Nick Martinez’s Accelerated Big League Course

MLB: Texas Rangers at Tampa Bay Rays

Nick Martinez should have spent the majority of the 2014 season in the Frisco rotation with a late season promotion to Round Rock as a possibility. Due to a myriad of injuries sustained by many members of the Rangers rotation, Martinez has instead pitched 134.2 innings and started 23 games at the major league level out of necessity. When one parses Martinez’s numbers in ‘14, one will be quickly underwhelmed as the right-hander has yielded a 5.04 FIP and 5.23 xFIP. His 4.61 ERA suggests he has been a little lucky, but the fact that the former Fordham second baseman selected in the 18th round of the 2011 draft has managed to remain at the big league level the majority of the season has been pretty remarkable. One must also consider Martinez pitched in only 15 games in relief at Fordham, and before ’14, had logged only 32 innings above A-ball. This pitching thing is still kinda new to Martinez, and pitching to major league hitters is kinda hard.

In a recent west coast road trip, Martinez spoke with Rangers special assistant to the GM Greg Maddux. If one wants to become enlightened in the art of pitching, listening to Maddux impart wisdom is certainly advisable. The following quote from Martinez courtesy of Dallas Morning News Rangers beat writer Evan Grant might provide some insight into what Martinez and Maddux discussed:

“On the last roadtrip in Anaheim I was able to talk to Greg Maddux quite a bit. We were going over the mental process out there out on the mound. I was telling him sometimes I go to my out pitch early in the count and create early contact. He told me, ‘There’s no need to do that. Focus on getting strike one and strike two and after that you can focus on getting him out,” Martinez said. “That’s what I did today. I just focused on getting strike one, strike two today.”

In Grant’s article, Martinez mentioned he has learned a lot this season, which in Martinez’s case would be understandable considering he has taken an accelerated crash course in pitching since he was drafted three years ago. While Martinez’s overall peripherals in ’14 have not been stellar as his 3.4% K-BB% indicates, he has improved recently with a 9.4% K-BB% and 3.91 FIP in 24.1 September innings. Yes, the author is using selective endpoints, but with valid reasoning as Martinez seems to have made an adjustment recently which has been beneficial to his performance on the bump, and the mechanical change seems to have taken place before Martinez even spoke to the pitching equivalent of Yoda. The following graphs courtesy of Brooks Baseball represent Martinez’s release points up to August 30th, and since his August 31st start in Houston.
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Obviously, Martinez has thrown fewer pitches since the arbitrary starting point of August 31st, but as the reader should notice Martinez has maintained a more consistent release point in his last five starts, which contributes to added deception, and Martinez is also repeating his mechanics. Repetition will help improve fastball command, which is critical for a pitcher to wield if he is to be successful. Let’s find out if Martinez’s fast ball command has changed since his more stable release point.
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Again, we are dealing with a much smaller sample, but Martinez does appear to be attacking hitters with his fast ball/sinker combo differently. He still prefers to pitch on the inner part of the plate to RHH and outer part to LHH, but as the graph shows, Martinez now does appear to be staying away from the lower part of the zone. Martinez was all over the place in the top graph. For a pitcher with elevated fly ball tendencies such as Martinez, attacking the upper part of the zone could be a shrewd strategy due to a lot of hitters looking for pitches in the lower area of the zone from hurlers intending to induce ground balls. Let us now finally look at Martinez’s repertoire before and after August 31st.
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Martinez has essentially abandoned his sinker and curve ball, which he did not throw often in the first place. Instead, he is now heavily relying on his four seamer. With the improved command and added deception, Martinez’s whiff rate has increased slightly with both his cambio and fast ball. He has not generated a higher whiff percentage with his slider, but again, we are dealing with a tiny sample here. Increasing his whiff percentage is paramount if Martinez is going to have big league success in the future as his overall swing straight percentage of 6.3% is still well below league average. While we need a MUCH larger sample before we can rely on consistency from Martinez, and his .219 BABIP in September is obviously not sustainable, what he has done both mechanically and strategically since August 31st is encouraging.

Chances are slim Nick Martinez begins 2015 in the Rangers rotation, but even if he begins next year in the minors, the experience Martinez has gained in ’14 at the big league level is invaluable. What needs to be kept as a reminder is Martinez is still in his nascent stages of learning to actually pitch professionally, and he should not have been in the big leagues in ’14 in the first place. He does need to miss more bats, but Martinez appears to have settled on a repeatable release point, and has embraced being a fly ball pitcher by essentially ditching the sinker. Fly ball pitchers have been more successful recently in Arlington with the ballpark playing more neutral, but what is important is Martinez could be added depth to the rotation in ’15 (depth is important) and beyond, or maybe a team with a spacious ballpark where home runs go to die sees promise and offers you something useable for him in the future. No matter what happens, as Martinez mentioned, he does appear to have learned quite a bit in his unexpected first big league season.

Dustin Dietz
Dustin graduated from the University of North Texas with a degree in Radio/TV/Film, and a minor in history. He will often write about pitching mechanics and analytical baseball stuff. You will more than likely disagree with the majority of what he writes or says. In his spare time, Dustin time travels and plays at a replacement level in slow pitch softball leagues.

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