Dodgers' Martin Enjoys Turnaround Year
Prospects generally earn promotions when their performance dictates it, when they've shown they've conquered a level. In Ethan Martin's
case, the level conquered him.
The Dodgers righthander spent two forgettable seasons in 2010 and 2011 in the high Class A California League, a circuit notoriously tough on pitchers, racking up a combined 13-18, 6.68 record. Martin needed a fresh start, and the Dodgers gave him one by bumping him up to Double-A Chattanooga last June.
Teaming up with Chattanooga pitching coach Chuck Crim, Martin began taking baby steps last year, posting a 4.02 ERA over 40 innings at Double-A, but he's taken some flying leaps this summer. The 23-year-old has been one of the Southern League's most dominant starters, his 7-5 record not doing justice to a 3.10 ERA that ranks second in the league.
Martin has become a much different pitcher than the one that limped out of the Cal League a year ago. The changes began on the mental side of the game, when the Dodgers had him shift to the bullpen after his arrival in Chattanooga.
Early in his career as a starter, Martin had tried following the conventional wisdom of not using all his weapons the first time through an order, making sure to pace himself. But when coming out of the bullpen last year, Martin realized what he could do when he attacked each hitter with everything he had.
"Earlier as a starter, I was trying, 'Let's get through this time through the lineup with these pitches. Don't show them a lot,' " Martin said. "Once I went to the 'pen, I realized I might not get to that next time through, so I gotta do everything I can to get there. That's where I'm going at it—hitter by hitter and don't worry about the rest of the game."
With the success he's had, Martin's reliever-style approach to starting is hard to argue with. He's backed up his improving ERA by leading SL starters in opponents' average (.209) and ranking third in strikeouts (97 in 107 innings).
Martin has always had the tools to dominate, with an athletic frame and a repertoire led by a power fastball that sits at 92-95 mph and can touch 96-97 when he reaches back for more. But while his arm strength helped him get drafted 15th overall in 2008, his feel for his craft was another matter.
High school pitchers are inherently raw, but Martin was even more so. In addition to his prowess on the mound at Stephens County High in Georgia, Martin could've been a high pick as a power-hitting third baseman and spent each fall playing quarterback. Once he got into pro ball and dedicated himself solely to pitching, there was a lot to learn.
"When (pitchers) come out of high school, they pretty much rely on arm strength, and they rely on not-very-good hitters swinging at it," Crim said. "As soon as you get into professional baseball, they don't swing at those pitches any more. You have to be more finer-tuned with it."
Crim speaks of having to get young pitchers like Martin out of an "A-ball mentality," where they try to blow hitters away with their best stuff at all times. Once a pitcher gets to Double-A and above, having great stuff only gets you so far. Executing and locating pitches become paramount.
Martin has more work to do, but he's come a long way. His 54 walks on the season were tied for the second-most in the Southern League, but his 4.5 walks-per-nine innings rate, while still higher than the team would like, was a vast improvement from the 6.3 mark he posted over his two Cal League seasons and his 5.7 rate for his career.
Part of that improvement has been a function of mechanics. Martin has done a better job of using his legs in his delivery and of staying back over the rubber. But at the same time, Crim has made sure Martin's mind doesn't become too cluttered with worrying about his mechanics.
"He'll tell you one thing to do (mechanically), but yet he doesn't harp on it," Martin said. "He goes, 'Listen, you gotta make the pitch. You gotta do whatever you can to make that pitch.'
"In the past, I was mainly thinking about mechanics, mechanics, mechanics. But then, he'll mention it, but then he'll leave it alone—make you make the adjustment to get that pitch to where it needs to be."
But Martin's maturation isn't the only reason he's gotten back on track. He's developed a new weapon that has something to do with it as well.
Martin's curveball was his go-to secondary pitch when he came out of high school and through his first two years of pro ball. The curve had the action to look like a plus offering at times, but Martin admits he didn't have a consistent feel for it, and his inability to control the curve put more pressure on him to throw strikes with his fastball.
So, Martin began working on a slider during instructional league after the 2010 season, and the pitch has proven to be the right complement for his power fastball.
"He's got a real good curveball, but it kind of funnels in that 17 inches a little too much, and your better hitters are still able to put a bat on it," Crim said. "As soon as he learned the slider, he was able to have a pitch that he could actually show on the plate and take off the plate."
Martin still throws the curveball, but generally limits its use to early in counts. He hasn't perfected the slider yet, but it's supplanted the curve as his strikeout pitch. At the same time, he also has the confidence to throw the slider for a strike in fastball counts, keeping hitters off balance.
"Any time you get a kid who can throw hard, the slider can be devastating," Crim said, "because it shows the same arm speed (as a fastball). You're talking 86-88 mph velocity, same arm speed and it's tight, so the hitters have a hard time picking it up, and it works off the fastball."
Martin's straight changeup isn't as advanced, though the team is urging him to use it to combat righthanded hitters as well as lefties, trying to give the righthanders a different look. He's also learning a two-seam fastball that Crim hopes will help him get more groundballs.
But clearly his biggest selling point remains his fastball, which complements its velocity with life and deception. "It actually accelerates," Crim says. Put that together with his ever-improving slider and re-shaped mental approach, and the Dodgers have a pitcher who's emerged from two years in the wilderness looking like he could deliver on his first-round promise.
"It's a constant work in progress with these guys, it really is," Crim said. "We go out there and he's got very good aptitude. He wants to learn. A lot of this, you gotta give credit to the kid because if the kid didn't have any aptitude, didn't want to learn or really didn't buy into what we have to say, it wouldn't do any good at all."