The other day I had the privilege to interview JD Martin, the 31 year old right-hander coming off an incredible season for the Rays’ Triple-A affiliate, the Durham Bulls. In Part 1 of the interview, Martin talks about his big season, the 2013 Bulls, and his call-up to the Rays on September 22nd.
Robbie Knopf: One thing that’s interesting about you is how you got to the major league after how good you started. I’ve talked to some people from your Ridgecrest days and they were gushing over how good you were in high school. You got drafted in the supplemental first round by the Cleveland Indians and you were unhittable in your pro debut and the sky was the limit in terms of your potential. Then all of a sudden injuries strike and your fastball goes down to 86 to 87 MPH. But despite all of that you head to the Washington Nationals organization and you make their big league roster. What was it like overcoming all of that to make the major leagues?
JD Martin: It was awesome. I never really at all the injuries and everything as a setback–I looked at it as a setback but nothing outrageous. I just kept going and never really thought about the injuries being a bad thing or whatever. My loss, you drop it. I just kept working and it finally paid off in ’09. It was cool, man.
RK: You’re with the Nationals in 2009 and you do OK. You’re with them in 2010, but then injuries strike again and by the time you’re healthy they are not giving them your rotation spot back. How did it feel to know that you were a big league pitcher and you were doing fine, but in a snap of the fingers it was gone?
JD: Yeah, it was pretty frustrating, man. When that type of stuff happens, it’s very frustrating. The thing is that only really know why, it’s just that they had some management moves there, like they had a new GM (Mike Rizzo was named GM in August), and he may just not have liked me or whatever it may have been. I never really got an answer for it, but I didn’t say something off about it. I ended up leaving the organization and going to the Miami Marlins the next year. I was doing well enough to be called up, and some of the guys who got called up, I was doing a little better than them, so it was frustrating.
RK: Do you feel like you’re a pitcher who can do really well but teams are looking at you and saying “this is a pitcher throwing only 86, 87 MPH with his fastball” and it’s a tougher sell bringing you to the big leagues. Do you feel like you’re dealing with a bias because of your fastball velocity?
JD: Oh, absolutely. I feel like that’s the many reason that I don’t get as much opportunity. I can’t see any other reason. My numbers have always been good–knock on wood–but they’ve been good enough, and it’s more the velocity “oh, major leaguers can hit that kind of fastball.” But do you know what, major league hitters are going to hit any kind of fastball, and I feel that I compensate for the lack of the velocity on my fastball through my location, change of speeds and everything. So I’m just looking to find somebody who will eventually see that and give me an opportunity so I can prove myself. You know what? I was in the big leagues, I wasn’t throwing very hard–I would touch 90–and I had success. I may not do great, but overall I had success and I was just trying to break on through because the comfort level wasn’t quite there either for me. So it’s a matter of just somebody giving me an opportunity and not worry about the velocity, just worry about me getting the job done and looking at my numbers and giving me that opportunity.
RK: We’ve talked a bit about your fastball–what does the rest of your arsenal look like right now?
JD: Cutter, changeup, and a curveball.
RK: Your curveball was a money pitch for you back from your high school days. Just looking at the numbers a little bit from your major league career, was it just your fastball that went away after the injuries? Was there something lost from your breaking ball also or was it just a situation where your loss of fastball velocity put the pressure on all your other pitches?
JD: I never really saw a difference in my breaking stuff. The only thing was that I wasn’t throwing them as hard and if the velocity drops a little bit, everything else is going to drop a little bit as well. Or it won’t be as big of a gap in the velocity in certain pitches. Stuff like that affected it a little bit. But personally I couldn’t tell any difference in my breaking stuff. It felt pretty good.
RK: Let’s get back to the chronological thing that we were doing before and talk about your year with the Miami Marlins organization. I was your first–and thus far only–year in the Pacific Coast League. You were struggling, but did you feel like if you were put in the International League or a more pitcher-friendly setting, you could be more successful?
JD: No, I didn’t look at it that way. I was just struggling. I was fighting some mechanical things, and I just had a bad year. I would just chock it up to a bad year, really. Not really any excuses for it.
RK: That season comes and goes and then you sign with the Rays. That’s an interesting thing for two reasons. First, you’re going to an organization that has an excellent reputation for developing pitching and can take pitchers who have a flaw with them and help them refine their mechanics. The other side of it is that you’re going to an organization that has a lot of pitching depth and it’s awfully tough to crack their major league roster. What you made you decide to sign with the Rays last offseason?
JD: There weren’t really many other options, really. The Nationals talked about me throwing a knuckleball a little for them, and I’m not ready to do that. Really the Rays were the only opportunity I had.
RK: Now let’s talk about your 2013 season and what a season it was. You went 16-4 with a 2.75 ERA, earning the most wins in the history of the Durham Bulls as a Triple-A affiliate. How did it feel to achieve that much success?
JD: It felt awesome, man. We had a great team this year, great coaching staff, the camaraderie in the clubhouse was awesome, we were winning, we won the championship. It really could not have been any better for the team as a whole. For me personally, I was having a lot of success and just feeling good. I just felt good all year and felt strong. I threw a lot of innings and it was awesome. I had a great time and it definitely was the funnest year of my career. I really had a great time.
