Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Kyle Martin.
The Question: Can Kyle Martin succeed with his current pitch mix?
The thing about 40-man rosters is that generally speaking, 40 players exist on it. As you may know, teams don’t typically have 40 interesting players. As such, a series that highlights each member of a 40-man roster is sure to feature a couple of players that inspire little amounts of enthusiasm. This is my long-winded way of saying that the rest of this page is about Kyle Martin.
This is not to take away from Martin, who is objectively one of the truly elite baseball players in the world and is better at it than I’ll ever be at anything in my entire life. The former ninth-round pick has slowly but surely made his way through the system, and heads into 2017 as an important piece of bullpen depth for this roster. It’s not the sexiest role to play, but it can turn out to be an important one. Martin has never pitched in a major-league game, but he was eligible for the Rule 5 draft this winter and placed on the 40-man roster to protect him from it. As we look forward to the next portion of his career, one question hovers over it. Will he really be able to survive primarily on his fastball and changeup?
Because Martin has been a reliever throughout his professional career, and one that has never been viewed as a future closer, there’s a small number of scouting reports out there. Of course, the great Sox Prospects team has their report, which can be seen here. In it, they discuss his solid fastball and plus changeup, as well as a slider he uses sparingly that is inconsistent at best. Over at 2080 baseball, they have one view of him in which he apparently threw more sliders. However, they also graded his breaking ball as fringe-average.
That slider could be a key to him making a real impact as he tries to pursue a long major-league career. The fact is, it’s really, really hard to be a great reliever who just throws fastballs and changeups. Obviously, bullpen arms are more likely to succeed with a two-pitch mix than their starting counterparts, but typically one of those pitches is a breaking ball. It makes sense, as great relievers are usually big strikeout pitchers and breaking balls are usually the best out pitches. There are obvious exceptions to this who rely/relied on one pitch, like Mariano Rivera and Zach Britton. Even they had pitches that showed tremendous break, though.
When you look through the recent-ish history of the game, it’s hard to find many effective pitchers who survived on fastball/changeup-based repertoires. The obvious example is Trevor Hoffman, who is almost certainly going to be elected to the Hall of Fame next year and has one of the best changeups of all time. Even he worked in a slider around 10 percent of the time, though. Looking at today’s game, the best example may be Fernando Rodney, who throughs almost no breaking pitches. He does, however, mix in a sinker with his fourseam fastball, which is not a card Martin can play. Francisco Rodriguez is another one who fits the criteria, although he didn’t back when he was K-Rod and dominating at a young age. In those days, he leaned heavily on a curveball that he’s since backed away from. Other examples of Tyler Clippard, Trevor Rosenthal and Brad Boxberger.
A couple of things stand out when you look a little closer at those names. For one thing, they all mix in some sort of breaking ball once in a while. To be fair, this fits with Martin, as he’s continuing to develop those sliders. The more important commonality, however, is that most of these guys are just fine. Obviously, Hoffman was a great reliever, but the rest are merely okay. Rodriguez is probably a Hall of Famer, but again, much of his heyday was built on a curveball. Rodney has certainly had great stretches, but is he really someone you want to trust on a regular basis? The last three are fine, but nothing special. And these are the best of the best with this kind of repertoire.
The point of all this simply being that Martin has his work cut out if he wants to take the next step. Based on his results in the minors, he is already in a relatively strong place. He spent all of 2016 in Pawtucket and pitched to a 3.38 ERA over 66-2/3 innings while striking out over 10 batters per nine innings. Those numbers won’t translate perfectly to the majors, of course, but his current self looks like he could at least be a sixth or seventh arm in the bullpen.
The key for him to become a mainstay in major-league bullpens for a long time, though, is the development of his slider. He’s already got a good base. His fastball is at least average, and sits in the mid-90s. His changeup was rated as plus by 2080 and potentially plus by Sox Prospects, while also being called the best changeup in the organization. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to succeed long-term with just those two pitches. If Martin wants to stay on the 40-man for a long time, he could really use some more confidence (and skill) in his slider. At the very least, it’s something to watch from him when spring games start.