Father Time is undefeated. And while it was certainly not a bad year for Braves reliever Chris Martin, a drastic drop off in strikeouts during his age-35 season led to veteran righty losing his role as the club’s locked-in 8th inning reliever.
Martin came over at the 2019 Trade Deadline in exchange for Kolby Allard. The Braves then signed Martin to a two-year deal worth $14 million for the 2020 and 2021 seasons.
Coming into the season, Martin was penciled in for the seventh or eighth innings in what was expected to be a fine bullpen. He was generally projected to be one of the team’s top two or three relievers, with Steamer and ZiPS both projecting 0.7 WAR on the season.
2021 Season results
As the year progressed, Martin began to fall out of favor a bit and was replaced by Luke Jackson as the club’s top right-handed relief option, though it was certainly not a bad season for him. He worked 43 1⁄3 innings across 46 appearances with a 3.95 ERA, 3.47 FIP and 3.98 xFIP. His strikeout rate dropped significantly, though — just 18.2 percent compared to 31 percent in 2019-2020 — as he often struggled to miss bats and put opposing batters away. To his credit, he continued to throw strikes and owned a minuscule 3.3% walk rate. He was just not the same Chris Martin we came to adore the two previous years.
Martin spent a couple of stints on the injured list, which took him out of action for about two months of the season in total. He still compiled 0.5 fWAR though, fifth on the team among relievers.
What went right? / What went wrong?
It was an interesting year. The sudden drop in strikeouts was a surprise, and while it would be easy to point at the crackdown on sticky substances, Martin’s strikeout rate actually went up a little from the middle of June when MLB began enforcing the rule. He did a fine job limiting homers (0.83 per 9) and walks, two essentials for relievers. But without the strikeouts it felt every inning was playing with fire, and a 3.95 ERA is not overly sexy.
On a pitch basis, Martin’s never really been a command artist, but his slider and especially his changeup have been great go-tos for outs. In 2021, the pitch shape of both got a little out of whack, and both got hit more than before. That probably had something to do with the decline in strikeouts.
Road to the Title
Somewhat overlooked, Martin pitched really well in Games 4 and 5 of the World Series when the club desperately needed innings covered. He worked 2 1⁄3 scoreless with two strikeouts and just one hit allowed.
Overall, he finished the regular season with a pretty nasty -0.89 WPA and a cWPA approaching -1%, but he more than made up for it in the playoffs with two outings worth more than 1% cWPA, giving him 2.95% cWPA despite an essentially zero WPA across his five total playoff outings. His best outing by cWPA was World Series Game 5, in which he took over for A.J. Minter after the latter had given up both the tie and the lead and stranded two by striking out Jose Altuve, and then went back out and retired the rest of the heart of Houston’s lineup in order. The Braves lost that game anyway, but it was a good final outing for a season that probably didn’t go quite like he expected.
Outlook for 2022
Martin is now a free agent. One would assume he has thrown his final pitch as a member of the Braves, but it’s possible he could return on a cheap deal as middle inning relief depth.