Baseball: Former Fighters pitcher Martin credits critical Japan lessons

©Kyodo News

Chris Martin

Back at Tokyo Dome for the first time in over a year Texas Rangers pitcher Chris Martin on Saturday credited Japanese baseball with smoothing his path to the major leagues.

Martin is in Japan with a team of major league stars to play a six-game series against Japan's national team, Samurai Japan, after his first season with the Rangers.

Martin came to Japan in 2016 to pitch for the Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan's Pacific League at the age of 29, after pitching in 40 big league games over two seasons with the Colorado Rockies and New York Yankees.

"I learned what I needed to do to be ready," he said of his two seasons with the Fighters. "When you're going up and down in the minors and from the minors to the majors, it's hard to learn the rhythms to prepare the best way for you. Coming to Japan you get the reps to work through those things."

Martin didn't turn pro until 2010, when he turned 24, and over his first six seasons, he never pitched in more than 30 games with one team in a single season.

"Because I started late, it's like they'd look at what I could do and then look at my age and figure they could have a younger player who was nearly as good," said Martin, who appeared in 46 games this season for the Rangers, a club that has deep connections to Nippon Professional Baseball.

With the Fighters in 2016 as they won their first Japan Series in 10 years, Martin pitched in a career-high 52 games and played in another 40 in 2017. But as he and his wife awaited the birth of their first child and wanting to be closer to their families in Texas, the Martins left Japan as Chris signed with his hometown team.

"It was a tough decision, but with her by herself taking care of that and me focused on baseball, we thought it was the best thing," Martin told Kyodo News.

When he did join the Rangers, he found that his Japanese experience made the adjustment a fairly easy one.

"You're pitching to good hitters here, in big games in front of big crowds and all," Martin said.

"I thought it would be a bigger adjustment going to the majors. It's the major leagues after all, there's the power, but having dealt with various pressure situations here, I found it easy to slow the game down."

And though Japan gave him the reps he needed to polish his preparations, the language barrier forced him to find solutions with less input from teammates and coaches.

"You have to work things out on your own. Sometimes players need to vent. We need to bounce things off people," Martin said.

"Of course there are interpreters and they do a great job, and the pitching coaches are great but when it comes to details, you never really know if the message you get is exactly what they mean. I think I became mentally tougher."

The flip side of that came in a kind of reverse culture shock in Surprise, Arizona, where the Rangers hold their spring training. After figuring things out on his own in Japan, he was not immediately ready to socialize in a more accessible environment.

"I was not used to that and stayed to myself a bit," Martin said. "I also kind of wanted to talk about my experience here. But I knew nobody wanted to hear about that. So if people asked, I'd answer their questions, but I had to be careful (not to overdo it)."

He said that if he gets another chance to play ball in Japan it would be hard to pass up. And when he was introduced to the Tokyo Dome crowd prior to Game 1 on Friday, Martin ran onto the field to a good ovation from the crowd at the park where he last pitched on July 31, 2017.

"Was it loud?" he asked after the game. "Honestly, I didn't hear anything. I was so nervous and focused on not tripping."