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Aaron Fitt | | December 12, 2019

Florida State baseball's identity under Mike Martin Jr. stays genuine to legendary father's legacy

Mike Martin looks back on his career and final season with FSU

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — You might say Mike Martin Jr. was born and bred to be Florida State’s head baseball coach. He’s been around the program just about his entire life; his father served as FSU’s head coach from 1980 until this past summer. Martin Jr. played at Florida State from 1993-95 and spent the last 22 years as his dad’s assistant at FSU.

So Martin Jr.’s transition to the head job upon Martin Sr.’s retirement this summer was seamless, and he seemed right at home in his new role while chatting on the field before a Nov. 9 scrimmage against Jacksonville. Crucially, his new assistants Jimmy Belanger and Mike Metcalf have acclimated very well too.

“For me it’s basically the same job, but just add the fund-raising and the booster side, it’s something I’d never done. Scheduling is something else I’ve never dealt with,” Martin Jr. said. “My coaches have been fantastic, and basically they didn’t know each other so you always wonder about continuity and camaraderie. But they work together and work their butts off. Everybody around the athletic program enjoys their company. They’re polite, friendly, know how to act, work hard, and they care an awful lot. There are too many staffs where they don’t all get along, and that’s gonna come back to bite you at some point. I’m really excited about the coaching staff.”

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Martin Jr. has no plans to reinvent the wheel. The Seminole Way is tried and true, having produced 42 consecutive 40-plus-win seasons and 42 straight trips to regionals. FSU will still emphasize getting on base and hitting for power, like always, but Martin Jr. does want to ratchet up his team’s proficiency on the basepaths, getting better dirtball reads and putting more pressure on opposing defenses.

The offense should be plenty dangerous as usual — more on that later — but what could make the 2020 Seminoles special is their pitching staff, which Martin Jr. thinks could be their best in a long time.

“Pitching obviously is what’s making us excited,” he said. “We finally have depth and can do different things and make it hard for hitters to get comfortable. We’ve been really pleased all the way through with our pitching.”

The Seminoles should have one of college baseball’s premier Friday aces in junior right-hander CJ Van Eyk (10-4, 3.81 with 129 strikeouts in 99.1 innings), who was scratched from the Jacksonville scrimmage after tweaking his back lifting weights. Before that minor strain, Van Eyk had been outstanding this fall, running his fastball up to 98 mph repeatedly and showing improved command, which is the key for him to live up to his first-team All-America and top-10-pick upside.

Florida State players and coaches on Mike Martin's final season

Junior left-hander Shane Drohan figures to join Van Eyk in what has the potential to be an elite one-two punch atop the rotation. Drohan has flashed big-time stuff before, but a high walk rate held him back last year when he posted a 3.66 ERA in 16 appearances (11 starts) over 51.2 innings with 48 walks. But Drohan was perhaps the most improved pitcher I saw all fall, racking up five strikeouts in two scoreless innings against Jacksonville, pounding the strike zone at 92-94 mph with a fairly high spin rate in the 2300-2500 rpm range, missing bats with a wipeout power curveball at 77-79 in the 2600-2800 rpm range and flashing an above-average changeup with good arm speed and fade at 79-83. Athletic and strong at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, Drohan has the look of a big-time draft riser if he can carry his progress into the spring.

“He was like that the whole fall. That’s the best improvement, biggest jump that I’ve seen in a long time,” Martin Jr. said. “Jimmy [Belanger] sped him up, did some different things with him just to speed up his legs. He’s an athletic kid, and he put himself to sleep with slow legs. That’s the first thing Jimmy said: ‘Why is he so methodical? Let’s go!’ Dro bought in, and he’s been unhittable all fall.”

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Junior right-hander Conor Grady (9-6, 3.64) made eight starts among his 25 appearances last year and should give the Seminoles a rock-solid innings eater to join Van Eyk and Drohan in the weekend rotation. Grady, an 89-92 mph strike-thrower who Martin Jr. calls "Steady Eddie," possesses a very good breaking ball that can land for strikes and a swing-and-miss changeup.

Martin Jr. said sophomore righty Jack Anderson has made a nice jump this fall as well, putting him in line to serve as midweek starter or push for Sunday starts if somebody falters. He lacked the command to log significant innings as a freshman when he pitched 7.2 innings, but Martin Jr. said he came back from summer ball as a different guy — throwing more strikes, showing more velocity and a better, harder breaking ball. He was 89-90 against Jacksonville but has been up to 92, and his breaking ball was 81 mph with good spin in the 2400-2500 range. He also showed solid fading action on his 80-81 changeup.

Martin Jr. said a couple of freshmen could push hard for rotation jobs or prominent bullpen roles. Foremost among them is left-hander Bryce Hubbart, a stocky, compact 5-foot-11, 180-pounder with advanced feel to pitch from a three-quarters slot. He struck out two in a perfect 1-2-3 frame vs. the heart of Jacksonville’s order, carving up the zone at 89-91 with a tumbling 78-80 changeup that flashed plus and a tight 74-75 curveball at 2500-2700 rpm. It was good stuff, and it's been even better at other times this fall.

