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Reviewing the Rise of Francis Martes

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Late season returns have been impressive for two under-the-radar righties. What's made them so unhittable, and how do they fit into the Astros long-term plans?

@RGuill-QCBanditPhotog

This is the second half of a two-part article series on the rise of a couple of previously-unhearalded prospects in the Astros system. A few weeks ago, I profiled righty Joe Musgrove and received solid feedback on the format of the review. Today, I'll profile Francis Martes in a similar fashion. If there are suggestions for other players, please add in the comments!

Before this season, you wouldn't fault a minor-league following Astros fan or anyone with a feel for farm systems for leaving Francis Martes off among the Astros top pitching prospects. Martes, more of a stocky righty at six-feet flat, was only known for having a raw, power arm as a throw-in in the Miami deal last summer. After starting his full-season debut in Quad Cities, Martes is now all the way up to Double-A Corpus as a nineteen year old righty. His almost-Altuvian rise through three levels of minor league ball has been actually well-documented this year-Martes has shown immense improvement in his offspeed pitches and a MLB-caliber fastball. No longer just a raw arm to dream on, Martes is getting some recognition from the prospect guys over at Fangraphs and should jump well into top 100 prospect lists this offseason.

In this exercise, I'll attempt to analyze what Martes has done to improve his arsenal, and how it's improved his results. Last go around, I delivered three sections on Musgrove titled, "The Stats", "The Stuff", and "The Future". I'll go over those three categories with Martes, but I'll flip the first two paragraphs to hopefully show how his pitches have buoyed the results.

Because sample size issues abound with minor league numbers and those numbers don't always mean much, I think it's important to look at the numbers and reports (velocity, delivery, makeup) as equally as possible, with maybe a little more weight on the scouting side. And when it comes to the Astros' decision on minor league promotions, we know what we don't know: sometimes guys are promoted quickly for crushing a level. Other times, they're kept down even when performing well, presumably to work through small issues with instructors. Just quoting a bunch of pitching stats doesn't make a pitching prospect, so I'll do my best to reflect on the statistics, while keeping the scouting perspective in focus.

The Stuff

I can't think of another pitching prospect who's translated this much improvement in a variety of pitches over the course of one season, especially at age 19. In a Fangraphs article from last October evaluating the Astros' system, Martes was given a small footnote with other young international guys.

"RHP Francis Martes, acquired in the Moran deal, will be developed as starter, has good frame and makeup, is into mid-90’s but is still a raw arm that’s mostly arm strength right now"

That's no knock against FG's prospect guy Kiley McDaniel, because that's exactly what Martes was. Something clicked this offseason, and the arsenal has made a considerable leap into a future ace starter kit.

Martes has always been a power guy, but the fastball has jumped to the upper tiers of the nineties, topping out at 98 mph. He mostly sits in the mid-nineties, with the low end around 93. That's top of the rotation fastball stuff. The pitch also can feature a lot of late bite, especially with arm-side run on right-handed hitters. That'll be a hugely valuable twist on the fastball in the big leagues, with the ability to pitch inside to right-handed hitters. It's safe to assume that Martes' fastball is already a plus pitch, and has flashed "elite" at times.

If there's ever a starting pitcher that makes a giant leap forward, it usually comes with improvement in secondary, offspeed offerings. Martes' case is no different. Martes' best secondary pitch is a wicked curveball with above-average velocity in the mid 80s. He throws the pitch with surprisingly solid command, mixing it in and out of the zone as a backdoor strike or as a chase offering in the dirt. James Chapman from Fangraphs wrote a better summary on Martes than I can do (so you should read that also), and had this to say about Martes' curve:

"Martes’ breaking ball is a nasty swing-and-miss offering that will quite simply torment batters at the highest level."

Good way to describe it. Martes finishes off his arsenal with a changeup that's improved to about average, and again features better than average velocity at 88-89 mph. If we're keeping score at home, Martes can throw three MLB quality pitches at the moment, and receives solid feedback on his command of all three pitches and his ability to sequence them in games.

