The Best Prospect You’ve Never Heard Of
By Evan Lepler
July 14, 2011
Red Sox fans are the most knowledgeable in baseball, but it is doubtful that many, if any, have heard of Chris Martin. That is understandable, for most scouting services fail to comb through appliance warehouses in Arlington, Texas, in search of guys who can throw baseballs 95 miles per hour. But Martin, a 6’7” righty who effortlessly throws mid-90s heat, stands on the verge of completing the unprecedented transition: A little more than a year ago, he was the really tall guy in the appliance store; now, he is the most underrated prospect in the Boston Red Sox organization.
“It was not fun at all,” says Martin, the 25-year-old Texan, about his time working in the warehouse near his home. “I stocked, I got customers their appliances, I loaded them up, I installed them. That’s pretty much it… I didn’t think I’d ever play again.”
Martin’s baseball career had been cut short by injury and missed opportunity. He was drafted by the Tigers out of high school in 2004 and by the Rockies after his first year at McLennan Community College in 2005, but never signed a professional contract. As a sophomore, he suffered from a minor fraying of his labrum, a condition that necessitated surgery, seemingly derailing his chances to ever capitalize on his massive raw potential.
“I hung it up,” he said. “It was a pretty rough time. But I had family and friends that were on my side and got me back in the game.”
He turned to a local men’s league to reenter the baseball realm. A friend had been bugging him to give it a try, so he showed up, pitched one inning, threw nine fastballs, and struck out the side. Immediately, he knew that he could pursue a higher level of competition.
He saw an ad in the local paper for tryouts with the nearby independent ballclub, the Grand Prairie AirHogs, of the American Association. Even though the season was already half over, Martin gave it a shot and inked his first professional baseball contract, which was worth $800 a month, a significant pay cut relative to his job in the warehouse. Managed by former major league infielder Pete Incaviglia, Martin went 4-0 with a 1.96 ERA in 13 games for the AirHogs, flashing command and velocity that were uncommon attributes for such an unknown .
“I had no idea how hard I was gonna throw,” said Martin. “It was a lot of fun, something that got my feet wet in professional ball. I feel like it was pretty decent talent and it got me ready for affiliated ball.”
But a pathway that veered toward the Boston Red Sox organization was never a given. After compiling the sterling numbers, Martin returned to the appliance warehouse for the fall, unsure whether an opportunity would present itself. He worked, and he waited.
Baseball scouts are naturally skeptical. They hear many tall tales of mythical fastballs, only to arrive at a country schoolyard and witness far less zip than they had been initially led to believe. When Red Sox pro scout Jaymie Bane first was called about Martin, that common skepticism surfaced.
“Pete [Incaviglia] called me and said ‘you need to see this guy,’” explained Bane. “He said he came at the halfway point of last year and he was throwing 94-95. We hear that a lot, by the way.
“He basically goes, ‘Jaymie, I want you to sign this kid. I don’t want anyone else to sign him. I trust you to do what you guys will do with him the right way.”
Bane responded by saying that the Red Sox had a workout coming up in Fort Myers, and Martin was welcome to attend if he could afford the trip. Believing in himself, Martin paid for his own plane ticket and journeyed to the Red Sox minor league complex in Florida.
“It was nervewracking,” Martin recalls. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I kinda went out there and did the best that I could…They pulled me in the office after I threw and said they would give me a shot in spring training, and I guess I did well in spring training so they signed me at the end.”
As you might expect, the Red Sox did their homework on Martin before inviting him to try out.
“The research was done before we brought him to Florida,” said Bane. “We talked to the high school coach, talked to the junior college coach, talked to the summer coach, talked to everyone we could find who knew the kid. What’s going on? Why is this kid with such a good arm just sitting there? And everything checked out.
“He was a little bit green [when we saw him throw for the first time], but he had never pitched in front of scouts and player development people. We made a couple of suggestions to him about his mechanics and he did them and kept repeating them and kept getting better as spring training went on.”
Two weeks before his 25th birthday, Martin made his Red Sox organizational debut with the Low-A Greenville Drive, tossing two and two-thirds hitless innings out of the bullpen and earned the victory. Five days later, he dealt four shutout frames out of the pen, surrendering just one hit, to improve to 2-0. On June 24, he made his first start, blanking Lexington for six dominant innings and making it clear he was once again superior to his league.
Martin was promoted to Salem on June 29, still very much an unknown despite his solid numbers in the South Atlantic League. After all, as a 25-year-old pitcher, most of his opponents were far younger than he at that level.
But in just a few weeks in the Advanced-A circuit, Martin has shattered any expectations that even the most optimistic speculator might have had. Through five appearances in the Carolina League, Martin has pitched 11.2 innings without allowing a single run, striking out seven and only walking one, and routinely touching 96 miles per hour on the radar gun. The fans, his teammates, his coaches, and most of all, the opposing hitters have been blown away.
“I’m speechless to a point,” says Salem Manager Bruce Crabbe, “because this guy came from a tryout camp and is, knock-on-wood, head and shoulders above what we’ve seen here in this league as far as stuff goes, presence on the mound, and the way he pitches. He pitches with a downhill plane, pounds the strike zone with above-average stuff, and he’s as poised as can be for multiple-inning stints.
“I just hope I’m not jinxing him because it’s unbelievable what I’ve seen so far.”
Bane has not seen Martin pitch in person for Salem, but from reading the reports and witnessing the results, amazed does not begin to describe the feeling of astonishment.
“He’s never pitched professionally before, so it’s very surprising,” explains Bane. “Not surprising because of the stuff he has. It’s surprising because he’s never done it before, and he’s doing it in High-A, having pitched a little bit in junior college, men’s league, and a quarter to half a season independent ball, and now straight into High-A. I don’t care what his age is, his experience level is not 25 years old.”
Salem starter Ryan Pressly grew up in the same area in Texas, but had never met Martin until he joined the club in late June. Like the rest of teammates, Pressly has been overwhelmed at times by Martin’s ability.
“I never saw him in spring training,” said Pressly. “I do know that when I saw him throw in the bullpen, it definitely caught my eye. I was like, ‘wow, this guy is pretty good.’ When he took the mound and was sitting 94-96 with movement, it definitely raises a few eyebrows.”
One of the reasons Martin was initially directed to the Red Sox organization by Incaviglia was based on Boston’s success with players who have spent time in independent leagues. Bane also signed Robert Coello, who transformed from a catcher to a pitcher and made six appearances with Boston last season. Could Martin become the second independent ball pitcher signed by Bane to make the big leagues?
“He’s got a really good arm,” said Bane. “He’s just gonna have to keep going through and moving up the ladder and proving himself at every level.
“It’s a really neat story, and he’s a neat kid too.”
The closer he gets to the big leagues, the more and more fans will begin to realize how improbable a journey Martin has traveled. When he was in Greenville, one individual approached him and asked if he could write the book on his story.
“I think he was joking,” says Martin, with a chuckle.
If he makes it to Fenway, that book could be a New England bestseller.