That the Braves needed relief help down the stretch was no secret: on the day of the Trade Deadline, the Braves literally had the worst bullpen in baseball. As part of the relief corps remodeling, Alex Anthopoulos and the rest of Atlanta’s Front Office acquired Chris Martin from the Texas Rangers on July 30, sending former first-round pick Kolby Allard to Arlington in exchange.
What were the expectations?
As noted when the Braves added Martin, the projection systems figured he was good for somewhere between 0.2 and 0.4 wins for the final two months of the year. That’s a solid relief pace, and a far cry from the never-ceasing tire fire that had been the Atlanta bullpen to that point, but it wasn’t manna from reliever heaven or anything.
What went right in 2019?
It turns out those expectations were too modest... in some ways.
Martin made 20 appearances for the Braves in the regular season, pitching 17 2⁄3 innings. In those appearances, he had a deliciously-sterling 1.63 FIP and 2.24 xFIP (37 FIP-, 50 xFIP-). That gave him 0.5 fWAR as a Brave, which matched his 0.5 fWAR as a Ranger, accrued over more than twice as many innings. In the end, he ended his season with a combined 71 ERA-, 69 FIP-, and 60 xFIP-, which should get the 33-year-old a nice chunk of change from some team this coming offseason.
As a Brave, Martin had a handful of big, key outings. The one where he reaped the most WPA was on August 23, when he threw a 1-2-3 inning against the Mets in a 1-1 tie during the bottom of the ninth. He struck out Joe Panik, allowed a single to Pete Alonso, and then got Michael Conforto to hit into a double play. (The Braves would win in 14 innings.)
What went wrong in 2019?
Weirdly enough, kind of everything else. After getting lucky in some respects in Texas (3.08 ERA on the back of a 4.00 FIP, albeit a 2.94 xFIP), in large part due to a 93.5 percent strand rate (wow), things didn’t quite hold up in the same way for Martin in Atlanta. His strand rate basically halved, from north of 93 percent to 48.2 percent, and while he got more grounders and allowed fewer homers, those strand rate shenanigans resulted in a 4.08 ERA on the back of his awesome 1.63 FIP and 2.24 xFIP.
(Note that he actually outpitched his xwOBA by nearly .040 in wOBA terms as a Brave... this was all strand rate [or a lack thereof], as the .356 BABIP-against as a Brave is in line with his expected stats.)
This accursed lack of run prevention tanked Martin’s context-specific performance. He finished his two months as a Brave with a -0.40 WPA, including four outings where he cost the team 0.10 WPA or more. By comparison, he only had two outings where he added 0.10 WPA or more. As a Brave, he had 11 times as many strikeouts (22) as walks and homers combined (one each), yet still ended up allowing runs at a league-average rate. C’est la reliever vie.
A good example of the stuff that befell him: on August 14, he was asked to help the Braves maintain a 1-0 lead in the seventh, after Sean Newcomb allowed a two-out single to Steven Matz (yes, Steven Matz). He did not maintain the lead. Amed Rosario hit a flare that put both him in Matz in scoring position, and then J.D. Davis hit a 67.4 mph exit velocity blooper into no-man’s land that scored both runs. Martin then got Alonso to fly out to center on a can of corn, but the 1-0 lead had become a 2-1 deficit, on the back of three balls in play with an average exit velocity of 82.7 mph. (Luckily, the Braves went ham on Seth Lugo immediately afterwards, scoring five runs and eventually winning the game 6-4.)
More went wrong-ness ensued later, as Martin suffered his first meaningful injury in over a season in Game 1 of the NLDS, taking the hill and then departing the game (and the roster, and the Braves) before throwing a pitch with an oblique problem. (By that I don’t mean his problem was furtive in any way, I mean he hurt his oblique muscle.) The Braves lost that game due to a bullpen conflagration, and you know how the rest of it goes.
What to expect in 2020?
This isn’t an easy question to answer, owing to his reliever nature. He could be good again. He could be bad. He could grow a second head, and then a third head. He could convert to a power-hitting first baseman. Who knows? Some team will probably pay money to investigate how good he’s capable of being going forward. It might even be the Braves!