Just before MLB implemented a freeze on all transactions, news broke that Nick Martinez was on the verge of signing a four-year, $20 million contract with the Padres. Fans may remember Martinez from his days as a back-end starter for the Rangers from 2014-2017. Over those four years, Martinez went 17-30 with a 4.77 ERA and averaged 5.1 K/9 against 3.2 BB/9.
After spending four years in Japan, what adjustments did Martinez make to earn such a contract? Let’s start by taking a look at his stats from his stint in Japan:
Nick Martinez, an overview:
Martinez missed roughly a season and a half from 2019 into 2020 after suffering a forearm strain. He also had two Injured List assignments in his brief MLB career, so he has a bit of an injury history to beware of.
Martinez’s biggest strength as a MLB pitcher was his ability to throw strikes. He kept that up in Japan, with the exception of 2020. While he does throw strikes, Martinez is more of a control pitcher than a command pitcher. He does a good job of leaving pitches out of the middle of the zone, but hitters can expect pitches in or near the zone. Due to this, Martinez is dependent on his defense to help him out on balls in play.
Martinez also increased his strikeout rate while in Japan. In 2018, his 14% strikeout rate matched his MLB best from 2015 and 2017, but by 2021 he had nearly doubled it to 25%.
Martinez was never known for working deep into games as a Ranger, but he was a workhorse when on the mound in 2021. He pitched at least 6 innings in 20 of his 21 starts. He could have added more innings to his 2021 total, but was delayed entering the country by Japan’s immigration policies. He didn’t make his season debut until May 1.
How has he improved?
There are two factors that have led to Martinez’s improvement, with the first being increased velocity. In 2015 Martinez averaged 90 MPH on his fastball, and increased that to 92 MPH over the next two seasons. While we don’t currently track pitch data from NPB, a look at some footage shows that Martinez was typically sitting around 94 MPH with his fastball in 2021.
How he has done this is not immediately clear, but it could be related to his injury rehab. Since Martinez missed a full season with a forearm injury, the rehab process likely involved a focus on strengthening different muscle groups in his body. This buildup of muscle strength (and possibly also an alteration in mechanics to use his whole body in his delivery) would lead to increased velocity. (Shoutout to my wife, Autumn, who was able to go into much more detail than I could comprehend on the subject).
The added velocity may also have given him the confidence to throw the pitch up in the zone with more regularity. As recently as 2016, Martinez was a contact pitcher who threw more two-seam fastballs than four-seams. With the added velocity, he throws more four-seam fastballs, with many at the top of the zone (and above).
The second factor that has led to Martinez’s resurgence is his improved changeup. In his last MLB season the changeup was the least-used pitch in his repertoire (12% usage), and it averaged 86 MPH. Martinez’s changeup was not impressive when he pitched in Texas, but he appears to have changed his grip since he was last in the Majors. He now throws the pitch with a vulcan grip, with the ball between his middle and ring fingers and with those fingers spread farther apart.
This change gives his changeup an average velocity of 81 or 82 MPH. Combined with his improved fastball velocity, Martinez now has double the speed differential between his fastball and changeup from when he was last in MLB, and that combination was much more effective in NPB.
Since Martinez has improved his changeup, he has also increased his usage of it. He throws it as his main secondary pitch to both left handed and right handed hitters, and gets many early, ugly swings on hitters expecting fastballs.
What to expect:
Since Nick Martinez last pitched in MLB, he has added velocity to his fastball and improved his changeup. Combined with his cutter and curveball, he has something that resembles a traditional starter’s repertoire.
One comparable pitcher could be Chris Flexen, who jumped from the KBO to Seattle last year, posting a 3.61 ERA (4.30 FIP) in 179 ⅔ innings in 2021. Like Martinez, Flexen limits walks and does not post gaudy strikeout totals.
A change in home park might help Martinez too, as the Ballpark in Arlington was a hitter’s paradise, while Petco Park is more pitcher friendly. Martinez has allowed 1.5 HR/9 in his MLB career, though that number was over 2.0 if you just look at 2016 and 2017.
By our assessment, with improved pitches and a more-friendly home field to pitch in, Martinez could settle in as a reliable back-end starter for the Padres in 2022.