Here's a short video from Fangraphs that shows Martes facing hitters in what looks like extended spring training:

Two points of interest: Martes shows his breaking stuff with a solid backdoor curve around the :32 mark. It's a pretty impressive offering, and the hitter has no chance. The last pitch of the video is one of his plus fastballs up and in (around the :42 mark). That one is way out of the zone, but it's the arm-side run that will get even advanced hitters to chase.

The Stats

Martes' results have backed up his stuff, big time. For this exercise, I'll throw out Martes' two Double-A Corpus debut from last Friday, because  the sample size doesn't make the inclusion a good statistical practice. For what it's worth, Martes' numbers in two starts, following last night's start: 10.2 IP, 5.06 ERA, 12 strikeouts and 6 walks allowed. Those numbers won't be included in the visuals below.

In 87 innings between Quad Cities and Lancaster, Martes posted a 1.68 ERA/2.79 FIP, 8.65 K/9 and a 24.05% K-rate. Martes's QC and Lancaster numbers have two big selling points; his extreme lack of home runs allowed (especially at the Hangar) and a bump in strikeout rate against better competition in High-A ball compared to Quad Cities. There really aren't any statistical concerns for Martes; it's a difficult set of stats to look at, because his professional sample size and time in the minors is still so limited.

Here's a visual on Martes' ERA and FIP over the course of two years (2014 numbers were totaled over 44 innings, because of sample and rookie ball doesn't really matter).

Martes' FIP has outperformed his ERA a bit this season, but as we can see it's never breached that 3.00 line so that's relative. Martes' overall peripherals (based on FIP) have been, to use an Ashbyism, intriguing. Though the ERA in Lancaster jumped (big surprise), the FIP was constant across both QC and Lancaster. So, Martes has consistently pitched at the 2.80 range over the course of 87 innings this season when we take out iffy minor league fielding and park factors.

The ERA jump in Lancaster can be singularly attributed to an increase in hits allowed. Martes' strikeout rates increased and walk rates decreased in Lancaster shown below.

Martes was striking 3% more hitters in Lancaster (a pretty significant clip) and walking a tick fewer compared to his time in Quad Cities. The peripherals were there, but the WHIP increased pretty considerably, where BABIP played a role with some bad luck. Here's a visual of Martes' WHIP and BABIP:

From the last two visuals, we can determine that the increase in WHIP can't be from walks, as the BB% decreased in Lancaster. The BABIP increased dramatically from .229 to .309 with the jump, so that's where the hits and increased WHIP came from. There are quite a few issues with Martes' BABIP over the course of short minor league stints- the statistic sometimes doesn't even normalize over a full season of innings for pitchers. Martes was a bit unlucky during his time in Lancaster, due to the ball travelling so well off the bat in the Cal League and the possibility of a suspect minor league defense behind him. Those two factors could've caused more hits to get through the infield. However, his averaged BABIP results in 2015 actually favor his luck (.269) which just shows the volatility of the stat.

The Future

The stats back it up- Martes has been as nearly as dominant as the recent surge in his stuff suggests. He's striking out older hitters in these minor league levels at solid rates, limiting walks, and even working around a slight uptick in bad BABIP luck to post the same FIP in Lancaster that he did in Quad Cities. There's still development and coaching to do after only two starts in Corpus; don't be surprised in Martes encounters a few obstacles facing much more advanced hitters given his age. After all, he was pitching in Rookie Ball last summer.

But there's reason to be extremely excited about Martes' future in Houston. He already has one of the most powerful, commandable fastballs in the entire organization (behind McCullers and Velasquez, but velocity-wise there's not really anyone who matches up). He's also received good feedback on his mound demeanor and makeup, which will all find their ways into his ability to be coached down the line. A major league ETA of mid-2017 sounds pretty reasonable to me; he'll need another full year of advanced minor league ball under his belt, but there's a lot to like in Martes' future as a major league starter.