RK: You talked about fighting through some mechanical issues in your year with the Marlins. What adjustments did you make to experience so much more success in 2013?
JD: I went to my pitching coach Neil Allen a lot, and I was still going through a little bit of mechanical stuff over the course of the season, more in the bullpens. I felt fine on the mound during the games, but in the bullpens, I was trying a few different things. I was trying too hard to shiver the ball as much and wrap my arm as much, just kind of real mechanical things. He walked through it with me a little bit, and it wasn’t too bad of an adjustment, just kind of maintenance.
RK: That Durham Bulls pitching staff, you had just a ton of talent out there. You had Jake Odorizzi, Chris Archer, Alex Colome, and also Mike Montgomery. What it was like being part of a staff that talented? And for the younger guys, was there anything you were able to do to help them along?
JD: No, not really. If they ever had a problem with anything, they would come up to me and ask. They were all pretty much doing well and they didn’t really need anything. Montgomery struggled a little bit this year, and he was trying to throw that cutter, and I’ve thrown a cutter for many years now, so him and I would go out during batting practice in the outfield and spin some cutters, try to work on its spin a little bit, and I know he worked on that with Neil Allen as well. Me and Jake (Odorizzi) would occasionally spin breaking balls to keep that crisp feel for our offspeed pitches. So little stuff like that we would help each other out on. “Oh, that looked good, that spin was tight” and work on kind of not overthrowing it and saying stuff like “you could have held onto that longer” and help each other out a lot.
RK: In terms of being on a team that was winning so many games, was it nice to put the pressure on you where Odorizzi just threw the ball well and Matt Buschmann is pitching great, and now you need to go out there and do it again?
JD: It’s fun doing that. You’re in competition with all those guys. This is how I look at it: I want all those guys to do really well, but I just want to throw a little bit better. It’s like they have good games and now it’s “you know what? I need to step it up a little bit, this is a big game right here.” It makes it a little more fun out there especially because we all got along really well too.
RK: The craziest part of the whole season was that we know the Rays have so many pitchers, but then on September 22nd, they actually called you up and you were on the roster for that day. You didn’t get to pitch, but what was it like them calling you up?
JD: Honestly, I felt like I had earned the opportunity to go up a lot earlier than that. So it was frustrating for me at the end (of the Triple-A season) when I didn’t called up. I was actually driving home–I was in Louisiana at the time at my wife’s parents house, driving home to Vegas–and we heard about the game, the 18-inning game that the Rays played, and I was kind of like “yeah, well, I hope you’ll have enough pitchers.” I told my wife that just at dinner at first, and then I get the call and they say “we need someone to come in and pitch tomorrow” and I go “heck yeah, I’ll be there. I’m ready.” I literally went outside to the backyard and played catch with my brother-in-law and figured out how to get my mechanics right and then I went out there for the game. Unfortunate that I didn’t get to pitch, but it was awesome just being there. Really, them putting me on the roster for that one day helped me out a lot in terms of insurance and stuff like that, so that helped me out a lot. And then I got designated (for assignment) after the game, which was kind of frustrating. Why not leave me up there for the rest of the season and for a playoff situation if it happened? There is a lot that could have contributed to that team, but they just didn’t want to give me that opportunity for some reason. Yeah, I don’t really know. But that one day–I’m thankful for that one day.
RK: The pitcher the Rays did decide to start that day was Enny Romero and the contrast between you and him could not have been any bigger. Romero has that fastball hitting 97 MPH and it was completely unrefined with his pitches going all over the place. Then there’s you, who may not throw as hard but you’re placing your pitches so much better. It illustrated that inclination that teams have to go with the pitches that have better stuff even if they don’t always know where it’s going.
JD: I didn’t get it. Enny Romero had been in Double-A all year. I think he got a little bit of Triple-A time (he pitched in one game for Durham), but I have over a year in the big leagues let alone all the years at Triple-A. After the year I’d had, I thought I had earned the right to have that start. I was really very surprised they gave it him. I was like “I don’t get why.” I still don’t know why they did it, but whatever, you know. I was still just glad to be activated that day, honestly. I felt like I had earned the start.
RK: You talk about these things with the organization that you don’t understand, but overall, what was your experience like in your Rays organization? You had a great a great year, but what was your relationship like with the members of the organization, the coaches and the front office?
JD: Honestly, I really like the Rays organization. I really had a great time. Spring training was awesome–I love the way they run it–all the guys in the clubhouse were awesome, and all the guys I met, they really seemed great. The whole organization, I really enjoyed it. The only thing I didn’t like was getting zero opportunity after there was nothing more I could have done at the Triple-A level. There is nothing more I could have done to get to the big leagues, and I felt like I earned a chance up there, but aside from that, I loved the organization.
Here’s Part 2 of the interview, where JD talks about his decision to sign the the Samsung Lions in Korea for next season and why his magical year with the Durham almost didn’t happen.