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Oakland A’s prospect watch: Richie Martin hitting his way back to relevancy in Double-A

The 2015 first-round pick is finally living up to his draft stock.

Game face: On
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Not all prospects follow the same path in their development, and Richie Martin is the latest reminder of that. He was a 1st-round draft pick in 2015, but after two full seasons of traversing nagging injuries and doing nothing at the plate he had more or less fallen off the prospect radar. Now he’s back with a vengeance in Double-A Midland, enjoying by far the best stretch of play in his entire pro career, and it’s time for us to have a serious talk about him.

Two of our last three Midland updates were headlined by Martin, but he keeps upping the ante and earning more attention. First was the news in late-April that he was joining the lineup after an early-season injury, and then in mid-May we took our initial look at the beginning stages of this current hot streak. He hasn’t stopped hitting since, and his numbers are starting to jump off the page.

Martin, 2018: .350/.414/.521, 145 wRC+, 1 HR, 8.9% BB, 16.6% Ks, 8-for-11 SB

He’s always made plenty of contact, with that current K-rate being around normal for him, but his batted balls are finally doing something. Granted, his .421 BABIP is playing a role in all of this, but it’s also pretty clear that he’s earning some of that good fortune by making better contact. On May 10 his groundball rate stood at an absurd 64.1%, and now it’s down to a somewhat more reasonable 57.9%, along with a significant career-high in line drives (24.6%). He’s already nearly set a career-high in extra-base hits:

2016: 21 XBH in 400 PAs
2017: 23 XBH in 423 PAs
2018: 18 XBH in 157 PAs

The first signs of his eruption came around May 3, when he went on a quick five-game hitting streak and collected a handful of extra-base knocks along the way. However, it kicked into full blast on May 11, and since then he’s posted 13 multi-hit games over his last 21 outings. His numbers over those 94 plate appearances:

Martin, last 21 games: .440/.489/.667, 202 wRC+, 14 XBH, 8.5% BB, 13.8% Ks

He’ll probably never hit a lot of homers, but he’s using his line drives and plus speed to find his share of extra bases. It remains to be seen how much of this success he can sustain, and there’s no magic demarcation line between small sample and true breakout, but at some point this can’t be a complete fluke. Is the 23-year-old finally turning a corner and living up to his prospect pedigree?

What makes Martin even more interesting is that he’s a glove-first player — he was drafted as a top-notch defender at shortstop, and that was the carrying skill that defined him. The available advanced metrics haven’t always been impressed, but for what it’s worth he’s earned positive marks so far this year. Even if he’s only half as good as was advertised at the time of his draft, he could still be the best fielder that Oakland has had at short in recent memory. The question was always if his bat would catch up, and now suddenly it’s doing so — and thanks to that defensive value he can regress plenty from his .350 average and still be quite productive.

If Martin continues to hit, and especially if he earns his way up to Triple-A this summer, then there will be some interesting decisions to make on the depth chart. Until now shortstop has been a position where the A’s have stashed the least-bad defensive option, so as to squeeze an extra bat into the lineup. For a while it was Pasta Diving Lowrie, then they molded Marcus Semien into an acceptable fielder, and the next in line seemed to be a competition between offense-first guys trying to stick there. Franklin Barreto already appears destined for 2B, so Jorge Mateo was the next-best imminent hope at SS.

However, a successful Martin (if this isn’t all a mirage) would give the A’s a legitimate two-way shortstop. Who would move to make room in Nashville? Mateo to another position like CF, or even back down to Midland to get his struggling bat on track? If Martin knocks on Oakland’s door then does that mean it’s time to trade Semien soon, or can he become a Pinderian super-sub? We’re a long way off from having to answer those questions, but for the first time we can at least begin raising them. With Barreto and Mateo there were always alternate positional arrangements to consider, but if Martin makes it then it will definitely be at shortstop.

It’s hard to call the breakout of a 1st-round pick surprising, but in this case it is. Martin looked like a lost cause when May began, and then for the last month he was the most exciting name in the entire system. Stay tuned to find out where this story goes next!

Note: Stats above do not count Sunday’s game, already in progress. He’s 0-for-3 so far.

Rest of lineup

Quick update on the other top names in Midland’s lineup.

