Ethan Martin didn't have the best three-year start to his professional career.
Thrown into the hitter-friendly California League in his second and third seasons, he compiled ERAs of 6.35 and 7.36 ERAs, respectively, numbers unbecoming a pitcher taken by the Dodgers in the first round of the 2008 Draft.
So during his latest offseason, the Dodgers' No. 8 prospect went about as far away from the Golden State as he could, choosing to participate in the Puerto Rican Winter League. The move is paying dividends.
Martin scattered four hits and three walks over seven shutout innings Friday as Double-A Chattanooga posted a 6-1 victory over Birmingham. He trimmed his ERA to a season-low 2.92 while improving to 6-1 on the season.
"I've been really working hard," said Martin, who's returning to a starting role after spending much of last season in the bullpen. "I went down to Puerto Rico to work on some things and ever since, it seems like stuff is just starting to click. I'm still working and working on it, and I'm still not there. But it helped me a lot. Just because the season [was] over, I'm still competing. It's what I really needed."
The right-hander, who turns 23 on Wednesday, made only five appearances (four starts) for the Indios de Mayaguez but allowed only three earned runs over 20 1/3 innings for a 1.33 ERA. That included a streak of 14 consecutive scoreless frames to close his time on the island.
Martin showed a little bit of what he learned against the Barons. He did not allow more than one baserunner in an inning until the seventh, when he issued two walks before inducing an inning-ending double play.
"I had a pretty good mix of all my pitches," Martin said. "I had some rough spots in there as well, but all in all, I thought I had some good life on my fastball. The slider and changeup were working for me as well and I had a few good curveballs, too."
The changeup, in particular, may hold the key to Martin's continued success. Despite his struggles in the past, he already boasted a plus fastball and curveball, but the changeup had required some work. This year, thanks to a teammate, he might finally be getting a handle on the pitch.
"I've been messing around with the grip of it for a while," Martin said. "[Dodgers' No. 7 prospect Chris Withrow] showed me a new one this year that I've been using these last few starts and it's gone pretty well. I haven't thrown it much in the past, so it's still something I'm getting used to, but I'm hoping to use it more and get enough confidence to use it in hitter's counts. It's a work in progress, but I have to have that pitch as I keep moving on."
Whether it's the increased skill in using the off-speed pitch or his time in the Caribbean last winter, the results are finally returning to Martin. He ranks third in the Southern League with a 1.14 WHIP and fourth with 64 2/3 innings. While he's happy with those numbers, Martin acknowledged he wasn't sure if he'd see them again.
"You know, I want to believe I would say yes [I expected this], but that'd probably be a lie," he said. "I want to say that I saw this coming, I really do, because of all the hard work I've put in. But I know I need to keep pushing on and trying to get better. The day I have all the answers is the day I leave this game."