It’s fair to say that few, if any, players have traveled a stranger, harder path to the Braves than Martin.
“It has brought me to here,” Martin, now 33, said of the journey, “and it has humbled me and definitely (made) me more grateful for baseball.”
His latest change of employers came this week, when the Braves acquired him from the Texas Rangers as part of their bullpen makeover at MLB’s trade deadline. The Braves sent a former first-round draft pick, Kolby Allard, to the Rangers in return.
Martin was a standout pitcher at Arlington High School and at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. He was drafted in the 18th round by the Detroit Tigers in 2004 out of high school and in the 21st round by the Colorado Rockies in 2005 after his freshman season at McLennan. But he didn’t sign either time, figuring he could improve his draft position by waiting and pitching.
Instead, a torn labrum in his right shoulder as a sophomore at McLennan in 2006 – and an admitted lack of interest in going to class – caused him to quit the game.
“I had surgery, and the shoulder just wasn’t responding,” he said. “I decided to quit bumming off mom and dad and went and got a job.”
Several jobs, in fact, sometimes two at once.
His dream of pitching in the big leagues yielded to the reality of working at Lowe’s, Texas Appliance and UPS.
Four years later, in 2010, Martin found himself playing catch with the warehouse manager, an old friend. He noticed the next day that his shoulder felt fine. The idea of playing baseball again began to take root.
“I missed it,” Martin said. “I had friends making debuts in the major leagues, guys I had played with in college ball. It hurt to watch those guys, but at the same time I was rooting for them. I just wanted to play baseball again. ... I was still relatively young, 24, so I decided to give it a shot.”
He contacted a friend and former JUCO teammate who was playing for the Grand Prairie AirHogs, an independent league team in Texas. The friend told him about another team in Brownsville, Texas. That team “kind of blew me off,” Martin recalled. Two weeks later, the friend called back with word of an open tryout the AirHogs were holding.
“I remember it was, like, 50 bucks for the tryout. I didn’t have it,” Martin said. “I scrounged up enough money to drive out there, and I almost turned around and left.”
Instead, he mentioned his friend’s name and was allowed to try out without paying the fee.
Pete Incaviglia, a former major-league outfielder who was the AirHogs’ manager at the time, took immediate notice of the hard-throwing 6-foot-8 right-hander, whose fastball was clocked at 95 mph that day.
“He pulled me aside,” Martin said. “He was kind of questioning me on what I had been doing. He actually asked me if I was in prison.
“He said, ‘If you want the job, you got it.’ That night, I saved the game. I had no idea what that even meant at the time.”
Martin was finally back in baseball, a long-dormant dream resurrected. One theory, as good as any, was that the years of manual labor had helped strengthen his shoulder. But the storybook ending was still years away.
“It felt better, but I remember my arm hurting a lot, going through indy ball,” Martin said. “I just told myself, ‘You have nothing to lose, just keep going, keep throwing, and maybe it’ll go away.’ I remember up until the second year in pro ball, my arm was giving me a hard time. But it finally started feeling a lot better and finally got to where I needed it to be.”
In March 2011, having heard about him from Incaviglia, the Boston Red Sox signed Martin to a minor-league contract. He worked his way up the minor-league ladder, but in December 2013, the Red Sox traded him to the Colorado Rockies.
He finally reached the big leagues at age 27 in April 2014. He pitched in 16 games that season for the Rockies, managed at the time by current Braves bench coach Walt Weiss, and posted a 6.89 ERA. The Rockies then sold him to the New York Yankees, for whom he pitched in 24 games (5.66 ERA) in 2015.
His next stop: the Nippon-Ham Fighters in Japan, where he pitched in 2016 and 2017.
“Being able to slow the mind down when things get a little hairy on the mound, that’s probably the biggest thing Japan did for me,” Martin said.
He pitched extremely well in the Japanese league, evidenced by a 1.12 ERA in 92 appearances over two seasons, and the Rangers signed him to a two-year, $4 million contract in December 2017. In the 2018 season, he had a 4.54 ERA across 46 relief appearances for Texas.
“It was a roller-coaster year,” he said of last season, “but it was a huge confidence builder. I think I took that into this year. Now I’m comfortable, and I know I belong here.”
This season, at age 33, he emerged as a bullpen force. In 38 innings across 38 games for the Rangers, he struck out 43 batters and walked only four, posting a 3.08 ERA and drawing the attention of Braves scouts.
Now the first-place Braves plan to entrust the eighth inning of high-leverage bullpen situations to the veteran of Lowe’s, Texas Appliance and UPS. He made his Braves debut Friday night, working a 1-2-3 inning.
“What I’ve gone through is just a humbling experience,” Martin said Thursday, his first day at SunTrust Park. “I’m grateful to be playing every single day and especially to be with a contender.”
He was asked if he marvels at the journey, at the sheer improbability of it all.
“I’ll look at it someday and be, like, ‘Man, that’s crazy,’” he said. “But right now I’m just kind of focused on enjoying it.”