Against all odds, J.D. Martin did it–he cracked the pitching staff of the Tampa Bay Rays. He delivered an unbelievable season for the Triple-A Durham Bulls, going 16-4 to lead the affiliated minor leagues in wins and post the most wins by a Bulls pitcher since 1968. And that won-loss record had nothing to do with luck. Martin dominated all season, managing a 2.75 ERA, a 6.5 K/9, an insane 1.5 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 27 starts and 160.1 innings pitched. Martin, 30, was a starter for the Washington Nationals who pitched decently (4.32 ERA), but ended up back in the minor leagues between a series of injuries and a fastball often clocked at 86 MPH. For the Bulls, however, he looked everything like a big leaguer.
Martin made up for his lack of velocity with premium command and solid secondary pitches, and while he was not overpowering, striking out 6.5 batters per 9 innings compared to the 7.0 average for starters and allowing just over a hit per inning, Martin never beat himself. His control was impeccable as he walked more than two batters just once all season and he walked one or less 21 times in his 27 outings. What can you do as a hitter when you know that a pitcher is going to be throwing you quality strike after quality strike? That formula may not work as well in the major leagues, but with the Triple-A level mastered, Martin deserved a chance to show what he could do on the biggest stage. The Rays called him up, apparently giving him a chance to do just that. Then they designated him for assignment the next day, ending his Rays tenure in confusion and frustration.
The story of the call-up has been the story of J.D. Martin’s career. Out of starting pitchers following their 18-inning win over the Orioles on September 20th, the Rays had two options to make the start on September 23rd against the Orioles: J.D. Martin and Enny Romero. Martin was coming off the season of his life and had logged 542 innings at Triple-A in addition to 125 in the major leagues. Romero, meanwhile, had made a grand total of one start at Triple-A, although it was a good one as he tossed 8 shutout innings. Martin was the obvious choice, the grizzled veteran pitching out of his mind who would not be fazed in the slightest heading into a pennant race. But Martin’s fastball was 86 MPH while Romero’s was 96 MPH, and the Rays chose Romero. Martin was called up as well, spending the day in the bullpen in case Romero’s start didn’t last long, but Romero lasted 4.2 innings and Martin never got into the game. He was off the roster the next day and elected free agency following the season.
What more can J.D. Martin do? He can have the best season of his life and teams will still disregard him. The only thing in Martin’s control is to pitch well and hope he gets a chance. It’s hard to imagine Martin re-signing with the Rays despite his great year–he’ll head to a team with less pitching depth and hope that an injury gets him onto the big league roster and he pitches well enough to stay. Martin has done much better in the International League then the Pacific Coast League, so with that in mind, he could look to sign with a team like the Twins and Blue Jays that has both an IL affiliate and questions on their pitching staff. Even if he does catch on with one of those teams, though, it will take the perfect storm of great performance and injuries to other players to give him an opportunity.
After just how good he looked for the Bulls, J.D. Martin just might be a pitcher who defies the odds and finds success in the major leagues despite mediocre fastball velocity. It did not work out in Tampa Bay, but hopefully Martin will get the break he has been waiting for as a member of another organization next season. Best of luck to him as he continues his quest, and may his next trip to the big leagues last a whole lot longer than one day.