Taking stock of the roster this week, Alex Church pointed out that this season is best thought of “as an audition for the future.” Some players on the Orioles’ roster “may end up playing for the next winning club in Baltimore, while some are simply trying to prove they belong at the Major League level.”
In the latter category is twenty-four-year old shortstop Richie Martin. A pickup from Oakland in December’s Rule-5 draft, Martin was a 20th overall pick in 2015 once tabbed the A’s “shortstop of the future.” The glove was never in doubt, but after he hit .234 in two seasons in Double-A, Martin’s prospect hype tanked. In 2018, Martin turned things around, going .300/.386/.807 with six home runs, 42 RBIs and 25 stolen bases in the Texas League. But with a ton of depth at middle infield, including Marcus Semien and Franklin Barreto at the big-league level and Jorge Mateo, Nick Allen, and Kevin Merrell in the minors, Oakland was ready to let Martin go.
After working with hitting guru Craig Wallenbock and getting a prescription for contacts in the offseason, Martin won the starting job straight out of spring training—the rebuilding O’s were willing to give the young Martin room to grow, and prospects like Zach Vincej, Jack Reinheimer, and Chris Bostick weren’t exactly tearing it up at the plate.
The jump from Double-A to the Majors is the toughest of all (so I hear, having never tried it), and since then, Martin has an anemic .180/.305/.540 line. He’s got even fewer hits this season than Stevie Wilkerson, who’s played 14 fewer games. After struggling in April, Martin’s playing time got cut down in May, where he started just 15 games. (Note: When Brandon Hyde wants to bench someone, he starts talking about “wanting to try to let him have success and find the right matchups.” That quote was regarding Martin, but you can find it pretty much verbatim about Chris Davis, Rio Ruiz, Wilkerson, etc…)
But June has been a different story. In 16 games started, Martin has put up a .224 average, a .269 OBP, and has hit 3 home runs (the other one came on May 22nd). OK, OK, don’t fall out of your chair. But when you hit zero homers your first month-and-a-half, and four in the month following, it’s a difference. Martin has been putting in extra work with hitting coaches Don Long and Howie Clark, and you can definitely see the adjustments in the stance. (Some CamdenChatters were commenting on it this week.)
Here is Martin on March 30, getting his first MLB hit. (My, how he’s grown!) Notice the hands almost above the head, the hyperkinetic toe tap, and the huge leg kick. This strikes me as a pretty busy swing.
Here's Richie Martin's first career #MLB hit, which he followed with his first SB & run scored. And here's Martin (@GatorsBB) -- the 1st overall Rule 5 Draft pick in 2018 -- on the @Orioles' Top 30 Prospects list: https://t.co/G3vROjTVl4 pic.twitter.com/IGiVFAdrAW— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) March 30, 2019
On April 8, you see a different Richie. The hands are still high, but he’s standing a little taller, the toe tap is a little quieter, and the uppercut is less pronounced.
#Orioles' No. 15 prospect Richie Martin is making the #Athletics pay for leaving him unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft. Martin is 2-for-3, his first multihit game in #MLB.— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) April 9, 2019
Gameday: https://t.co/j3hUWyXFVK pic.twitter.com/Qz3gbNLs0e
Here, on May 1st, against the lefty Rodon, Martin is standing up much straighter, and the hands are down, behind him and close to the body.
Richie Martin drives in the 3rd run of a 3-run 4th inning. pic.twitter.com/Jinw4k65QK— Baltimore Orioles (@Orioles) May 1, 2019
And finally, this week. Notice how though he goes long here, the swing is actually pretty level.
In brief, Richie has journeyed away from and back into a crouched stance, but he’s closer to and leaning farther over the plate now, the stance is more closed, and he’s kicking the leg a lot less and putting less of an uppercut on the swing. These adjustments are consistent with someone who’s been able to speed up his time to the ball (i.e., standing closer allows you better plate coverage, as the oppo field dong shows, but it’s also impossible to do if you’re getting beat on the fastball).
Brandon Hyde has noticed the difference. He says Martin’s adjustments “are really helping him out. He’s kind of simplified his swing a little bit. The leg kick is gone. He’s getting his [front] foot down a little bit more on time.” Adds Hyde, “The more we can get him on time, the more the swing will flatten out.”
Are Martin’s plate appearances bearing this out? Compared to the stats from May 1, collected by CC’s own Ben Hansford in an appropriately pessimistic piece, it’s a mixed picture (which I suppose is better than purely bad). When it comes to strikeouts and walks, Martin’s numbers are almost unchanged (58 strikeouts per 169 plate appearances (versus 25 of 74 before), and just 10 walks (versus 6 when Ben checked). Martin’s strikeout ratio (31.7%) remains top-5 in the league (sigh).
However, in terms of “quality at-bats,” there’s improvement. Martin is seeing more pitches, 4.13 per at-bat compared to the league average of 3.92, and he has a lower-than-average strike looking rate (20.2% to 26.1%). He’s also making more contact. The slash line is up (.180/.235/.305 versus .164/.243/.209), as is the wRC+ (39 versus 24—albeit still way below the average of 100), and his contact rate in the zone is 81.4%, up from 75%, including an 83.2% contact rate on fastballs in the zone (that drops to 64.7% on the changeup). Martin is spraying the ball around (see the chart below), although his average exit velocity has barely moved (82.5 mph versus 81.8 on May 1).
This gives us a more complete picture. Martin has a decent eye, and he’s fouling off a lot of balls. Although he swings at pitches outside the zone more than he should (37.5 O-swing%), he is rarely caught looking. He’s hitting the ball to the opposite field regularly, although the power and the hard contact are still not there (his four home runs this month say different, but they’re still not reflected in the stats). Importantly, he’s starting to catch up to the fastball, and he’s seeing a fair number of secondary pitches (42%), which means pitchers are taking him more seriously.
I’ll avoid idle speculation on what this means for the future: Martin could play himself out of the major leagues, slot in as a utility guy, or keep developing into an everyday player with a good glove albeit marked slap-hitting tendencies.
Back in April, when Gary Thorne asked him what he could do to be a better hitter, Richie answered: “Be on time.” For now, Martin is starting to do what’s been asked of him.