“Hubbart’s been a really pleasant surprise. He’s been up to 95, left-handed. There’s been quite a few 5s,” Martin Jr. said. “The changeup and curveball are both wipeout pitches, both really good. We’re just trying to figure out what we want to do with him. I’d like to ease those young pups along, but I’d like to get them on the mound as much as possible. I think that’s more beneficial than once a week, throw Tuesday, again Friday and Sunday. That’s what I’d like to do if we can.”

Another freshman lefty who has impressed is Parker Messick, a polished three-pitch strike-thrower who adds “the high spin rate with the low elbow, which makes the ball jump on them,” as Martin Jr. put it. His secondary stuff isn’t as advanced yet as Hubbart’s, but he’ll get plenty of big innings early in his career.

Then there’s freshman lefty Ryan Pettys, a skinny, projectable 6-foot-2, 165-pounder who has been up to 92 with a sweeping breaking ball that is tough on lefties and a changeup that remains a work in progress. Pettys needs to get stronger, and a recent mononucleosis diagnosis will set him back in that regard. Otherwise, he has a bright future and should see innings as a freshman.

Hubbart, Messick and Pettys join seasoned veterans Clayton Kwiatkowski, Jonah Scolaro and Antonio Velez to give FSU an enviable collection of quality left-handed pitching. I didn’t see Kwiatkowski, but he’s a proven commodity with plenty of funk, pitchability and competitiveness. Scolaro worked at 87-88, but his calling card is his tight 76-77 mph breaking ball. Velez sat 88-89 with a good sinking changeup and a short slider at 82-83 against Jacksonville. He’s a key swingman on this staff, and he’s an excellent strike-thrower, having posted a 50-11 K-BB mark in 45.1 innings last year.

“He’s that hybrid, nothing fazes him. He’s got a bounce-back arm; you could stretch him out,” Martin Jr. said of Velez. “Just a very valuable guy, could come in and use him literally three times on a weekend, get a couple of lefties out. Could also start him as a fourth or fifth guy to get you off to a good start. You know what you’re gonna get with him.”

FSU also has four more power arms from the right side, rounding out an exceptionally deep staff. Junior college transfer Davis Hare is the front-runner for the closer job; he’s been up to 92-93 this fall with an uncommonly low spin rate that gives his ball serious sink. In fact, Martin Jr. said he did not give up a flyout the entire fall. He also has a split-finger that the coach describes as “unhittable” and a useful breaking ball. The splitter is more of a chase pitch that he struggles to throw for strikes. It’s not easy for hitters to lay off, however, and he can land the curve in the zone.

Freshman righty Doug Kirkland was regarded as more of a catcher than a pitcher for much of his high school career. Martin Jr. happened to see him off the mound one day while watching another FSU commit, and it made him say, “Whoa, hang on now.” He said the same thing happened when Kirkland arrived in Tallahassee this fall: When he stepped on the mound, it was 92-94 with a high spin rate (up into the 2500s vs. Jacksonville) and a big-time three-quarters breaking ball at 77-78 with a spin rate around 2600. He also threw a quality 83 mph slider vs. the Dolphins, though his fastball and slider velocities were down a bit from its peak (he sat 89-91).

“He’s got a chance to be special,” Martin Jr. said. “His slider’s like 86-88. It’s like J.C. Flowers’s slider, almost like a cutter.”

Physical freshman Brandon Walker also showed power stuff last weekend, working at 91-94 with a promising slider, but he struggled with his command and his changeup. If he can continue to refine his strike-throwing — he made progress in that area over the course of the fall — then he could earn innings next spring as well. Regardless of how long it takes, his future looks very bright.

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Junior righty Tyler Ahearn is in that same X-factor bucket; he was up to 93 against Jacksonville and flashed a very good 81-84 slider with late tilt in the 2400-2500 range. But his control remains a work in progress, as it has been since he arrived at FSU.

Martin Jr. was less enthusiastic about the state of his offense, but maybe that’s just because he runs the offense and has high standards. Even without the departed Flowers and Drew Mendoza, who combined to hit 29 of the team’s 81 homers last year, FSU has a chance for some serious star power.

The centerpiece of the lineup figures to be outfielder Reese Albert (.283/.390/.518 with 9 homers in just 166 at-bats last year), a Day One draft talent who can hit for average and power, run, defend and throw. He missed the whole fall while rehabbing a shoulder that he injured last year and kept popping out on him.

FSU’s lineup looks a whole lot different with him wreaking havoc in the 2-hole, though he also could get forced into the leadoff spot if nobody else emerges.

