VIERA, Fla. — Across the organization, the Nationals use a tracking system that measures detailed and granular information about pitching, such as the revolutions per minutes of a baseball. Spin, of course, helps determine the movement of a pitch. More spin makes it harder for a batter to figure out. An average major league fastball is known to spin at 2,200 RPM. Gio Gonzalez’s curveball, one of the best in baseball when he is healthy, spins at 2,800 RPM.
A reliever at Class AAA Syracuse last season you probably don’t know much about — his name Rafael Martin — threw his slider at 3,000 RPM. “That’s upper echelon level,” said Paul Menhart, Syracuse’s pitching coach last year but now the Nationals’ minor league pitching coordinator.
Martin, who will be 31 in May, has a fascinating story. He didn’t begin his career in professional baseball until he was 25 after working construction at home in Riverside, Calif. He pitched in Mexico after catching a scout’s eye at a tryout. There, he developed into a legitimate commodity, eventually signing with the Nationals in February 2010 after they purchased his contract from the Mexican team he played for.
But after some injury struggles — a shoulder cleanup in 2012 and an elbow cleanup in 2013 — Martin made his story even more fascinating last year. He had a strong 2013 season but an otherworldly 2014. Across Class AA Harrisburg and Syracuse, Martin fired 47 straight innings without allowing an earned run.
Even more insane? He was scored on in only two of his 38 outings last season. Both times, he had two outs. He was TWO outs away from a perfect season.
“He has a very good presence on the mound,” Menhart said. “And he has the confidence to put the ball where he wants it.”
Martin, who has never pitched in the majors, finished last year with a 1.39 ERA across three levels over 58 1/3 innings, including an 0.80 ERA at Syracuse. In other words, in 33 2/3 innings at Syracuse, Martin allowed only three earned runs. He struck out 42 batters (an 11.2 K/9 rate) and walked only seven. He wracked up those eye-popping numbers with the help of his stellar slider.
Martin said he changed his slider grip while playing winter ball in Mexico in 2008 when an Oakland Athletics scout told him that if he wanted to make the big leagues he needed a slider that didn’t act like a curveball. So he told Martin how to change his grip. Martin did, moving his fingers around the ball and holding it like a cutter.
“It got better spin and it was harder,” Martin said. “At first it was 83-85 (mph). Now it’s like 80-82. It has really good spin. That’s pretty much my go-to pitch.” Added Menhart: “It looks like just like his fastball. It makes it hard to detect.”
If you didn’t know that about Martin, you would think his arsenal isn’t very daunting. It’s not overpowering: his fastball sits between 89-91 mph and he rarely throws his change-up. But his fastball moves, his slider moves a lot and his command is good.
“My main thing is not walking guys,” he said. “Good things happen when you don’t.”
Martin wasn’t called up in September and he has used that for motivation. He is in Nationals’ big league spring training camp as a non-roster invitee, for the first time in three years, and has allowed one run in five innings. The numbers of players in camp has been whittled down over the weeks and Martin still remains. He is a long-shot to make the opening day roster and behind younger arms such as Aaron Barrett and Blake Treinen, neither of whom has allowed an earned run this spring. But that doesn’t mean Martin couldn’t factor into the Nationals’ season somehow and that his story isn’t captivating.
“I feel like I can contribute to this team,” Martin said. “I know we’re stacked and stuff. But I could see myself getting an opportunity during the season some time. For me, it’s just staying healthy because the last few years of surgery. … I just take this (spring) for what it is: Take full advantage and give it all that I’ve got.”