If re-signing Darren O’Day (on November 8) and then signing Will Smith (on November 15) wasn’t enough to persuade you that the Atlanta Braves are determined to ensure that a middling bullpen doesn’t hold them back in next year’s NL East competition, yesterday’s agreement with 33-year-old Chris Martin should be enough evidence to convince you that Alex Anthopoulos is taking 2020 seriously.
In one sense, it’s not a great sign for Atlanta that Anthopoulos feels he has to spend this heavily on his bullpen, rather than taking a run at a front-line starting pitcher to pair with Mike Soroka, or another big bat to help put an already-strong offense over the top (their .332 wOBA last year was third-best in the National League but behind both Los Angeles and, perhaps more importantly, Washington).
Signing Martin for two years and $14 million, as the Braves have just done, puts the 2020 Atlanta payroll at an estimated $119 million, which despite ranking solidly in the bottom third of National League clubs, is right around the upper limit of what ownership has been comfortable spending in recent years. Ideally, at least from a payroll perspective, a few more of the Braves’ recently-vaunted young pitchers would have transformed into quality bullpen arms (and not in the Sean Newcomb way), thereby freeing up dollars for other parts of the roster.
Still, you can only work within the reality you inhabit, and Anthopoulos appears to have concluded that, by moving quickly, he can shore up a bullpen that posted a 4.49 FIP last year (16th) before other teams have a chance to react. And in the service of that goal, re-signing someone just like Chris (Martin) is an excellent move indeed. When the Braves first acquired Martin’s services from the Rangers in a trade back in July, Ben Clemens noted that although Martin was already in the middle of an excellent season.
Moving out of Texas could help him take another step forward. He’s giving up 1.89 HR/9, which is quite high for an otherwise effective reliever. But part of the problem is Globe Life Park, the Rangers home field and one of the most dinger-prone ballparks in the majors. SunTrust Park is much more neutral, and you’d imagine that his 25% HR/FB will come down.
Imagine no longer, friends, because Chris Martin posted an 8.3% HR/FB rate in 17.2 innings for Atlanta to end the season with a 20.5% mark. His other numbers got better, too: His FIP dropped from 4.00 to 1.63, his strikeout rate jumped from 29.3% to 31.9%, and his walk rate dropped from a minuscule 2.7% to a microscopic 1.5%. From July 31st on, no National League reliever posted a lower FIP, or walked a lower share of all batters faced, than Martin did. Ben Clemens, folks.
Although Martin is, of course, beginning to enter into that phase of his career in which catastrophic decline could arrive at any moment, I’m largely sanguine about his potential for success over the next two years. His velocity is high enough that he can lose a tick or two and still dominate batters, and while he was with Atlanta, he went more heavily to a sinking fastball — developed in 2018, while he was still with Texas, but never thrown more than 10% of the time until he arrived in Atlanta — to keep batters off balance and steal a strike, especially early in counts.
In any event, Anthopoulos’s other bullpen acquisitions — not to mention the continued presence of Mark Melancon and Shane Greene — mean that Martin won’t have to be exceptional in the way he was last year to help Atlanta’s ‘pen in 2020. Just having him on roster from Opening Day forward will be an upgrade for the Braves, and Melancon’s presence will help to limit the number of high-stress innings he’ll have to throw at the end of games. I suspect, also, that Atlanta’s new relief acquistions will mean that the Braves will feel more comfortable using some of their lower-tier pitching depth to trade for other needs. That’s all to the good.
Chris Martin getting paid is good as well, on its own terms. Martin famously lived Dennis Quaid’s part in The Rookie, working at Lowe’s and UPS after going undrafted before realizing, four years after he’d given up his dream for good, that his arm felt just fine. Now he’s going to make $14 million playing baseball for a living. That’s pretty cool. Frankly, I suspect Martin could have held out for a little more money if he’d wanted to (I proposed the Astros as a potential destination last week), but I can also completely understand the inclination to stay with the team he knows and enjoy that Thanksgiving turkey next week worry-free. He’s earned that right.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.