Florida State’s top returning hitter for average is sophomore Robby Martin (.315/.398/.449 with 17 doubles), a natural born hitter with a pretty left-handed stroke. Martin was a wrecking ball against Jacksonville, delivering four singles and a walk in five plate appearances through nine innings. He sprayed hard line drives from left-center to right field. Martin is also plenty physical at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, and he figures to more than double his home run output (four) from a year ago.

“We call him, that’s what he does. He can hit,” Martin Jr. said. “The biggest thing I’m excited about for him, I told him before he left for the summer, ‘You’ve got to get lighter on your feet, learn to track balls and play defense.’ Sure enough, he did that this summer. He’s running a lot better. His angles and jumps are a heck of a lot improved, so he’ll be playing right field. He does throw well out there too.”

Between Albert, Martin and sophomore Elijah Cabell, Florida State might well have the best outfield in the country provided that Cabell can stay healthy and harness his incredibly loud raw tools. He’s played through a wrist issue this fall that has affected him at the plate, but the Seminoles expect him to be 100 percent by the start of the season. Cabell is a 6.5 to 6.6 runner who could play center or left. He and Albert will battle for the job in center in the spring. He also has legitimate 80 raw power on the 20-80 scale, but he struck out a whopping 88 times in 164 at-bats last year, preventing him from making the most of that raw power.

“The approach is better,” Martin Jr. said. “The pitches that used to look good to him, he’s starting to get into the legs a little bit more. We’ve kind of lowered him a little bit to get him closer to the strike zone. It’s still not exactly what he wants, but he’s working hard at it. He’ll be in the middle of the order, and we expect big things out of him because he’s a power/speed package, and he can throw.”

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Like Cabell, shortstop Nander De Sedas is a draft-eligible sophomore, and both of them have first-round ability if they can take steps forward with their consistency. De Sedas posted a 61-12 K-BB mark last year and hit just .231 after arriving in Tallahassee as the highest-rated freshman prospect in the country. He turned a corner this summer in the NECBL, where he earned all-star honors. He looked great against Jacksonville, singling twice and drawing a walk in his first three trips. A switch-hitter with power potential, good speed and the range and arm strength to stick at shortstop in pro ball, De Sedas is an obvious breakout candidate with huge upside.

“He had a really good fall. Started looking to drag bunt more, hitting the ball the other way. He started to figure some things out,” Martin Jr. said. “We’re excited about that. Last year, as a freshman seeing the sliders in the 1-0 counts that he’d never seen before, it kind of snowballed on him for a while. But late in the year we started seeing some improvement, and obviously he had a good summer — was the defensive Player of the Year up in that league. He has played really well at short for us.”

A third draft-eligible sophomore is yet another star at an up-the-middle position: catcher Matheu Nelson (.282/.442/.442 in 156 at-bats last year). Nelson is a physical backstop with good catch-and-throw skills, and Martin Jr. said the game has slowed down for him since his freshman year. He’s also shown the ability to use the opposite field better at the plate, something FSU has done well for decades. Nelson delivered a two-run single up the middle against Jacksonville in addition to dropping down a surprise bunt single.

Florida State’s other obvious pick to click is junior corner infielder Cooper Swanson, who has tantalized with his big raw power from the right side this fall. Swanson smacked a ground-rule double to left-center against the Dolphins, capping a fall that saw him lead the team with six home runs. Martin Jr. said his strength is his ability to drive the ball out to the opposite field, making him a perfect fit for Dick Howser Stadium and its short porch in right field. He also runs better than you think; Martin Jr. said he can run a 6.6 60. Swanson looks likely to play first base, though he can also hold his own at third base or in the outfield as needed.

The hot corner job is wide open. Other candidates include freshmen Tyrell Brewer, Danny Andzel and senior Carter Smith, who also serves as the backup catcher and can fill in at first base or second. Smith is a typical FSU left-handed hitter who “knows how to put together an at-bat,” according to Martin Jr. Brewer is a premium athlete whose speed plays very well on the basepaths, where his dirtball reads have been exceptional this fall. He also has a plus or better arm but needs to become a more consistent defender and continue to develop his bunting game and contact skills at the plate. Andzel is a local kid who has impressed with his sneaky pop, solid speed and arm strength.

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Finally, Martin Jr. is high on junior college transfer Jackson Greene at second base. His raw tools don’t jump out, but he’ll be a solid hard-nosed contributor.

“There’s something about him everybody on our staff likes, kind of a grinder who sticks his nose in there and will play really good defense. That’s the plan. Kind of a throwback,” Martin Jr. said.

The biggest key for the Seminoles will be making more consistent contact because Martin Jr. lamented that there is a lot of swing and miss with this group. But Florida State’s ceiling is very high, and its deep, talented pitching staff should be able to carry the load while the hitters find their footing. When the dust settles, don’t be surprised if the Martin Jr. era begins with a trip to Omaha, exactly where the Martin Sr. era concluded last June.

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