If you haven’t had enough, here is Part 2 of my interview with former Durham Bulls right-hander JD Martin. This time we’ll talk about his decision to sign in Korea and the stroke of luck that made his magical season in Durham possible. If you missed it, Part 1 is here.
RK: Now let’s transition to this offseason. We heard that you agreed to a one-year deal with the Samsung Lions in Korea. What was the decision-making process like in terms of deciding to go to Korea?
JD: I had a great year this year and there is not much more I could have done to earn a spot in the big leagues. I did that, and I still didn’t get an opportunity in the big leagues. It’s so hard for me to just sit there and do that. How many times is that going to happen? There have been other times when I’ve had good years and nothing has happened. I’m honestly just kind of sick of it. I have a baby on the way, I have a family to think about here, and it’s come down to the point where I have to go out and make money. So Korea came out and they offered me a guaranteed contract with a generous salary, and I tip my hat and say that it’s an easy decision, honestly. I love to be able to stay in the States and play here, but I can’t get an opportunity here. No one will let me be in the big leagues. I’m just going to take it overseas and make some money and it’s going to be a nice adventure. The team I signed with, it seems like its a really good team, and I’m interested in started a new adventure, I guess.
RK: In terms of Korea, I think it’s amazing that our society has come to the point where you can go to Korea and there will be some cultural differences, but on the whole, you can go there and it’s a cool adventure, not anything crazy.
JD: Yeah, definitely. That factored in a little bit with my decision. It was really more of a financial move and I still love the game and it’s sad that it’s come down to making a decision like this, but I’m excited about it now and hopefully I can make the best of it.
RK: The past few years, we’ve really seen some more prominent players head to Japan and Korea. We’ve seen Kevin Youkilis, Andruw Jones, Casey McGehee, all these guys going to Japan and Korea. What do you think about this whole changing dynamic where Japan and Korea are legitimate options? A few years ago, would you have ever thought you’d be pitching in Korea for 2014?
JD: Honestly, I would have. I got a contract offer in 2009 to go to Japan, and I debated on it, but I turned it down, and it was because I had gotten in this game to be in the big leagues, and then I wanted to make money. It wasn’t about making money. At the time, I turned down the money because I wanted to get to the big leagues, and I ended up getting to the big leagues and having a good year, and it worked out awesome for. Now this opportunity came along again and I had the year I had this year but I couldn’t get to the big leagues after that year, so it was actually very good timing for me. If I had a 40-man roster opportunity and I was going to be in the big leagues next year, they I would have stayed here most likely, but this opportunity came up and I had take it.
RK: When we first heard that you were going to Korea, we heard that you were using the same agent the former Detroit Tigers pitcher Adam Wilk used, Steve Canter. Did you talk to him or anybody else about what the experience would be like?
JD: I talked to one of my former teammates, Gary Glover, who was actually with the Rays for a while, because he spent some time in Korea and Japan. I’ve been talking with him this offseason and he’s been helping me out a lot, giving me some pointers. He’s helped me out a lot in terms of the what to expect aspect of it.
RK: Is there any particular part of baseball in Korea that you feel you’re going to have to make an adjustment towards?
JD: I’m sure there’s going to be certain adjustments, but at the end of the day, it’s the same size of the mound, same distance to the plate, and I’m going to treat it the same way. I make adjustments pitch by pitch in every game, so it’s not going to be something so different to me. The biggest adjustments I’m going to have to make are going to be off the field.
RK: You’re heading to Korea–does it feel like it’s a step up from Triple-A or is it a step down and you’re wondering why it’s come to this?
JD: I don’t see it as a step down. I see as a new opportunity. It’s nice going to a team and knowing that I have a job there, as long as I’m not doing terrible. I just look at it as a new opportunity and I definitely don’t look at it as a step down. If anything, it’s a step up from Triple-A. It’s not quite the major leagues, but it is a step up.
RK: Let’s get to some more general things in terms of you as a pitcher. The thing that really stands out about you is that you walk nobody. What is it in your approach and your repertoire that has allowed you to eliminate walks from your game almost entirely?
JD: First of all, I hate walking people. I would rather have someone hit a double off me than a walk sometimes–obviously depending on the situation. I’m a contact pitcher and I don’t want to strike a lot of guys out. I would have more strikeouts if I would bury full count curveballs, but I’ll have a lot more walks. For me, I don’t care about striking people out, but I do care about walking people. I’m a contact pitcher so I try to get them to mishit the ball. That’s what I go for. And that allows me to get even deeper into games. You may have 10 or 12 strikeouts in a game, but you may be out in the 6th inning with 100 pitches. So for me I just try to get deep into games, throw a lot of strikes, and don’t walk anybody, and that’s my thing. I just do not like walking people.
RK: In terms of reducing those walks to zero, was that something you were going for the whole time or once you learned to harness the command of your arsenal, it fell into place?
