Arkansas had two of the brightest stars in college baseball in preseason All-Americans juniors Casey Martin and Heston Kjerstad. While both proved their worth in the last two seasons and change, Martin’s draft stock plummeted following a disappointing Coronavirus-shortened 2020 season.
In the months heading into the 2020 MLB Draft, Martin was pegged as high as a No. 6 pick and as low as No. 47. On Thursday, he fell all the way to No. 87, with the Philadelphia Phillies finally snagging the shortstop in the third round.
Casey Martin’s strikeout rate had been slowly rising since his spectacular freshman campaign, when he slashed .345/.418/.556. About 25 percent of his at-bats in 2018 ended with a punchout, but it’s hard to worry about that kind of thing when you led a team in hitting that was the runner-up in the College World Series.
The Lonoke, Arkansas native’s strikeout rate rose to 28 percent in his sophomore season, and critics slowly began to take notice. His average dropped to .286, but his power numbers increased. He led the team in extra-base hits, total bases and was second in RBIs. Martin’s numbers were still good, they just didn’t match up to the ridiculous hitting totals that he put up the year before.
“The tools are very explosive. There’s a power and speed combination with this player that doesn’t exist with a lot of other players. He gets down the line in under four seconds routinely, and the power to both sides of the field is very noticeable.”-Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, during the 2020 MLB Draft
In the shortened 2020 season, Martin’s strikeout rate swelled to 37 percent. Martin struck out 22 times in the 15 games he played in 2020, and if he had continued at that pace he would have ended the season with around 90 strikeouts. I think that it’s a little unfair to take those numbers as hard data considering it’s such a small sample size. I don’t think he would have kept going at that pace, I think he was just in a slump and he probably would have grinded his way out of it, but he didn’t get the chance.
Granted, it was not his most impressive stretch, Martin slashed .271/.386/.458 in the 15 games he played in 2020, which is not much worse than his 2019 stat line. His 2019 average (.286) and slugging percentage (.548), were better than his 2020 numbers, but his on-base percentage in 2020 was better because of the 10 walks he drew in 15 games.
Critics also say that Martin struggles against top-tier pitching, which was true in 2019 but not 2018. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll take his postseason stats for example, because most of the time, the best teams in the NCAA tend to have elite pitching.
In the heartbreaking 2018 playoff run, where Martin posted a .348 average (23-for-66) with 10 RBIs and three round-trippers.
In 2019, Martin started off the postseason 0-for-19, a slump that spanned five games, including the entirety of the SEC tournament. He eventually broke it, but never found his stride, finishing with a .156 average (7-for-45), three RBIs and no home runs in the playoffs.
His sophomore slump could be attributed to several things. One reason is that other teams probably read up on Martin and figured out what pitches to throw against him, what locations he doesn’t hit well, etc.
His power numbers were more prevalent in the 2019 season, so maybe he wanted to put a little more dip in his swing and tap into his power — and that adjustment caused him to accumulate more strikeouts.
Martin’s top struggle in 2019 was his fielding, which is something he has battled with his entire career at Arkansas. Martin has committed 43 errors in his tenure with the Hogs, including an SEC-leading 23 errors in 2019. Since his arrival, Martin has commited almost 29 percent of Arkansas’ 150 errors.
This suggests that the Phillies organization may eventually need to move him to second base or center field.
I can understand scouts dropping him in their assessments for this, but they had him ranked so high after his first two seasons that it seemed like they didn’t care that he was a below-average fielder. So I don’t think this is the main reason that he is falling in the draft, but it’s definitely a contributor.
The latest CBS mock draft didn’t place Martin in the first round. I expected him to go in the second round because he has five-star potential. He can hit for both power and contact, he’s quick and he’s got a good arm, the only tool that really has not shown up is his glove. I think if he can become a reliable fielder and reduce his strikeout rate, he can definitely squeeze his way into the MLB as a second baseman or an outfielder. After watching modern MLB shortstops like Carlos Correa, Brandon Crawford and Xander Bogaerts who range from 6’1’ to 6’4’, it’s hard to imagine a 5’11’ Martin manning the six-hole in the bigs.
Since minor leaguers are making near-poverty level wages and MLB players may have to take pay cuts in order to play next season, I think Martin would have benefited from another year at Arkansas. Still, it wouldn’t be a mistake for him to go hone his craft in the minors.
While Martin fell in the mock drafts, Kjerstad rose — by a lot. After hitting over .327 and tallying more than 50 RBIs in consecutive seasons, the 6’3’ right-fielder was on pace for a monstrous 2020 season before it was cut short. Kjerstad was hitting almost .450 and led the team in hits, homers, RBIs and slugging percentage.
Read more about Kjerstad’s vast potential with the Baltimore Orioles here:
Former Hogs Blaine Knight on Casey Martin
“You’re getting a guy that’s extremely athletic that I think you can put him anywhere and he can play anything. He’s super fast, he’s got every tool set that you could have and he hits for power, he hits for average. And I think his swing and miss rate will go down as he matures as he starts to see a little better pitching and after he just gets mature as a hitter.” – via Hit That Line
What about Casey Opitz?
Junior catcher Casey Opitz, who was expected to be the third Hog called, went undrafted. Opitz proved to be debatably the best defensive catcher in the league, gunning out 40 percent of potential base stealers in his Arkansas career. But the question remains whether Opitz will be able to hit in the big leagues. He hit just .243 last year, but impressed in the 2020 season, hitting .302 and slugging .509, almost doubling his slugging percentage from last season.
Expect Opitz to return to the Razorbacks, joining what’s become a very crowded position. However, the two catcher graduate transfers that Dave Van Horn brought in — A.J. Lewis and Robert Emery — will have the option of transferring away because of special pandemic-related provisions.
Writer Parker Tillson’s devotion to sports comes from a devout following of his hometown Houston Astros. As a beat writer for the University of Arkansas’ The Arkansas Traveler, he’s covered Razorback baseball, basketball and football, as well as the NWA Naturals. and LPGA tournaments.