With the No. 1 pitching staff in the American Association, it is to understand why the staff of the Wichita Wingnuts is getting so many accolades. With three six-game winners, a group tied for second in the league, the league’s top ERA, the top WHIP, and the least number of walks allowed, it is easy for most throughout the league to talk about Alex Boshers, Ryan Kussmaul, Tyler Kane, Jordan Cooper, Eddie Medina and the rest.
These are the names that are garnering much of the attention, and understandably so, but a big reason why this staff is doing so well is because of one of the two men who gets behind the plate to call games each night. A man who has had a dramatic impact on the Wingnuts since he first arrived in Wichita, not only because of the way that he had handled his position, but also because of the mental approach he has brought to the team. The ability to succeed mentally and to be philosophical about the game itself. That man is catcher Martin Medina.
Following a Legacy of Excellence
Martin Medina joined the Wichita Wingnuts in the early part of June, 2016, and the team has not been the same since. At the time, the Wingnuts were 6-11 and the pitching staff was struggling mightily to get into a rhythm. After years of having such dominant performers behind the plate as John Nestor, J.T. Wise, and Chris McMurray, the team was looking for someone to take command of the team’s staff and get them to perform as GM Josh Robertson and Manager Pete Rose, Jr. expected. Martin came in and got that exact performance out of them.
With Medina as the team’s primary catcher, the Wingnuts went 64-19 over their final 83-games and the team’s ERA lowered by better than two-runs per game. The Minor League Sports Report even named Martin as the team’s MVP because of how the team took-off once he arrived.
It was not a surprise that the Wingnuts pitching staff would respond to the catcher as they did. Since he first started playing baseball, Martin has been a gamer and has been the kind of player that teammates and coaches came to rely on. While performing well in other sports, one quality made him stand out on the diamond and made the decision to stay in baseball an easy one to make.
“I had a really good arm, so I have a lot of success with that. I could also hit the ball pretty well to, consistently, but I could pitch, I could play outfield, I could catch, I could play short; the kid with one of the better arms on the team is always going to play everywhere, and so I just had a lot of success because of how well I was throwing at a young age.”
Martin attended St. Bonaventure High School (Ventura, CA), where he would lay the foundation of his resume as an outstanding ballplayer. He saw limited action in his sophomore season, but would be a prime contributor in his junior and senior years on the Runners’ varsity baseball team.
He would play in just 12-games as a sophomore, but hit .355 with 9-RBI. His junior season he would play every game, hitting .311 with 11-runs scored and 28-RBI in 29-games. He would also appear in all 29-games in his senior season, where his average would drop a bit (.276) but he clubbed a career high 6-homers and drove in 32-RBI. He also scored 22-runs and stole 3-bases.
At the plate was not the only place he was having success. Medina was 7-2 in both his junior and senior seasons and he added 4-saves as a senior. In 115 total innings pitched in high school, the right-hander allowed just 14 total runs for a microscopic 0.85 ERA. He also struck out 178.
His numbers earned him a variety of accolades. Martin was the Tri-Valley Pitcher of the Year in both 2007 and 2008, and he earned first-team All-League and All-Ventura County Honors as a pitcher both years as well. He still holds the school record for doubles in a season (13), most strikeouts in a game (17), and most strikeouts in a season (100).
His performance was not just on the diamond either. The Runners star was excelling in the classroom as well, earning Tri-County Athletic Association All-Academic Team honors in both 2007 and 2008.
Staying in the Valley
Upon graduating from high school, Martin Medina enrolled at California State University – Bakersfield. He would continue to add to his impressive resume but, sadly, it was not as a catcher. Unfortunately for Martin, an obstacle stood in his way.
“I didn’t catch in college. I had caught a lot in high school as well, but we had a catcher in college who was very talented as well and who got drafted by the Padres. Since I was a two-way player, they played me mostly at first and third, and I pitched..”
In his freshman season, Martin tied for the team lead in games played (50), while hitting .285 with 8-homers and 40-RBI. Both those numbers led the team, as did his 13-doubles and 4-triples. On the mound, he earned three victories that season, appearing in 13 games, four as a starter.
The 2009 season was an impressive one, but it was just a small sampling of what he could do. In 2010, the California native hit .311 with a team-high 12-homers and 52-RBI. Of his 74 hits that season, 31 were for extra bases and he walked 26 times helping him to a .393 on-base percentage.
