The outcome was all but decided. The Dodgers led the San Diego Padres 9-0 in the ninth inning Tuesday at Petco Park. A position player had already pitched an inning for the Padres. The towel was thrown. All Russell Martin had to do was secure three outs without combusting.
For most position players, getting those outs without giving up a run would’ve been a luxury. But Martin’s expectations are different than most of his peers. His 0.00 earned-run average was at stake, and when Ty France smacked his first pitch for a leadoff double, it was time to bear down. Whatever that means.
“The goal is to just throw strikes and then just compete, really,” the 36-year-old catcher said. “I mean, it’s not like I have a huge arsenal of pitches that I can use.”
Austin Allen presented a challenge but Martin struck him out on the seventh pitch of the at-bat — an 88-mph fastball up and in out of the strike zone that Allen couldn’t catch up to. Martin got Hunter Renfroe to ground out and Francisco Mejia to pop out on a 3-2 fastball to end the game. With that, Martin became the first position player — excluding two-way players — to pitch in a shutout win since October 1917.
Martin threw 16 pitches, 10 for strikes. He’s thrown 45 pitches in four innings across four appearances this season. Three of those outings have come with Los Angeles leading. He’s given up two hits, hasn’t walked a batter, and struck out two. Most importantly, he hasn’t allowed a run.
Martin outlined a few factors he believes have contributed to his success. First, as a catcher, he has a deep knowledge of opposing hitters. He attends prep meetings in his usual role. He knows hitters’ tendencies and remembers their hot and cold zones. He understands which pitches they prefer. Then there are the thousands of throws he’s made from behind the plate. When trying to throw out a runner, command is paramount. He also has some experience, even if it came a long time ago.
“I pitched when I was a kid,” Martin said. “So I think all those things help.”
Martin figures he’s a product of the era. Most hitters nowadays have loft to their swings. They want to hit the ball in the air and are hunting for low pitches. Martin lives up in the strike zone.
“Maybe if it was like eight years ago, I might get absolutely raked out there, but everybody’s working on getting that low ball now,” Martin said.
So how does a right-handed pitcher who has topped out at 90 mph get away with pitching up in the zone?
“He’s pretty good,” Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler said. “He’s got some spin rate. You guys should check his numbers.”
The higher a fastball’s spin rate spin, the more it appears to rise and resist gravity. That generates more swings and misses. According to Statcast, Martin’s average spin rate is 2200 rpm, higher than average for someone whose average fastball velocity is 86.8 mph.
Martin relies primarily on a four-seam fastball, but he has also thrown a slider — he noted he can drop down against righties — and a slower curveball. He said he has a two-seam fastball but hasn’t thrown it yet. Same goes for his changeup, but he plans on using it if he gets another chance. Varying his delivery’s timing adds another wrinkle.
He said he’s occasionally worked on pitching over the course of the season, but nothing more than messing around. He doesn’t throw off a mound or put time into fine-tuning the craft. He said he thinks he could sit in the mid 90s if he spent a period of time perfecting his mechanics. For now, he’ll settle for a fastball in the upper 80s and a pristine ERA.
“I’ll just compete because it’s who I am,” Martin said. “And I have an ERA to protect. But that’s it.”
Justin Turner said he had not heard from Major League Baseball about his appeal after the league gave him a one-game suspension Tuesday. . . . Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said infielder Gavin Lux, the Dodgers’ top prospect, is “in the conversation” to play for the Dodgers this season when rosters expand. Roberts said Lux will be with the team, either on the roster or in an apprenticeship-type role. . . . Ross Stripling (neck) threw three simulated innings and is expected to come off the injured list early next week. . . . Seven Dodgers minor leaguers are slated to play in the Arizona Fall League: right-handed pitchers Mitchell White, Marshall Kasowski, Brett de Geus, and Gerardo Carrillo, outfielder Jeren Kendall, infielder Devin Mann and infielder Omar Estevez.