By the time the Braves had recorded the last out of their series victory over the Washington Nationals on July 31, not long before the 2019 Trade Deadline, their relief corps had fallen into a very sorry state: last in all of baseball in fWAR. Fortunately, Alex Anthopoulos and the Front Office were hard at work, acquiring three arms via trade to supplement the faltering bullpen. The first of these dominos for Atlanta was Texas Rangers right-hander Chris Martin, acquired on July 30 in exchange for 2015 first-round draft pick Kolby Allard. Martin’s story and style are unusual, and I hope you’ll find it as interesting as I do.
Before the bigs
Christopher Riley Martin hails from Arlington, Texas, and apparently represents part of the Braves’ incremental efforts to stuff their organization full of players named Riley. His path to eventually being a desirable Trade Deadline asset has been a pretty crazy one.
After a good high school pitching career, the Tigers drafted Martin in the 18th round. He elected not to sign and went on to enroll at McLennan Community College. Perhaps his plan was to transfer to a bigger school with a more intensive baseball program, but he actually failed to amass enough academic credits to transfer anywhere. Amidst his first year of college ball, he was drafted again, this time by the Rockies in the 21st round as a “draft and follow” guy, a system which no longer exists due to subsequent changes in the amateur draft framework. Under said draft-and-follow status, Martin pitched a second season at McLennan but hurt his shoulder, and the Rockies’ interest evaporated. He wasn’t drafted again and signed on with an independent league team (the Fort Worth Cats, more teams should just be the Cats), but his shoulder was still an issue and prevented him from pitching. As it turns out, Martin had a torn labrum, but for whatever reason (financial, perhaps?), Martin opted not to go under the knife and temporarily quit on his professional baseball dream. Instead, in a life journey reminiscent of former Brave Evan Gattis, he took on a series of odd manual labor jobs around his Arlington home.
Fast forward three years, and despite a lack of surgery, Martin’s shoulder felt well enough again to allow him to pitch. He signed with a different independent league team (Grand Prairie AirHogs, way lamer than “Cats”), and the Red Sox snatched him up on a minor league deal the next season. Martin worked as a multi-inning reliever for the Sawx’ A-ball and High-A teams, reaching Double-A by the end of his first affiliated season. He spent the next two years at that level as well, still working as a multi-inning reliever aside from a short tryout as a starter. His run prevention and peripherals were generally pretty good, but he was on the older side and more of an intriguing story than a bonafide prospect.
After the 2013 season, he was traded by the Red Sox along with Franklin Morales (career 1.1 fWAR) for Jonathan Herrera (career -0.1 fWAR). He was kinda-sorta a throw-in at the time (though the Rockies reportedly had their sights dead-set on acquiring Martin as part of the deal), and if him eventually being worth more than Morales and Herrera combined isn’t a very baseball!-y thing, I don’t know what is. In any case, it didn’t take Martin long to make his major league debut, as he was called up to the show in late April.
In the bigs (and a detour)
Martin would go on to appear in 40 major-league games over the next two seasons with the Rockies and the Yankees, who scooped him up post-DFA in exchange for cash considerations after the 2014 season. He posted a pretty oddball line in those 40 games: 6.19 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 3.23 xFIP, good for 0.2 fWAR but -0.5 RA9-WAR. He was generally used in low leverage, but as you could probably infer from the inflated ERA, he bled a fair bit of WPA over those two seasons. In some ways, he was pretty unlucky (.380 BABIP-against, 149 ERA- compared to a 91 FIP- and an 83 xFIP-), but when you’re holding on the roster fringes, teams will feel very justified in moving on from your bad results, even if your peripherals are okay.
(As a side note, while no Statcast data are available for 2014, the 2015 Statcast data for Martin actually show that despite a massive 140 ERA- / 87 FIP- / 86 xFIP- gap that year, Martin was actually touched up pretty substantially for a .354 xwOBA-against with scary quality-of-contact allowed stats, so FIP/xFIP may not have told the whole story about his 2015 season.)
