Ariel Martínez, the next great Cuban catcher

Photo (Prensa Latina)

By Yusseff Díaz

The Chunichi Dragons of the NPB signed Ariel Martinez to a minor league contract in March of 2018 and inserted him into their development program during that year. During that season the Japanese ball club also signed outfielder Leonardo Urgellés who was released later that year and pitcher Raidel Martínez who has become a dependable reliever.

During his first two years with the Dragons minor league ball club, he hit a disappointing .246 although he was still considered the catcher of the future by the team. But this year something has clicked and Chunichi is seeing the player they envisioned when they signed him.

During Japan’s preseason, the young catcher hit .538 with two homers, eight runs batted in and an OPS of 2.033. In two games so far during the regular season with the minor league Dragons, he is hitting .571 with one round-tripper and two RBI’s. Judging by the way he’s developing Ariel Martinez might make his debut in the Japanese big leagues later this season.

What is your goal for this season?

I want to work on and better my defense behind the plate, my counterparts on the ball club have worked with me on that aspect of my game. No, that I’m on the 70-man I’m hoping to make my debut in the Nippon League this year.

How does pitching differ in the Japanese and Cuban League?

The pitching style doesn’t differ much, but the talent level does. In Japan pitchers throw with higher velocity and their breaking pitches have sharper breaks. In the NPB, the control is also a little better and pitchers throw inside more frequently.

What adjustments have you had to make?

I’ve worked on trying to make more contact on inside pitches and also timing those pitches better. I’ve struck out plenty looking at those pitches.

How did your insertion in the Can-Am League with Team Cuba and the Friendship Series with the US collegiate team in 2017 help you in your first season in Japan?

These games helped me a lot because I was facing quality pitching and good baserunners on the basepaths. Facing quality baserunners helped me in my timing when throwing to the bases, I grew plenty in that aspect during those series. I also noticed how I grew as a hitter facing a better quality of pitching helped me catch the eye of Japanese scouts when they saw how I mauled Serie Nacional pitching later that year. Without that experience, I might not be playing in the NPB right now.

Photo (Ricardo López Hevia)

How has it helped you having your countrymen Dayan Viciedo and Raidel Martínez in the organization with you?

Having Viciedo here has helped more than anyone would understand. He’s a very experienced player and an ex-big leaguer,

I’ve been soaking up all his wisdom like a sponge. He has also helped me in many of the intricacies of the game.

Having Raidel in the minors with me in the first year here helped me plenty because I was able to see game action because he was someone I could communicate with. By doing this I was able to flash my ability and earn the confidence of the coaches. This eventually led to me catching the native pitchers.

How do you communicate with Japanese pitchers granted you

don’t speak the language?

That hindered me for my first 20 days in Japan, I didn’t catch much because Raidel was the only pitcher on the minor league team in 2018. With the help of the translator, I was able to pick up keywords, this helped me communicate with the pitchers. When we go over scouting reports I sometimes revert to using the translator, but I make progress every day in this aspect.

You’ve been compared to Ariel Pestano, what do you make of that comparison?

I’ve never heard of the comparisons but I’m quite flattered, he’s a legend and a darn good catcher. He basically has rewritten the history book in Cuba. I don’t want to be compared to him because those are big shoes to fill. He and Juan Castro were stalwarts defensively, I actually enjoy hitting more than I do playing defense.

Hopefully, when I’m done playing I can be as good as Pestano and Castro. Although they aren’t catchers I would like to be a hitter of

Lázaro Junco’s and Antonio Muñoz’s caliber before it’s all said and done. I have a long hard road ahead of me before I reach their level.

What catcher or catchers do you admire the most?

Every kid in Cuba of my generation admires Ariel Pestano as do I, now one catcher that I like to watch and emulate is Salvador Pérez. I try to watch film of him and I definitely try to catch plenty of Kansas City Royals games on television when I can.

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