Seth Martinez

Seth Martinez

If there’s been a common theme during the Houston Astros’ current run of sustained success, it has been their ability to find an endless supply of pitching. In spite of losing stars like George Springer and Carlos Correa, and even Gerrit Cole, they’ve remained a fixture at the top of MLB and the American League.

And it has been on the back of said pitching. Current starting rotation fixtures like Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy and Luis Garcia were not highly heralded prospects. And though the subject of this week’s Cowboys Corral spotlight is a reliever as a opposed to a starter, he fits the mold of a diamond in the rough like the players mentioned above.

This week’s feature is on Space Cowboys reliever Seth Martinez, who recently returned to Sugar Land after spending the last few months performing well in a relief role in Houston before falling victim to a numbers game.

Initial overview

The Oakland Athletics initially picked Martinez in the 17th round of the 2016 MLB draft following a three-season career at Arizona State in which he compiled a 3.50 ERA in 244 innings – including a 2.75 ERA in 111.1 innings his senior season.

After three seasons in Oakland’s minor league system, the Astros took Martinez in the 2020 Rule 5 draft. In parts of the last two seasons in Sugar Land, Martinez has a 2.94 ERA in 67.1 innings with 89 strikeouts and a 0.97 WHIP. For his minor league career, he has amassed a 3.08 ERA in 313 innings in parts of six seasons.

He has been with the Astros for much of the season and excelled, posting a 2.48 ERA with 31 strikeouts and a 1.04 WHIP in 32.2 innings while allowing opponents just a .180 batting average against him, but was optioned back to Sugar Land earlier this month with the activation of Lance McCullers Jr. from the Injured List.

Landan’s lowdown

Martinez is not going to light up any radar guns, possessing a fastball that sits around 91-92 miles per hour as well as a slider, changeup, and cutter. But like with any pitcher, it’s not necessarily about the raw arsenal – it’s about utilizing it in the manner that plays to someone’s strengths.

Prior to coming to Houston, Martinez was averaging about 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings with about a 21 percent strikeout rate. But in two seasons in Sugar Land, he has upped that to 11.9 K/9 along with a 33.1 percent strikeout rate. So how has he done it? Let’s dig in

Martinez has been primarily a fastball/slider guy in recent seasons, and stuck to that trend in Houston, having thrown those pitches a combined 62 percent of the time with the Astros this season. It has been about the same in Sugar Land as well, and it has led to significant success.

In addition to the elevated strikeout rate, Martinez has been able to do what several Astros’ major and minor league pitchers have done – in the absence of the strikeout, he has been able to induce suboptimal contact when the ball is put in play.

He is a heavy fly ball pitcher (generally around 30-35 percent for his minor league career), which in theory would not play well in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. However, not all fly balls are created equal. About 42 percent of the balls put into play in the air against Martinez in parts of two seasons in Sugar Land are classified by Fangraphs as “infield fly balls.” Those are essentially pop-ups – which, along with ground balls, are the least likely batted balls to be base hits.

That trend has continued in Houston. Though the 18.3 percent infield fly ball rate is down from his Triple-A rate, it is well above the MLB average of 10.3 percent. So he has consistently produced either suboptimal contact or high strikeout rates (or both) since his Rule 5 selection, which is a major factor in why he has excelled during his short time in Houston – no matter the level.

Truthfully, there is not a lot for Martinez to prove at the minor league level at this stage of his development. It’s simply a question of when he will be back in Houston.

Projection

Martinez has already proven to be a revelation this season, and appears to be another diamond in the rough discovered by the Astros. He has gone from relative afterthought to being an asset in the bullpen this year in a variety of game situations – he simply fell victim to the numbers game in the bullpen when McCullers was activated a couple of weeks ago. He should be back up in the week or so when rosters expand for September. And by virtue of being under club control through the end of the 2027 season, I would certainly look for him to be a mainstay in the Houston bullpen for years to come.

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