JD: I was kind of forced to. I don’t have that overbearing fastball or anything like that, so I’ve always had to rely on my location. When I first came up and I was 18, I loved striking guys out and that was the best thing ever, but as I got older, I would rather go deeper into games than strike a lot of guys out. I would be nice if I could do both, but that’s just the way I developed. I hated walking people people so I just try throw a lot of strikes. Honestly, sometimes it gets me in trouble, throwing a lot of strikes. Guys get comfortable out there knowing I’m going to come up there throwing strikes, instead of buzzing guys a little bit and rocking them around. It comes down to really throwing the ball up and out of the zone, really.
RK: Your mindset is really going against what has happened in baseball the past few years. Strikeouts are becoming more and more glorified, the fans love it, and there are all these fireballing pitchers coming in there and striking everybody out, even if they’re not getting as deep into games. Strikeouts just keep going up and up. Has anyone ever told you that you have to strike more batters out? Do you think that this is happening because organizations are actively trying to promote it or because better and better athletes are making it to the major leagues?
JD: Not for me, no one has even said that to me, but I have definitely heard upper management coming down and telling guys, which I think is ridiculous. People in the stands love it when guys are striking people out and everything, and they don’t care that much about numbers it seems like that. You have guys in the big leagues with high-4.00′s and 5.00′s (in ERA) that catch on every year. I don’t get it.
RK: Another kind of crazy thing about your career is that you’re a guy who doesn’t have an overpowering fastball, but aside from a stint with the Nationals in 2011 and 2008 with the Indians, you’ve been a starting pitcher your entire career. Have you ever given any thought to move to the bullpen to see if that could get you a chance in the major leagues?
JD: I’ve always said that if I am going to get to the major leagues, I can be in the bullpen or start, it doesn’t matter. I actually started the year in Durham in the bullpen. And they had Montgomery who injured his elbow in his first start. Once he got injured, I came in there and took his spot for 7 or 8 games. Once Montgomery came back, someone else got hurt (Chris Archer suffered a calf injury) and after that, I was starting real well so they left me in the rotation and I just took off from there. With the Rays, I started the year in the bullpen.
RK: Wow, I didn’t really appreciate that because you made all your appearances as a starter in the end. So this great season, it almost didn’t happen? If Montgomery doesn’t get hurt, you might have only started a few games for the Bulls. Is that right?
JD: One hundred percent. If Montgomery never got hurt, there was a chance I’d be in the bullpen all year and never start one game.
RK: You get that stroke of luck. How much do you appreciate that you got your lucky break, and while it unfortunately didn’t work it terms of sustainability in the big leagues, did it directly lead to your opportunity in Korea for next season?
JD: It definitely helped. Korean teams have been asking my agent about me for a couple years, but this year was a big difference after the season I had. Coming into the year, I was expecting to be a starter but I knew there was a chance I could be a bullpen guy too and at the end of spring training they told me, “yeah, you’re going to be in the bullpen.” I was upset about that because I wanted to be a starter, and they had a bunch of young guys starting over me. It was kind of annoying, but whatever, I accepted it. Unfortunately, it took someone getting injured for me to go to the rotation, but it was a lucky break for me in that case.
RK: You talked before about the financial motivation to go to Korea, and one thing that fans can really lose track of is that there are all these players in the major leagues making millions of dollars but then you go down one step lower to Triple-A and all of a sudden you have guys making much lower salaries and then you head to Korea and make not even the MLB minimum salary but something more substantial. Do you ever encounter that where someone tells you “you’re a major league baseball player, why aren’t you rich?”
JD: Yeah, people don’t understand what it’s like to be a baseball player. In the minor leagues, you don’t make very much money at all. Unless you have big league time, you’re not going to make over $100,000 and most of the guys are making like $20,000 a year, which is fine, but you’re probably thinking “oh, $200,000 a year” but you have no idea. You can make awesome money for sure, but in the major leagues. If you’re for a big leagues for a year then come back to the minor leagues, you’re not making much money. People don’t realize that and people go off to Korea to make that guaranteed money and just get a little bit of security.
RK: Several months back, I had several people from your hometown of Ridgecrest ask me “why isn’t JD Martin in the major leagues?” and it was incredible how passionate they were about you. What is it like having that whole hometown behind you no matter where you go? Is that one of things that keeps your confidence up and keeps you going?
JD: That is definitely motivation when I have the town backing me like that. It’s been awesome. I’m definitely lucky to have that, but it’s also frustrating too sometimes. When I got to the big leagues with the Nationals, they loved it. It was awesome. It was just cool for the town really. But then getting stuck at Triple-A the past few years, it’s frustrating. I’m really not sure how they’re going to react with me going to Korea–I think everyone is going to understand that the goal was the big leagues this year, but it didn’t happen now and I have go to Korea. But having the city backing me, it’s a great feeling.
Thanks for reading and thanks again to JD for making this possible. Look forward to more interviews in the coming weeks here at Rays Colored Glasses.