.”
Read more stories on top 2020 MLB draft prospects here.
Dan Zielinski III has covered the MLB draft for five years. He’s interviewed 191 of the top draft prospects in that period, including three No. 1 overall picks. Multiple publications, including Baseball America, USA Today and The Arizona Republic, have quoted his work, while he’s appeared on radio stations as a “MLB draft expert.” Follow him on Twitter @DanZielinski3.