He also spent a fair bit of time on the shelf during those two years, compiling just 90 or so combined innings in the process. Taking all of this into account, it wasn’t surprising that the Yankees released him — or, more accurately, officially released him while selling his rights to Japan’s Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters (not Hokkaido-Nippon Ham-Fighters, they do not fight a delicious meat). 2016 and 2017 were thus the years of Martin’s Eastern Hemisphere detour. He thrived in NPB, preventing runs like no one’s business and posting K/BB ratios of over 8/1 (2016) and over 5.5 (2017). He allowed just 13 runs in 92 games. Also, just to be clear, the run environment in Japan wasn’t too different than MLB in those years, perhaps half a run per game lower, so those are some pretty insane stats.
After his two-year warpath through the Land of the Rising Sun, the Rangers inked Martin, now 32 years young, to a speculative two-year, $4 million deal with token bonuses (only up to around $500,000 total) for games finished. The contract included a provision that he had to be released from team control after the conclusion of the 2019 season, so despite only having accrued around two years of major league service time to this point, he will be a free agent at the end of the season (i.e., he was a rental acquisition by the Braves).
Martin’s 2018 for the Rangers was generally successful. He put up 0.7 fWAR with a 99 ERA-, 80 FIP-, and 86 xFIP- and factored into high-leverage situations, as his average leverage index was third on the team behind original closer Keone Kela (traded to the Pirates) and then fill-in closer Jose LeClerc. Martin, did, however, end up with negative WPA on the year, likely part of the same weirdness from his pre-Japan days where he outperformed his xwOBA while simultaneously underperforming his FIP and xFIP. He also managed three separate stints on the shelf, making just 46 total appearances spanning 41 1⁄3 innings.
Interestingly, the version of Martin that returned stateside wasn’t too different from the one that departed. The big change was the sharp drop in his walk rate, but his velocity was similar, perhaps up a tick, and his pitch mix changed only by virtue of the addition of a splitter and a greater reliance on his slider. The real changes would come in 2019.
Chris Martin, the 2019 pitcher
The Braves have definitely acquired a non-prototypical reliever for their stretch run. Many relievers are two-pitch guys that might dabble in a third offering in case they’re left in to face an opposite-handed batter. Martin, though, features six pitches, ranging from a four-seamer that he throws around half the time to a cutter and a sinker used as secondary offerings primarily against right-handed and left-handed batters, respectively, to a splitter, changeup, and a now-deemphasized slider. (The changeup works pretty similarly to a splitter, so it’s not clear if it’s really a separate pitch, but it’s classified distinctly by Pitch Info/Brooks Baseball.)
Everything Martin throws is harder than average. Most of his pitches don’t have any kind of novel or overpowering movement (an exception can be made for his cutter), but it is worth noting that due to how hard he throws them, his fastball and sinker tend to stay up rather than move down. This probably hurts his sinker, which he’s rehabilitated this year in lieu of his slider, but might help his splitter/changeup thing play up because it does tend to drop below the zone. Anyway, you don’t want to hear me blather about pitches, have a chart and a Pitch Info/Brooks Baseball summary.
So far this season, Martin has thrown 38 innings in 38 appearances for the Rangers. Unlike every other season to date, his ERA hasn’t ballooned beyond his peripherals, and instead, his ERA, FIP, and xFIP have an odd relationship — the 62 ERA- versus an 84 FIP- suggests ball-in-play and/or sequencing luck, which falls squarely on the latter with his 93.5 percent strand rate with a normal .293 BABIP-against, but the 84 FIP- is inflated relative to his 64 xFIP- because of a sky-high 25 percent HR/FB rate. Going forward, the HR/FB rate should come down but the strand rate seems a tough feat to replicate, and those two may very well cancel each other out to keep his run prevention more or less where it has been. Martin’s accrued a ton of WPA this year as the Rangers’ de facto set-up guy, and the Braves will hope that continues for the remainder of this season and perhaps into the playoffs.