While his offensive numbers showed improvement, it was on the mound where he made dramatic strides. Martin would go 5-2 in his sophomore campaign, lowering his ERA by nearly three-runs per game to 4.01. One area where he showed dramatic improvement was in the number of walks that he issued, going from 28 in 38.0 innings pitched as a freshman to just eight and 24.2 innings pitched the next season.
After a solid junior campaign, where Martin hit .287, drove in 53-runs and won 3-games on the mound, he prepared for the MLB draft. He had long aspired to become a professional baseball player but was concerned that his lack of playing catcher in college would dissuade teams from drafting him, causing him a bit of concern considering that this was the career path toward the big leagues he had chosen.
“When the draft came around I wanted to make sure if anyone was looking to draft me that it was going to be as a catcher, simply because I knew that catchers had the best chance of having long successful careers. I stand at about 6-foot, I have some decent tools, but not really big-time tools to be a corner guy in the big leagues, so I wanted to go behind the plate and start back there.”
The Chicago White Sox agreed with Martin’s assessment of his talent, and he was selected in the 20th round of the 2011 MLB amateur draft. His professional career was about to begin.
Good Guys Wear Black
In 2011, Martin Medina was sent to Great Falls in the Pioneer League where he got his chance to be the everyday catcher there. He performed quite well, hitting .297 and 38 games, with 22-runs scored, 4-homeruns, and 29-RBI. He was performing so well that the team moved him to Bristol in the Appalachian League where he appeared in 17 games and drove in six runs.
In 2012, the catcher would move to Kannapolis where he would come across his future manager. Pete Rose, Jr. was the manager and Kannapolis at the time, and Martin had a solid season there, hitting .256 with 3-homers and 25-RBI. While improving at the plate, it was in the field where he was really leaving his mark. The catcher only made 8 errors in 2012, and threw out 29 of 72 runners attempting to steal base, a 40 percent success rate.
Over the next two seasons, Medina would move up the chain in the White Sox organization. In 2013, he was assigned to High-A Winston-Salem in the Carolina League, where he struggled a bit at the plate, hitting .211, but still showed incredible prowess behind the plate with just four errors while throwing out 30 percent of those attempting to steal a base.
The next season he split time between Winston-Salem and AA-Birmingham, combining to hit .286, including .333 at Birmingham. He drove in 22 total runs and he threw out 17 of 59 runners while making only one error in the 54 games he appeared in.
The 2014 season began with Martin in Birmingham, but he would be dealt to the Toronto Blue Jays organization, moving to New Hampshire in the Eastern Lake before spending a little time in High-A Dunedin as well. The catcher struggled at the plate in his two AA stops, but hit quite well in Dunedin, posting a .281 average in 18 games there.
What made Martin such an exceptional catcher was not only how well he manned the position, but also how he was able to get inside the head of his hurler, knowing exactly what to say, what pitch to call, and how to read opposing hitters so that he could call the very best game for his pitcher.
“I pitched so I undertand the whole relationship between a catcher and a pitcher. Having pitched a lot I know how pitchers think and so those conversations have gone very smoothly throughout my entire career, and they still go very well because I understand what it feels like when things are going well or bad. So, I can go out there understanding where they are at, and that’s a good gauge on what kind of conversation we’re going to have, what they’re feeling, or what I see. It’s just more knowledge for me.”
An Independent Pathway to Success
Despite showing a great deal of prowess behind the plate, the Blue Jays organization released him in June of 2016. While unhappy about the turn of events, Martin Medina has been very appreciative of the great lessons that he learned within both the White Sox and Blue Jays organizations.
“Just coming up in the White Sox system, your getting a lot of really good baseball coaching from guys who have so many years of experience. I’d be an idiot to not walk away with a lot of knowledge. It comes from the pitching coaches, the catching coordinators. When I got traded to the Blue Jays and to the Nationals, I learned a lot there as well. I got more great information from the Blue Jays as far as the physical preparation of the game and how to have conversations with pitchers.”
At the time of his release, the Wichita Wingnuts were looking for an everyday catcher, and so Pete Rose, Jr. reached out to his former backstop wanting him to come to Wichita. To Martin, it was the perfect opportunity.
