Starter? Reliever? How the Reds plan on utilizing Martinez

February 16th, 2024

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Starter, long reliever, middle reliever, setup man or closer -- there isn’t a role new Reds pitcher isn't willing to take on. But the 33-year-old righty signed his two-year, $26 million contract in December aiming to be in the rotation.

A month after Martinez signed, the Reds added Frankie Montas through free agency to make the competition tighter. At Spring Training, Cincinnati has 10 pitchers competing for five rotation spots. Martinez was "not at all" surprised, nor threatened the Reds added more pitching.

“When it comes to depth and competition, I welcome that stuff," said Martinez, who was a starter and reliever for the Padres in 2022-23. "I think it brings out the best in us. … I haven't been shy in saying that I prefer starting, but I also find a lot of things I am passionate about as a reliever.”

One thing for sure -- the Reds aren't paying Martinez $14 million this season for mop-up work. Whatever role the veteran gets, it will often be viewed as pivotal. If he's not starting, he will be expected to protect leads.

There is an increasing premium around baseball for hybrid pitchers that can provide innings.

"There’s value in players knowing their role," Reds manager David Bell said. "Some more than others need that. The fact that he doesn't necessarily need [a role] and to be able to do what we need him to do to win games with him, there is a lot of value to that. "

Martinez expects to be in contact daily with Bell and pitching coach Derek Johnson this season regarding his availability. That's how he operated in San Diego.

“Communication is going to be vital for my preparation," Martinez said. "I'm a big believer in that as athletes, almost like soldiers, you give us an objective, and we're going to do what we can to complete that objective.”

Martinez, who spent the last two seasons as a swingman pitcher for the Padres, went 6-4 with a 3.43 ERA over team-high 63 appearances (110 1/3 innings) in 2023.

In nine starts, Martinez posted a 2.32 ERA across 42 2/3 innings. He opened last year as a starter because Joe Musgrove was on the injured list. When Musgrove returned, Martinez went into the bullpen. He returned to start games at the end of the season, when Musgrove and Yu Darvish missed time with injuries.

“I was really the only guy that could be a hybrid," Martinez said. "It was a double-edged sword. Even though I was throwing well, I went to the bullpen. That's where the need was at that time.”

Martinez didn't get an eight-figure contract only because of his versatility. He was one of baseball's better pitchers at inducing weak contact last season. According to Statcast, his average exit velocity of 84.7 mph was in the 98th percentile in MLB. His hard-hit percentage of 29.9 percent was in the 95th percentile. He had a 54 percent groundball rate, which was in the 90th percentile.

As a starter for Texas from 2014-17, Martinez had lackluster stuff and often subpar numbers. He had a 5.64 ERA over 35 games (23 starts) in his last two seasons with the Rangers.

Without a big league opportunity, Martinez went to Japan and pitched four seasons for the Nippon Ham Fighters. His oldest daughter was born there and the experience was positive.

“We loved it. We loved the culture, the lifestyle out there. We had a great time," Martinez said.

During that time, Martinez also dove completely into analytics. He got pitch design certifications from both Driveline and Rapsodo, which helped him understand data technology and use it to his advantage.

“It was an opportunity for me to hone my craft," Martinez said. "I started looking at my pitches a little bit more in depth and saw that my changeup was just a bad fastball. I started tinkering with the changeup and found the changeup that I have today, and it became a weapon. Then it enhanced all of my other pitches, and I started getting swings and misses with all of my pitches.”

It didn't all start clicking on the mound until 2021, when he was with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. He posted a 1.62 ERA in 23 games and 149 2/3 innings. That earned him a return to MLB with the Padres.

Martinez's changeup had a 26 percent swing-and-miss rate in four seasons for the Rangers while batters hit .262 against it. In two years with the Padres, it was 42 percent swing-and-miss with a .156 opponents' average.

"As long as he is who we know he is," Bell said. "He's going to help us win games.”