The Cubs loaded up in the 2021 MLB Draft. Jordan Wicks is throwing multiple plus pitches for South Bend. James Triantos is on a tear and is now an above-average hitter as a 19-year-old in Myrtle Beach. Both Drew Gray and Christian Franklin showcase dazzling skills as they work back from injuries. However one of the strongest performers in the entire class is one of the most unheralded players in the organization… for now. While he settles in at South Bend, it’s time to pay attention to Riley Martin.
Martin’s ascendance to professional pitcher wasn’t a guarantee during his time at Division II Quincy University. After several solid seasons at QU, Martin entered the 2020 season with high expectations for his team. In an all too familiar story, the lefthander had his senior year canceled because of the pandemic. Martin faced a hard decision: should he forgo his extra year of eligibility to enter doctoral training to be a pharmacist, or should he come back for one more year to address unfinished business? The lefty chose the latter, and he did so with a purpose. That offseason, he dug deep into the data with the Director of Baseball Analytics at Quincy, Robert Frey. Frey was instrumental in Martin’s decision to focus on a 4-seam fastball/curveball combination. It’s safe to say that recommendation paid off in a big way. The curveball, in particular, garnered serious attention in the draft.
Heading into the 2021 draft, Martin had many discussions with teams looking to get a big win/win by saving significant bonus pool money and landing an upside arm. According to Martin, he spoke with 15 teams prior to the draft. Faced with “no other options”, the 23-year-old, 5th year senior knew that if he wanted the opportunity to play professional ball, he had to be prepared to sign no matter the offer. He also knew that the opportunities to get better in professional baseball were unlike any he’d ever experienced.
After signing, Martin was able to fully immerse himself in the Cubs pitching infrastructure. “I headed down to Arizona and it was my first time throwing on TrackMan, Rapsodo, and Edgertronic cameras ever,” Martin said. “I didn’t know anything about horizontal or vertical break or anything like that. So it was just something pretty cool and really an eye-opening experience just getting to throw in a pitching lab. It’s really awesome.”
Martin got his feet wet in professional ball for Myrtle Beach last season, but it’s the improvements he made over the offseason that have Cubs officials excited about his progress. And he’d be remiss if he didn’t give a special shout-out to former big-league pitcher turned Myrtle Beach pitching coach, Clayton Mortensen, for helping him this past winter.
“[Mortensen was] my offseason contact. I feel like a lot of the stuff that I’ve been able to do this year is a credit to him when he would just kind of sit down with me working on some small – really small – mechanical adjustments, grip adjustments and stuff like that. For me it’s staying closed as long as I can on my backside and as soon as my front leg strikes the bottom of the mound, that’s when I fully rotate. It’s helped my fastball maintain velo (velocity) for longer as well as my change[up]. Obviously the slider and curveball as well,” Martin said.
And speaking of that added velocity, Martin’s fastball has noticeably been faster this season according to Martin (and confirmed by Cubs officials). He’s now throwing far more fastballs in the 92-95 mph range and has touched 96 mph. The lefthander also made significant changes to his arsenal, even changing the grip on his signature curveball. The new spike-curve “added 7 or 8 inches in vertical depth” according to Martin.
Along with the added fastball velocity and new spike grip curveball, Martin deploys a slider with sweep (horizontal movement) and a sneaky-good changeup. It’s a starter’s arsenal and Martin would love to continue to throw starter innings in professional ball, but he recognizes that ascending through the minors is all about taking the ball when your number is called. He’s ready for anything the Cubs ask him to do.
Martin has had many people help him along his journey from Frey and Mortensen who developed his repertoire to his father, who instilled the love of the game of baseball from an early age. Riley Martin didn’t arrive in the Cubs system with fanfare, but his work on and off the field commands the respect of his teammates and coaches. He’s already shown a propensity for racking up Ks, even as he adjusts to South Bend. It’ll be up to him to continue grinding, adapting, and improving as the competition gets steeper. However, Martin more than earned his opportunity. Cubs officials and teammates are quick to call out the lefty as a guy who “deserves this [opportunity] as much as anyone”. Here’s to watching him run with it.