In light of recent events, you may be inclined to throw Chris Martin under the bus. However, it is my suggestion that you don’t do that for two reasons. The first being that Chris Martin is 6’8, so throwing him under a bus seems like a physically daunting task, and the second reason is that Chris Martin is very good at baseball, opening day notwithstanding. Why should you be high on him? Well, for starters, Martin was the only pitcher in baseball who posted a strikeout rate of at least 30% and a walk rate of less than 3% in 2019 (min. 50 innings pitched). That should be a welcomed sign for Braves fans, who watched their bullpen put up the worst walk rate in baseball (11.1%) prior to the July 31 trade deadline in 2019, when the team acquired a slew of good relievers in Martin, Mark Melancon, and Shane Greene.
The two year, $14 million deal Martin received this past offseason may be a bit rich for a reliever who is expected to serve in a setup role, but this is not your typical setup man. The Texas-born flamethrower with a fascinating backstory was quietly one of the better relievers in baseball last season, and not in a fluky way. His 3.40 ERA in 55.2 innings last year was very good, but also a bit deceiving as he finished the season with an unsustainably-high 20.5% homerun rate on fly balls, which wasn’t helped by 22 of his outings taking place in the homer-friendly, now-defunct Globe Life Park in Arlington while he was with the Texas Rangers before being dealt to the Atlanta Braves at the trade deadline. In fact, his entire career has been tormented by hitter-friendly home ballparks, unfortunate batted ball luck, and small sample sizes in which his peripheral stats were good, but his outcomes were not:
|Year||Team||Home Park Factor||ERA||FIP||xFIP|
Friends, this is one of the more unfortunate career lines you’ll see, and that (among other reasons, some of which are beyond Martin’s control) is a big reason why he only accumulated 133 innings pitched through his age-33 season. The man’s career ERA is more than a full run higher than his FIP, even after he finally experienced some reasonable (but still not good) luck in 2019! In game 1 of the 2019 NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals, Martin finally had a chance to show the world what he’s capable of on the big stage, when he promptly suffered an oblique injury while warming up and never actually got to throw a pitch in the series. Sadly, like everyone else, Martin is going to be subject to another small size in 2020, so the only reasonable conclusion here is that the universe never wants you to find out that Chris Martin is really good at baseball. But I am here to tell you: Chris Martin is good at baseball, and he throws an 89 mph changeup.
Martin’s pitching style isn’t overly complex – he simply throws gas in the strike zone and dares you to hit it. This is something of an atypical approach in modern baseball, but when you can throw 5 pitches considerably harder than league-average with good command, you can be effective just about anywhere. But don’t take my word for it, check out his velocity distributions from 2019 (he also throws a hard sinker, which isn’t shown here):
Every pitch in Martin’s arsenal is thrown harder than league average, but he’s not just out there slinging it and hoping for the best. Martin has always had good control, and it appears to have gotten even better since his return from a two-year journey in 2016-2017 during which he absolutely layed waste to the Japan Pacific League to the tune of a 1.12 ERA with 91 strikeouts and only 13 walks in 88.1 innings. Last season, his 2.3% walk rate was the second best in baseball among all pitchers who tossed at least 50 innings, bested only by Atlanta’s Josh Tomlin, who doesn’t really count since Tomlin basically just tosses batting practice to hitters in order to pass the time during blowouts. Couple Martin’s elite walk rate with a 30.1% strikeout rate, and you have yourself a Very Good Pitcher.
Obviously, Martin stays in the strike zone, and hitters have noticed; batters swung at nearly 8% more of his pitches than league-average in 2019. Even so, Martin got just over 3% more whiffs in the strike zone than league-average. He throws in the zone, hitters know it, and they still have a hard time making contact. Does it help that he throws extremely hard? You betcha. Does it help that he throws extremely hard and he’s 6’8? I mean, it can’t hurt, right?
Martin relies heavily on his fastball, which he threw about 45% of the time in 2019. Even though he tends to live in the strike zone, hitters struggle to achieve much success against it; he allowed a measly .276 xwOBA against his fastball last season. The only downside to staying in the strike zone so consistently is that he does tend to get barreled up a bit more than you’d like (8.6% in 2019), but that’s something you’re willing to accept when everything else is so effective.
In a 60 game season it’s pretty much impossible have concrete expectations for anyone, let alone relievers, who will be subject to the smallest of sample sizes. As far as a best guess at what should be expected from Martin in 2020, ZiPS is the most optimistic projection system, pegging him for an even 3.00 ERA and a 3.33 FIP. Other projections aren’t quite as high on him, putting him in the neighborhood of a 3.5-ish ERA, which would be perfectly acceptable.
Martin may not be off to the best of starts in 2020, but he is still one of the best relievers in what should be a very solid Atlanta bullpen. Braves fans don’t need him to be anything different than what he was last year. In fact, they should want all of their pitchers to be, ahem, something just like Chris.
Featured Photo: @FOXSportsBraves