What was always meant to be a challenging developmental year for Orioles shortstop Richie Martin, who was selected as the first pick in the Rule 5 draft from the Oakland Athletics after a breakout season at Double-A, certainly showed fruits by the end of the season.
Martin struggled out of the gate but took steps to simplify his swing with hitting coach Don Long and assistant hitting coach Howie Clark over the year, and though he mostly played against left-handed pitching in the second half, the Orioles will be hoping his late-season turnaround was legitimate.
Depending on where and what you look at, you might be able to support that.
Overall, Martin entered the All-Star break batting .166 with a .507 OPS and hit .284 with a .713 OPS after it, the most outward sign of improvement imaginable. He was also put in better situations as the season went on instead of just playing every day, but that only paints some of the picture.
Martin had 68 plate appearances against left-handers in the second half out of 111 total, and hit .344 with a 117 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) in those trips, as compared to a wRC+ of 40 and a .195 average in the remainder of his plate appearances against right-handers.
Both are improvements from the first half, with Martin batting .172 with a 36 wRC+ against lefties before the break and .160 with a 25 wRC+ against righties. The improvement against left-handers, however, aided most of his surge.
What’s unclear, on the surface, is where that came from. According to FanGraphs, his batted ball profile largely remained the same, though his soft contact rate dropped from 26.5 percent to 19.1 percent. He did, however, put the ball in play more in the second half. Martin’s strikeout rate dropped from 31.8 percent in the first half to 18 percent in the second half, and a corresponding rise in batting average on balls in play (.228 to .333) meant a fair amount of those at-bats when he wasn’t striking out were going for hits.
The only other significant change was that he pulled the ball less often in the second half, with 37.2 percent batted balls going to the left side before the break and 23.5 percent after.
What’s clear is that the Orioles found, at least in 2019, a good hitting situation for their Rule 5 rookie as the season went on. What’s less clear is what that will look like going forward. Martin doesn’t need to be on the major league roster all year because he satisfied the roster stipulations of his selection by remaining on the major league roster this season.
That opens up the possibility of him getting time in Triple-A to work on his game in a low-pressure environment — something that the new front office showed they felt was important this year. Whether they start him in the minors will say a lot about what they think of his improvement in the second half.
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Martin’s a perfectly serviceable defender, so if they think the best way to develop him from the small side of a platoon into something more is in the minors, that will be the play. If his overall improvement is legitimate in their eyes, then that developmental spell will no longer be a requirement.