When the Orioles selected Richie Martin with the first pick in the most recent Rule 5 draft, you would have had to search hard for somebody who didn’t agree with the selection. It was the perfect fit. The Orioles’ pipeline lacked middle infield talent, and talent in general. A team with no expectations to win would have no problem carrying him all season. His MLB-ready defense and great footspeed would allow him to contribute if his offensive development lagged.
In watching Martin through March and April, we’ve been given another reminder of what we know to be true: the jump from Minor League Baseball to Major League Baseball is the most difficult in sports. Martin has struggled mightily offensively, slashing .164/.243/.209. Despite wins and losses being of no consequence in Baltimore in 2019, we should start asking the question: should Martin be playing everyday? This assumes that he should be kept on the roster all year, which I think most O’s fans would favor.
Martin came to the Orioles as a top, if slow-developing, prospect from Oakland’s system. The former 20th overall selection in the MLB draft was rated as the 12th best prospect in the Athletics’ system. He always played stellar defense and had great speed, but his bat finally showed signs of life in 2018. He slashed .300/.368/.439 at the AA level. This performance combined with his first round pedigree led to the O’s selecting him.
Through his first 26 career games in the majors, one of his tools has definitely translated to the highest level. Martin is incredibly fast. His sprint speed has been measured at 29.4 feet per second (average of his fastest one-second windows). That is good for seventh best in the league. In early April he needed only 10.95 seconds to reach third base from the batters box, setting a club record. He has only stolen one base, but his speed has put pressure on the opposing defense.
Defensively, Martin has been fun to watch and has passed the “eye test.” When I watch him, I see a quick first step and he seems to have pretty good range. His arm is accurate and strong enough. He makes all the routine plays and generally handles one of the most important positions on the infield well. Impressively, he doesn’t let his struggles with the bat impact his play in the field.
Advanced defensive metrics don’t paint as positive of a picture. According to Fangraphs, he has cost Baltimore four runs defensively this season. His Ultimate Zone Rating rates him slightly below average at -0.6. Baseball Reference also rates his defense as slightly subpar, grading him at a -0.3 dWAR. These statistics shouldn’t be cause for too much concern. Martin is a young player who is learning how to play a difficult position at the major league level without any time at AAA. With more seasoning, he will likely become the defensive player that scouts have raved about for years.
While Martin’s speed helps the club and his defense has been only a minor detriment, his offense is another story. The problems run far deeper than his aforementioned .164/.243/.209 slash line. He has struck out in 25 of his 74 plate appearances while drawing only six walks. His strikeout percentage puts him in the bottom 5% of the league. He has only two extra base hits and 14 total bases. His wRC+ is 24, excruciatingly below the league average of 100.
A deeper look at some statistics show even more trouble. He swings at 74% of pitches in the strike zone (higher than the league average of 65%) but makes contact on only 75% of swings at pitches in the zone compared with the league average of 83%. He also chases pitches out of the strike zone at a rate higher than league average. Perhaps most troubling is that he misses the pitch on 34% of his swings, a rate 10% higher than league average.
Plate discipline and contact issues could be overlooked if Martin’s limited contact resulted in hard hit balls. Unfortunately, that is not the case. His average exit velocity of 81.8 MPH puts him in the bottom 3% of the league. His expected batting average of .187 puts him in the bottom 5% of the league. There are sometimes hidden nuggets of positivity hidden beneath a poor slash line. That isn’t the case with Martin.
As we’ve heard countless times, 2019 is about development for players such as Martin. The poor numbers above will mean very little if he is a productive starting shortstop in the future. As such, Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde need to figure out the best way to ensure that Martin’s game develops in spite of his poor offensive numbers. We will assume that they want to keep him on the roster all season so that he remains in the organization.
Is Martin the type of person that can grow and develop while learning on the job, even if that means posting numbers that make him one of the worst offensive players in the league? Or would he benefit from less playing time and working on his swing off the field? Without being in the clubhouse and knowing his temperament, it is impossible to say which option is best.
For the time being, Hanser Alberto has emerged as a candidate to alleviate Martin’s playing time. In 22 games, Alberto has slashed .324/.338/.380 and played above average defense at second base. Hyde could opt to move Jonathan Villar to shortstop and give Alberto more starts at second base. Alberto certainly won’t continue hitting at his current rate, but his nice start gives Hyde a way to play Martin less without making a roster move. And it is not as if the O’s would be essentially playing with a 24 man roster like we’ve seen them do with past Rule 5 picks Pedro Araujo and Jason Garcia. He would make a great pinch-runner and adequate defensive replacement.
Given the state of the middle infield talent in the Orioles’ farm system, it would be very helpful if Richie Martin were the shortstop of the future. Even though he can be sent down to the minor leagues next season, it would be great if the “future” started in 2020. It will be interesting to monitor what changes, if any, the Baltimore brain trust makes to his playing time to make that happen.