White, IF: .314/.384/.493, 131 wRC+, 5 HR, 9.9% BB, 22.8% Ks
Murphy, C: .312/.355/.518, 126 wRC+, 4 HR, 4.3% BB, 17.4% Ks
Ramirez, OF: .289/.371/.448, 117 wRC+, 4 HR, 9.9% BB, 27.2% Ks

Note: Stats don’t include Sunday’s game. See bottom of post for update.

That’s Eli White, who has played at least a dozen games at each of 2B, SS, and 3B. He’s also second on the team with nine steals (in 12 tries). Sean Murphy hasn’t homered in a month but is still holding his own at the plate in the meantime. Tyler Ramirez is in a dire slump, though not because he’s lost his BABIP touch. Over his last 23 games (102 PAs), he’s hitting .239 with a 70 wRC+ but still maintaining a huge .356 BABIP — the problem is his 32.4% strikeout rate in that span, coupled with a loss of power and walks.

Pitching staff

The big name on the Hounds staff is Jesus Luzardo, who is probably the A’s overall top prospect now. However, he put up a rare stinker on Thursday (3⅔ ip, 5 runs, 6 Ks, 2 BB, 8 hits, 1 HR). He still has strong numbers overall, but an occasional bad game helps us know that he’s being challenged by his competition rather than wasting his time at too low a level.

Luzardo: 3.72 ERA, 29 ip, 32 Ks, 9 BB, 3 HR, 3.93 FIP
Shore: 3.09 ERA, 11⅔ ip, 10 Ks, 4 BB, 1 HR, 4.09 FIP
Ruiz: 5.21 ERA, 48⅓ ip, 30 Ks, 14 BB, 7 HR, 5.19 FIP

The other top prospect here is Logan Shore, who has survived his first two starts in the upper minors. Norge Ruiz has thrown only three quality starts in 10 tries, and his homer rate is alarming in a pitcher’s park.

No one in the bullpen is really standing out. The most notable name is Nolan Blackwood, who made our CPL last winter. Beyond him, John Gorman has a low K-rate but a strong K/BB (24 ip, 17 Ks, 3 BB), and lefty Cody Stull has an ugly ERA (5.33) but an intriguing FIP (2.60). Both Gorman and Stull are 26 years old, though, so they’re not exactly youngsters.

Blackwood: 3.31 ERA, 21⅔ ip, 18 Ks, 8 BB, 1 HR, 3.74 FIP

Finally, in terms of player movement, starter Ben Bracewell and lefty reliever Dean Kiekhefer both moved up to Triple-A Nashville. Some other pitchers have made brief cameos up there as the Sounds have shuffled their staff to accommodate the A’s needs, but my guess is those two guys are there to stay. Bracewell was in Triple-A last year and was pitching well in Midland’s rotation, and Kiekhefer only needs to compete with org filler Jeremy Bleich to be the next southpaw on Oakland’s depth chart.

In their place is a curious addition: left-hander Pat Krall, from the 28th round of last summer’s draft. That immediately makes him the most advanced member of the 2017 class, as the only one to have tasted the upper minors at all. He only appeared in Rookie Ball last year so it remains to be seen if this is another emergency fill-in, or if Krall earned the jump as some kind of polished performer. He stands 6’6 and the A’s are desperate for lefties throughout the system, so it wouldn’t shock me to see him stick in Midland. He’s made two appearances so far, including earning a hold in Sunday’s win (total: 4⅓ ip, 2 runs, 2 Ks, 1 BB).

Sunday’s games

Full slate of action.

Triple-A Nashville: Won 3-2, Bullpen Game vs. Round Rock
Double-A Midland: Won 5-2, Joel Seddon vs. NW Arkansas
High-A Stockton: 6:00 p.m., Dustin Hurlbutt v. Visalia
Single-A Beloit: Lost 11-7, Xavier Altamirano vs. Quad Cities

For Nashville, Barreto starred at the plate (4-for-5, HR, double), and Wahl, Wendelken, and Kiekhefer carried the pitching load. For Midland, Murphy tripled and walked, and Eli made noise with two walks, a steal, and two runs scored. For Beloit, Austin Beck had three hits and a walk.

Link to box scores