“I already had a relationship with Pete and knew what he was looking for from his catcher, so this looked like a great fit for me. I knew when I came here that I was going to get a chance to play, which I didn’t get a lot of chance to do the season before. I know Pete and know that he was going to give me the reigns. I don’t have to look in the dugout, he doesn’t talk to me about pitch selection, it’s literally that I get to control everything. That’s why I’m here.”
That has meant so much to Martin that he actually opted to not take the opportunity to sign with a club this past off-season, because he knew he had a greater opportunity in Wichita. It provided him the opportunity to live out one of his key philosophical approaches to life.
“I had chances to play in Mexico and I didn’t want to do that because I knew if I came here I would be able to be the best version of myself., which is the way it should be. Unfortunately, a lot of players don’t get that opportunity to be themselves, whether it is that they are worried about getting cut or they’re worried about pleasing the coaching staff or whatever. That’s why I think the players that stay true to themselves are the ones who make it to the big leagues. That’s what I have the opportunity to do here and that’s why I am here.”
Making a Huge Difference
The Wichita Wingnuts are ecstatic that Martin Medina has made this team the place where he wants to advance his career. After arriving in 2016, the catcher hit .245 with a homer and 29 RBI. He made just two errors in 46 ballgames and threw out 28 percent of base-stealers.
This season his numbers have blossomed. He has made just one error in 29 games this season and has been just as big of a force at the plate, hitting .321 with 3-homers and 20-RBI. He has also scored 25-runs and was named recently to the American Association All-Star team. Among every day catchers in the league he has the highest batting average.
While he is performing well at the plate, it has still been his role behind the dish where he is leaving his mark. It is not only in ensuring that he is calling a game that works to the strength of his hurlers, but also understanding how to develop a game plan that puts his pitchers in the best position to succeed.
“I am able to see things that the pitcher can’t see sometimes. Some guys like to get too fine and they get themselves in holes. Some guys don’t understand how good a pitch is until I tell them, and make them understand that this pitch is more effective than they may think. I want them to throw it a lot more and then once that clicks it becomes one of their secondary pitches. All of a sudden it makes their other pitches even better. To relay that and help to build their confidence up is going to click in them and then we get better as a team.”
What is ignored by many fans is the fact that a catcher is much more than a hitter and a guy calling pitches behind the plate. He is also part psychologist, having to get inside the head of his pitcher to ensure that he is not being defeated before he even throws the ball. Martin excels in this area, but what makes him so exceptional at the position is the fact that he has high expectations for his staff and their commitment to improving their own performance.
“If a pitcher doesn’t want to figure it out in the first few times we talk then I’m probably not going to keep going on it. It’s the one thing that I do find the fine line in is that they’re professionals. There’s a certain amount of ‘Ya, let me help you, let me do that for you,’ but there is a point where that gets cut off. It’s like hitting; if you don’t make an adjustment by your third at-bat, then you’re going to go 0-3, 0-4. You have to adjust immediately. Ya, you can be a psychologist for your pitchers, but I also want them to get up there and get after it. I just want you to get up there and do your job, be a professional.”
Martin is making a significant contribution on every pitch, because he is not only calling the kind of game that is enabling his starters to be at their best, but is delivering at the plate as well, including having a huge walk-off homerun earlier this year.
This success has meant a lot to him, but what has meant more has been the fact that his approach to the game has changed greatly. The Wichita catcher understands that baseball is still just a game, even if it is one that he is trying to make a living at, and that perspective is doing a lot to change the way that he is approaching each and every day.
“I’ve done this too long to get upset on the days where things don’t go well. Just look at today, where we have kids here at the park that have some sort of cancer. It’s like, really, I’m having a bad day at the plate going 0-4. You just have to have perspective. I think that just comes with reps and being a professional. The older you get and the more games you play you realize that when you have that day, you just have to put it in perspective. There is still another day to go at it.”
This season, there haven’t been many 0-4 days that Martin Medina has had to worry about. He has been a consistent performer who has helped the Wichita Wingnuts to the best record in the American Association. He may be being overlooked by many around the league because of the outstanding performance of the pitchers and hitters, but make no mistake. Because of his ability to handle the pitching staff, call a sensational game, and deliver at the plate, it won’t be long before scouts are attempting to lure him back to affiliate ball. He has performed quite well, but has proven the greatest philosophical lesson of all – Be True to Yourself.
Featured Images by Ed Bailey
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA