Every year about 1,215 players are picked in the Major League Baseball draft, but even so, some slip through the cracks. Mike Redmond, Kevin Millar, Bobby Bonilla, Kevin Mitchell, Larry Walker and Bruce Sutter were all undrafted players who went on to formidable big-league careers.
The Seattle Mariners think they may have found just such a diamond in the rough in right-handed pitcher Bernie Martinez.
The 6-foot reliever from the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, has dominated hitters in his first season of professional baseball despite not being one of the 1,217 players taken in the 2019 draft.
“Bernie comes in throwing strikes, his fastball has really good movement and he can throw his curveball in any count with good movement,” AquaSox pitching coach Ari Ronick said. “(He’s polished) and what makes him that way is he’s really athletic. He’s able to throw the ball with really good timing for all of his pitches.”
Seattle minor-league pitching coordinator Max Weiner referred to Martinez — who signed with Seattle after his senior year at Incarnate Word — as one of the more interesting sleeper prospects in the system. Martinez’s success stems from his looping curveball, which the Mariners say could develop into a lethal pitch.
“I want to say it’s the pitch that’s gotten me this far,” Martinez said. “It’s just about building off that and the fastball.”
— Mariners Minors (@MiLBMariners) August 1, 2019
It’s a pitch Martinez developed after going 1-9 with a 7.82 ERA in 17 appearances and 12 starts as a freshman at Incarnate Word, and 3-6 with a 5.12 ERA and 14 starts as a sophomore. A new coaching staff instilled new pitching philosophies and taught Martinez a different curveball grip.
Martinez’s ERA dipped to 4.21 in his junior season and to 2.11 this past spring, his first year pitching mostly out of the bullpen. Not only did his ERA fall by a full two points, his strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate jumped up from 6.57 to 8.22.
“They had a grip that they taught me and and I’ve kept it from the first day,” Martinez said. “It felt like this is just what I need. It’s like God sent me this.”
Martinez made four appearances and threw seven innings with Everett without allowing a run before being promoted to Low-A West Virginia on Sunday. He’s the fourth undrafted arm in 2019 to be promoted from Everett to West Virginia this season, joining Nate Fisher (Nebraska), Evan Johnson (Creighton) and Matt Martin (Florida Southern).
Martinez started the season with the Mariners’ affiliate in the Arizona League, and allowed just two earned runs over 23.1 innings before being called up to Everett.
Martinez’s was born in Laredo, Texas, a city situated on the United States-Mexico border. His parents, Gerardo and Berta Martinez, grew up in Sabinas Hildalgo, Mexico, and Bernie and his family moved back there soon after his birth. But the family returned to Laredo before Bernie started pre-kindergarten classes.
There was very little culture shock for Martinez going back and forth, as Laredo is 95.6 percent Hispanic and Latino, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
“If you don’t speak Spanish in Laredo, then you’re bound to hit a language barrier at least once a day,” said Martinez, who is bilingual.
Growing up in Laredo as a Mexican-American provided unique opportunities for Martinez. Before the border became more dangerous with drug cartel activity, Martinez said he played Little League baseball in Laredo, then on Sundays would cross the border to play for a Little League team in Mexico.
Martinez eventually went on to star at Laredo United High School, but was lightly recruited, getting interest mostly from junior-college programs before landing at Incarnate Word.
He also was unheralded after four college seasons, despite putting together a strong senior year.
“I always knew there was a chance I wouldn’t be drafted, because that happens to a lot of guys,” Martinez said. “I had it in the back of my head that might happen, but I was getting calls and expecting to be drafted. It didn’t just happen.”
Martinez was receiving calls from quite a few Mexican Baseball League teams before and during the draft, an option he seriously considered.
“That’s when the Mariners called me,” he said, “and I was like, ‘Yup, jumping on that instead.’ ”
The Mariners are glad he did.
Josh Horton covers the AquaSox for the Herald. Follow him on Twitter, @JoshHortonEDH.