Climbing the ladder: Titan grad charts big-league path

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 20, 2023

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By Jay Spivey

For the Clemmons Courier

RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. — Many 19-year-olds have just finished their first year of college and are about a month away from starting their sophomore years.

Not Payton Martin.

Martin, who played baseball and graduated from West Forsyth High School in 2022, is pitching for the Rancho Cucamonga (California) Quakes, the minor-league, Low-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the California League.

If that’s not impressive enough, Martin, who had committed to play college baseball at East Carolina, has come a long way since being picked last year in the 17th round (525 overall) by the Dodgers in the Major League Baseball Draft.

“I don’t really know,” Martin said. “I guess baseball is baseball. So, like, there’s really no mindset change. I haven’t really changed anything. I just went day-by-day and keep working hard and playing baseball.”

Since being drafted last year, he signed with the Dodgers and played in Arizona for a couple of months before the season ended. Martin returned to North Carolina during the winter and then reported to Spring Training in Arizona in February.

“It’s gone pretty well,” he said. “I’d say I have good coaches around me — keep me going, fixing whatever I’m doing wrong. We haven’t changed anything mechanically. Um, confidence booster for me was just my velo (velocity) going up. Just because of my weight. Putting on weight has transferred over to my (velocity) shooting up, as well.”

That speaks volumes because Martin said he wasn’t sure, when he went to Spring Training, whether he’d be a starter or a reliever. After a couple of weeks, he found that he’d be a starter.

It’s all worked out pretty well for him. Even though he’s nursing some sort of nerve injury in his pitching hand, Martin has pitched very well this season for the Quakes. He’s pitched in 14 games, with 12 starts, with a 2.04 ERA in 392/3 innings. He’s also given up nine runs on 30 hits and has 48 strikeouts and 15 walks.

“Something I really haven’t noticed, but I haven’t walked a guy in like a month and a half,” he said.

Along with the Dodgers’ front-office staff, Manager John Shoemaker and pitching coach Sean Coyne of the Quakes, and the training staff, they’ve helped transform Martin’s body.

According to Martin, he was 6-foot, 160 pounds last year when he was drafted. Now, he said he’s 6-foot, 185 pounds.

“It’s been pretty busy, honestly,” he said. “Just eating and working out and doing what they tell me.”

As someone who proclaims he never really trained in high school at West Forsyth, what he’s doing now at Rancho Cucamonga is a complete 180-degree turn.

“The training is pretty hard at first,” Martin said. “But after you get a routine and start doing it like every single day, it gets easier as it goes along. But there’s some stuff I’ve never seen before until I got here.

“It’s like mobility stuff, stability, everything you need. And they set your own program right to what you need specifically, like individually.”

Although playing baseball is still fun, Martin has quickly realized that playing professional baseball is a full-time job.

In addition to himself, things have gotten much better for minor leaguers. For the first time, MiLB has formed a Players Association, and this past March, came up with a labor agreement.

Under the agreement, Low-A players’ salaries have gone from $11,000 to $26,200. And players are guaranteed housing. Martin said he only has to pay for food and gas.

“I just do that every day,” he said. “I prep every day before I throw. We throw every single day. And then, yeah, just adapt to it, and now it’s just kind of a routine.”

Most minor leaguers have Mondays off, but he said he still goes into the facility for a couple of hours. But there’s still time for fun. Reached this past week, Martin was with some teammates at the beach in California, which he said is about an hour away from Rancho Cucamonga.

“Today, we came to the beach,” Martin said. “Usually, on my days off, I’ll probably start going fishing. Or I always go to the field in the morning to start the day off on Monday. And I’ll get my throwing in and my treatment in, whatever I need. Get my running done, just whatever I need, whatever they ask me.”

Knowing that you get Mondays off almost every week is part of the stability Martin’s talking about.

“It’s nice having the Mondays off, but one day doesn’t, like one rest day doesn’t, I don’t know, bring too much of a relief,” he said. “And then you turn around, and you play six games straight (against the same team).”

This week’s schedule has him, barring any setbacks from his hand injury, starting Thursday night at Lake Elsinore, a Single-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres. As Martin said, the Dodgers start their minor-league pitchers on pitch counts. He said he’s on a strict three innings or 60 pitches, whichever comes first. However, he said he’s close to being bumped to four innings.

“There’s certain games where I’d love to go more, of course, because there’s certain ones where I go three-up, three-down three straight innings, and I feel like I can go longer,” Martin said. “But, of course, it’s just a process. I mean, it’s worked out for all the other guys (with the Dodgers), so might as well keep doing it.”

In addition, he has a ton of information in front of him. The Dodgers are heavily involved with analytics, plus Martin, who said his fastball is up to 98 mph, said he has an app on his phone that shows what he’s doing well or not well as a pitcher. And there are plenty of videos that he watches of himself in the pitching lab, as well as on his iPad.

“They (Dodgers) don’t really release any information like that (progress within the minor-league system),” Martin said. “But I guess we’ll just see where it goes. Just gotta keep doing good.”

There’s still plenty of season remaining for Martin and the Quakes. The regular season ends Sept. 10 against Visalia, the Single-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. However, the Quakes already clinched the first half of the Southern Division and will play in the California League playoffs, which are scheduled to start on Sept. 12.

“I think I’ll be good,” Martin said. “I think the team will be good, too. I mean, we’ve played everybody so far. We’ve seen the talent we have, and then, I’ve pitched against every team, so it’s actually a lot easier now because you know the game plan going in before you get to the game.”

Assuming Martin stays with the Dodgers, he still has to continue climbing the ladder through their minor-league system. The High-A team is the Great Lakes Loons in Midland, Mich., of the Midwest League, followed by the Tulsa Drillers of the Double-A Texas League and the Triple-A Oklahoma City Dodgers of the Pacific Coast League.

Martin has full confidence in himself in climbing the ladder, but he’s so superstitious that he doesn’t want to go to Dodger Stadium as a fan even though it’s only 45 miles away, not wanting to jinx the process.

“I just choose not to,” he said. “I don’t want to go from a baseball game to another baseball game.”