Former Nats starter J.D. Martin is back, this time as a knuckleball pitcher

Right-hander J.D. Martin had relished the taste of the majors with the Nationals in 2009 and 2010. But since then, he has not been able to make it back to the big leagues.

Since his release from the Nats in 2011, Martin has made stops with the Marlins, Rays, Korea and the White Sox.

Back in 2011, then Nationals pitching coordinator (currently senior advisor, player development) Spin Williams suggested that Martin try to incorporate the knuckleball pitch. Martin did well with it off the mound and Spin offered him the chance. But at that moment in his career, Martin wasn’t ready to commit to the pitch on an everyday basis.

Five years passed and Martin started this season in independent ball. He decided to give Williams a call to take him up on the previous offer to be a full-time knuckleball pitcher.

“When I was in Syracuse in 2011, I was kind of messing around with it with a throwing partner,” Martin said. “Spin was there and he asked me to get on the mound and throw a couple. So I got on the mound and threw a couple. It was very good that day. He really liked it and he wanted to convert me then. I told him I wasn’t quite ready yet. Once you convert to a knuckleballer, you don’t really come back conventionally from there.

J.D.-Martin-throwing-white-sidebar.jpg“He said if I change my mind to let him know and if there’s a spot open, then they’ll give me an opportunity. Fortunately, there was some opportunity. He is working with me now, so it is good.”

On Sunday, Martin returns to high Single-A Carolina League competition and will make the start for the Potomac Nationals.

Martin said he has watched R.A. Dickey, Tim Wakefield and others throw the pitch over the years. But he learned it as a youngster and then refined it with a teammate’s help the last five years.

“I learned it on my own as a young kid with all my buddies,” Martin said. “We all played baseball together and we’d mess around with it. I was able to pick it up pretty good when I was little. I never threw it a whole lot. I never threw it in a game. Now it’s become an opportunity.”

Martin said he got better at the knuckleball while alongside former Indians and now Red Sox knuckleball right-handed pitcher Steven Wright.

“Steven was a teammate of mine when he was a conventional pitcher with the Indians,” Martin said. “He started throwing the knuckleball in 2010. You see the level he is at now. He’s doing really well with it. That’s what I hope to get to eventually.”

Wright has gone 13-5 with a 3.01 ERA in 22 starts, including four complete games, with the Red Sox this season.

Martin still throws his fastball and curveball, but now he is throwing the knuckleball 85 percent of the time. Martin said he needs to repeat the delivery over and over. Sunday’s start will be a big step. He has logged four starts so far this season, three with the Gulf Coast League Nats and one with low Single-A Hagerstown on August 9.

“For me, the toughest part is to stay consistent with it,” Martin said. “I’m good with the strike zone. Just the mechanics is what I am working on. It’s just going to be the reps. The more I throw it, the more it’s going to become more natural for me. So right now it’s just a different way of throwing than I have been the last 16 years. I just need to get the reps in. Hopefully, it will be come more comfortable.”

Martin, 33, had 25 starts for the Nats from 2009 to 2010. But he had begun the journey in 2001. And since 2010, he has pitched mostly at the Triple-A level. So what drives him to stay with it and believe he can make this huge adjustment in his career as a starter?

“I think it’s a little bit of everything,” Martin said. “The love of baseball, for sure, and being competitive. I want to get more big league time. I have two sons now and I’d really like for them to grow up and remember me playing. They are little young right now, so hopefully if I can get some more years in, they will remember being around the game when their dad played.

“If I can get the knuckleball down and it’s working, I would love to pitch into my 40s if it’s possible. That’s the plan.”

Martin said Sunday’s game plan is to try to stay in the game as long as he can and give the P-Nats a shot at the win. But he is not worried about the number of innings or the number of pitches.

“Of course I’m going to want to get that fifth at least and keep going if possible,” Martin said. “But I got to be patient with myself and really just work on the knuckleball. That’s what I’m here for.”

What makes the knuckleball so difficult to hit? Does it move like a curveball or another breaking pitch? Martin said the best part of a good knuckleball is no one knows the answer. That’s what makes it lethal.

“Well, that’s the thing with the knuckleball, just be consistent,” Martin said. “You don’t know what it’s going to do. I don’t know what it’s going to do. If I throw a good one it might rise and dip, it might stay straight, it might take off left and right, you just don’t know. That’s what is good about it. That’s why you see catcher’s missing the ball because they don’t know where it’s going. If you don’t know where it’s going, the hitter doesn’t know where it’s going. That’s the beautiful thing about it.”

Martin gets another chance to reinvent himself with his first start in the Carolina League since 2006 on Sunday at 2 p.m. at Frederick.

This time, he will throw as a knuckleball pitcher.

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