Cubs: Chris Martin is very quietly thriving in the bullpen

(Photo by Matt Dirksen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Matt Dirksen/Getty Images) /

The lone bright spot of the Chicago Cubs this year continues to be their bullpen. For as much flack as the organization gets, developing and reworking relievers at the major league level has been a strength over the past two years. David Robertson, the team’s de facto closer, is one of the best examples of this so far, but there’s another arm proving the Pitch Lab’s continued worth.

Chris Martin, the Cubs’ lanky right-hander, has been elite so far through 15 innings with the team. While the numbers aren’t as pristine as Robertson or the team’s two homegrown studs Scott Effross and Keegan Thompson, Martin has still vastly improved on his career while on the Northside, best exemplified by a career-high 12 strikeouts per nine innings. He lands in the 92nd percentile of all pitchers in strikeout percentage, surrounded by arms like Eric Lauer and teammate Mychal Givens.

Expected stats really make Martin jump off the page though. They’re far better than any of his previous seasons with a 94th percentile xERA of 2.31. His next closest was back in 2018 with 3.56. He’s also missing the barrel of the bat consistently, posting the lowest barrel rate of his career at 5.3 percent, well below the league average of 6.7 percent.

If there is one slight thing to be scared about, it’s that if he gets hit, it’s usually fairly hard. The average exit velocity off of Martin sits a couple of ticks higher than the league average, but that’s balanced by his ability to miss bats and barrels. Moreover, I don’t think the numbers are as bad there as it seems. Again, expected numbers help his case with an xSLG over 120 points lower than the results so far.

Chris Martin represents the Cubs Pitch Lab’s affinity for reinventing relievers

In Martin, the Cubs once again demonstrated their process for getting relievers to a good place. Since coming to Chicago, Martin has seen a rise in his cutter usage from 18.4 percent in 2021 to 27 percent this year. Of his regular pitches, it’s been far better than the numbers show. The unsightly .410 wOBA against the pitch drops to a far better .208 xwOBA, the best of his usual five pitches. That pitch also generates the second weakest average exit velocity only behind his splitter.

Martin throws that cutter along with a fastball that has induced an ugly .214 wOBA against so far with a 38.1 whiff percentage, a 94 MPH sinker, and two off-speed pitches. Slotted before Effross, Thompson and Robertson, that deadly combination only deepens a bullpen full of relievers that have seen great strides at the major league level. If you need any more proof of how the Cubs bullpen arms are performing, five are among the top 100 pitchers in the league in xERA.

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This is what the Cubs keep doing. They continue to bring arms in, find their best pitches and matchups, and deploy them to their strengths. Martin is just another under-the-radar version of that. It bodes well for when the team has a core to build around. With an ability to turn even ordinary relievers into dominant arms, more of that money can go to enhancing the rotation and the lineup. For now, the lab has generated a lot of juicy trade pieces to dangle at the deadline.