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Vision quest: Orioles Rule 5 picks Richie Martin, Drew Jackson saw improved eyesight jump-start careers

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

For Richie Martin, the outfield billboards that line every minor league ballpark were blurry from his perch in the dugout. For Drew Jackson, a street sign off Campus Drive at Stanford wasn’t clear either.

It turned out that neither was well-served by the traditional eye charts of their youth, and now the two Orioles infielders share a commonality beyond the fact that each is in camp this month as a Rule 5 draft acquisition with a clear view of a major league roster spot if they perform in camp. Corrective vision measures, at one point or another, jump-started each player’s career.

"I didn't really know any different," said Jackson, 25. "I thought I had normal eyes, but it definitely made hitting harder. Once I got my contacts, it was a lot easier to pick up spin. I could actually see the ball. I think vision is very important in this sport, so I'm glad I figured that out sooner rather than later."

Each player’s experience shows how fragile the basic tenet of baseball — see ball, hit ball — can be, even if there’s only a slight deficiency in vision. And for each, the revelation came at a pivotal point in his baseball life.

Martin, a 2015 first-round draft pick of the Oakland Athletics, had hit .237, .235, and .234 with a high ground-ball rate in his first three professional seasons.

He didn't know his vision might have been part of the problem, but he said lights were blurry at night, and that he had trouble reading the scoreboard and billboard text in the outfield. One of his coaches recommended an optometrist.

"I'd always been tested in college and during physicals at the beginning of the year, but I always passed," said Martin, 24. "It's not really in-depth testing. It's just read off the chart. But I saw someone in Miami, had my vision checked, and there was definitely room to upgrade and see better."

He decided on contacts, which he needs during night games, during the 2017 offseason. Combine that with a strict offseason fitness program, some work with renowned hitting instructor Craig Wallenbrock — whose work helped reinvent Boston Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez — and Martin set career highs in every offensive category in 2018 for Double-A Midland, batting .300 with 43 extra-base hits.

He equated the difference to upgrading from a high-definition television to 4K.

"One is acceptable," Martin said, "but it kind of improved a lot more.

"I would just say everything is a lot more clear. I don't want to get into huge details and say I can see the seams spinning, because it's not like that. But everything is just clearer, and I see the overall picture a lot more clearly and focused."

Jackson, meanwhile, would look at a high-definition television and wonder why the rest of the world didn't look like that. After he wrapped his sophomore season at Stanford, when he hit .167 in 129 plate appearances, he found out why. Then he and a buddy were driving down the main campus road in Palo Alto, Calif., and Jackson asked what street they were passing.

"He said, 'Oh, you can't read that? You should get your eyes checked,' " Jackson said. "So I went in and sure enough, I didn't have sharp vision. I remember getting contacts for the first time and looking at trees and being able to see the leaves and thinking, 'Wow, this is going to make baseball a lot easier.' "

To that point, Jackson really only had his steady shortstop defense, speed and big arm for teams to dream on. With his sight improved, Jackson had a breakout junior season in 2015, batting .320 with a .784 OPS after missing the start of the season with a hand injury, and the Seattle Mariners made him their fifth-round pick that June.

While he hasn't had a performance like that since short-season ball after he was drafted, Jackson has developed into a player who can provide enough value at the plate to get his speed and defense to the majors. Martin fits a similar profile, and at the winter meetings in December, the Orioles nabbed them both in the span of an hour.

Martin was the first pick in the Rule 5 draft after the Athletics left him unprotected off their 40-man roster. Jackson was selected by the Philadelphia Phillies after the Los Angeles Dodgers didn't protect him, and the Orioles traded international bonus slots to acquire him shortly after the draft.

They represent part of an overhauled Orioles infield this offseason, with Tim Beckham not offered a 2019 contract and only Jonathan Villar solidified as a starter up the middle. Martin, Jackson, Hanser Alberto, Steve Wilkerson and newly-signed veteran Alcides Escobar will all vie to be part of the middle-infield mix, too.

As Martin and Jackson begin to stake their claims to one of those spots, they'll do so with a shared experience they believe opened their eyes to a whole new talent level in themselves.

"I think it's probably the most important tool, being able to see, and how you can react to things," Jackson said. "Being a hitter, if you can't see the ball and you can't react to how it's going, you're not going to be able to hit. I'd say it's probably the most precious thing on our bodies."

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