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The Cardinals' minor league system has produced loads of pitching talent... and more is on the way. Carlos Martinez advanced to double-A and became an important piece of Springfield's championship team at age 20.
Cardinals’ fans became acquainted with several well-regarded pitching prospects in 2012. Instead of frantically retweeting spring training reports of Trevor Rosenthal pumping 100 mph gas, you can see it for yourself now on TV. Joe Kelly provided 100+ capable innings to help fill the void created by Jaime Garcia’s DL stint. And Shelby Miller overcame an elevated HR-rate and sour scouting reports to dominate in the 2nd half, earn a September promotion, and reassert his prospect status. But, with all of these new arms to hyperventilate over, is there anyone left to anticipate? Let me remind you about Carlos Martinez.
Baseball America described Martinez as having one of the minors’ best fastballs. John Sickels rated him the 33rd best prospect in all of baseball in February, but his July revision bumped Martinez up to 24th overall. Similarly, Jonathan Mayo’s list on MLB.com promoted Martinez from the 30th spot to 26th overall. Sure, these promotions were partly due to some top prospects (Matt Moore, Bryce Harper, Mike Trout) graduating to the majors, but his stock could have easily fallen with a lackluster performance.
It’s not as if 2012 wasn’t without its obstacles. Per Matthew Leach’s article from January 2012, Martinez was supposed to improve his fastball command entering this season, and Leach included comments from John Vuch, the Cards’ farm director:
"He's got a great arm, and he's got the breaking pitch. He's almost the opposite of Shelby in some ways, in that we almost had to try to persuade him to throw his fastball more. He's got a good breaking pitch and a change, and he likes to use all of his pitches. We're trying to find a sweet spot, where it's not all fastball, and it's not all offspeed."
However Martinez was employing his arsenal, it worked for high-A Palm Beach. Martinez struck out 24.1% of the batters he faced and only walked 7.1% in 33 innings. Both of those numbers represented improvements on his time spent at this level in 2011 (21.8% K% & 13.6% BB% in 46 innings). But then he was placed on Palm Beach’s (high-A) disabled list with mild shoulder tendinitis in May. Thankfully, this move was precautionary, because when Martinez exited the DL in June, he landed on double-A Springfield’s roster and continued to succeed.
And, in July, Kary Booher reported another developmental milestone. Martinez started favoring his fastball over the curveball, and even started mixing in an effective sinker that helped him keep the ball on the ground more often. Keep in mind that batted-ball data from the minor leagues is even more suspect than MLB, but the numbers available at Minor League Central support this observation. After his promotion to Springfield, 57.4% of the balls put in play against Martinez were grounders (Texas League average was 45.5%), compared to 48.4% for Palm Beach. That’s Dave-Duncan-tested, Jake-Westbrook-approved type stuff.
Of Springfield pitchers with at least 65 innings, Martinez’s 2.90 ERA ranked third behind Eric Fornataro (2.39) and Trevor Rosenthal (2.78), but Fornataro was a reliever that didn’t have to worry about turning the opponents’ lineup over two or three times. Martinez’s 3.84 FIP was not quite as stellar, but still solid considering the Texas League average FIP was 3.95. A quick glance at his .280 BABIP provides some insight into the discrepancy between ERA and FIP, but if the batted ball data is at all accurate, Martinez only allowed line drives at a miniscule rate of 10% (15.7% LD% league average). If you believe in his batted ball profile, perhaps StatCorner’s tRA better represents his season. Martinez’s 3.63 tRA (here’s a simplified explanation of tRA) ranked 2nd on the team (of those with at least 250 batters faced) and 22% better than league average.
This all culminated in Game 1 of the 2012 Texas League Championship series, a game that Derrick Goold termed Martinez’s "signature start." Martinez pitched 6 innings 6 times for Springfield in the regular season, but it wasn’t until September 11th that the youngster finished the 7th inning. He didn’t allow any runs and struck out 7 batters against just 1 walk. Goold noted that Martinez collected 20 of 21 outs (7 Ks & 12 groundballs) without the ball ever leaving the infield. If this represented a punctuation on Martinez’s quietly impressive 2012 season, then perhaps his strikeout of Texas Rangers catcher Mike Napoli - who was on a rehab assignment at the time - was the exclamation point as his fastball registered 100-mph on the stadium's radar gun and 98-mph on another in the crowd.
All that being said, not all smart people agree about Martinez’s future. Kevin Goldstein, formerly of Baseball Prospectus but now working for Luhnow and the Astros, has questioned Martinez’s projectability as a starter: "(Martinez) has a smallish frame and plenty of effort in his delivery, a combination that has many scouts projecting a future in the bullpen." Jason Parks, also of Baseball Prospectus, is more optimistic about Martinez's ability to start in the future: "the majority of the sources I spoke with saw him as a starter and not a reliever." The good news is that both pundits agree that Martinez will have an impact at the major league level.
Perhaps the shoulder tendinitis experienced by Martinez early in 2012 confirms suspicions about his durability. Or maybe his advocates are reassured by the sustained velocity he demonstrated over the latter half of the season. However one projects Carlos Martinez, Cardinals fans should take heart in knowing that they have another special talent on the way.