In terms of inputs and outputs, the main thing about Martin this season is that, once again, he isn’t walking anyone. Only one reliever with 30 or more innings pitched in 2019 has a lower walk rate (and he’s tied with Josh Tomlin in this respect); the result is a top-15 K%-BB% among relievers in baseball, even though he’s the only player in the top 20 with a strikeout rate below 30 percent. SIERA is also a big fan of his work (13th in baseball among relievers with 30-plus innings), and he has the 11th-lowest xFIP- in baseball (Luke Jackson is ninth).
As to how he does it, well, it’s pretty weird for this day and age. Martin throws strikes, and he expects you to swing at those strikes. He has the eight-highest swing rate-against among relievers with 30-plus innings in 2019 (182 total), with top-50 o-swing and z-swing rates. The reason why is obvious, as he throws half of his pitches in the zone, the fourth-highest mark. The reason why it’s worked out for him is because he throws hard enough and has enough of an arsenal to keep hitters from murdering whatever catches the plate: he allows a lot of o-contact and an average-y rate of z-contact, which is way better than the reverse. All of this adds up to a somewhat grounder-oriented profile where batters are probably going to get strikes and make contact on them, but hopefully be off-stride enough or guess wrong with sufficient frequency to keep runs off the board.
Unsurprisingly for a guy who pounds the zone, Martin’s bugbear is the fact that, well, he pounds the zone. While Braves fans will probably be overjoyed to have a Josh Tomlin-plus-plus in the bullpen who probably won’t walk the ballpark as soon as he takes the mound, Martin allows a very elevated barrel rate, harder-than-average exit velocities, and an overall set of quality-of-contact statistics that are worse than league average (even though he’s a reliever). Again, this is fairly intuitive: he throws strikes, hitters know strikes are coming, they can hit them hard. The flip side is that Martin doesn’t tarnish his results with walks and still gets whiffs at an average-y rate, so things tend to work out. He’s probably not going to be immune to the occasional blow-up due to his reliance on contact, but with the defense converting grounders into outs behind him and his much-appreciated walk phobia, the Braves could do a whole lot worse. (Of course, due to his status as a reliever, if he either sprouts a second head or changes control/command profiles with 2019 A.J. Minter, you shouldn’t be surprised either way.)
One very cool thing about Martin: he doesn’t have much of a platoon split, largely owing to his varied arsenal. His career FIP is 3.79 against lefties and 3.71 against righties; his career xFIP is 3.04 against lefties and 3.43 against righties. Over his Texas tenure, he’s had a little bit higher of an FIP against lefties, and a bit of a lower xFIP against them. xwOBA generally supports this too: .312 against righties, .298 against lefties since returning from Japan, and an even more extreme .258-.323 reverse split this season. (I’d still take xFIP over xwOBA for being predictive in this respect, however.) That should help a Braves bullpen that hasn’t really been managed with careful attention to handedness to date.
Chris Martin is only here through the rest of 2019 and whatever happens in the playoffs. Steamer and ZiPS are split fairly widely, with Steamer expecting a really good 3.06 FIP and 0.4 fWAR in 20 frames going forward, and ZiPS forecasting a more modest 3.84 FIP in 16 innings, accounting for 0.2 fWAR. Split the difference and you get somewhere around a quarter of a win for the remainder of the season, and then whatever the postseason yield for his innings ends up being.
Personally, I’ll be curious to see whether Martin’s unique profile in this day and age can continue to pay dividends. There’s nothing to suggest it can’t: hitters have caught on and have swung against him more and more as the season has progressed, but his whiff rate has actually increased as a result, and his contact management has improved, suggesting he’s winning the potential mind games and adjustment battles so far. However, his barrel rate against has also increased over time, so hitters might be missing more frequently but doing more damage when they guess right. It’ll be an interesting tension point between his strand rate likely regressing, the HR/FB rate returning to something more normal, and whatever happens with Martin’s contact management. I’m probably expecting something like 0.3 fWAR for the rest of the year, but the Braves probably didn’t make this move with two months of fWAR accrual in mind.
Made you didn’t know about Chris Martin before, but hopefully you do now.