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Carlos Martinez as a starting pitcher: Increased sinker usage? Yes, please.

Step number one for Carlos Martinez as a starting pitcher? Please throw the sinker more often.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

After the blockbuster trade that sent Shelby Miller to the Atlanta Braves, there immediately became an opening in the starting rotation of the St. Louis Cardinals. On paper, at least initially, it looked like there was going to be a spring training competition between the right-handed Carlos Martinez and the left-handed Marco Gonzales. However, General Manager John Mozeliak was quite candid on MLB Network Radio the day after the trade: "[Martinez will] be given a clean path to fifth spot, if he comes to spring training prepared."

Now, if you have read this Jeff Sullivan Fangraphs article titled "Revisiting the Myth of the Five-Man Rotation" (hat tip to Ben Humphrey and Craig Edwards for discussing this on episode 11 of the VEB podcast), you know that both Martinez and Gonzales will likely see their fair share of time in the rotation next season. However, after two MLB seasons with a relatively undefined bullpen role, the formality of Martinez being named the team's fifth starter will likely come as a relief. Though I am a huge fan of Gonzales (especially his changeup), I, along with most at Viva El Birdos, have been anxiously waiting to see Martinez in the rotation for a few years now. The acquisition of Matt Belisle basically puts an end to our collective wait. Finally.

As mentioned in my baseball talk with Harry Pavlidis of Baseball Prospectus/Pitch Info, Martinez has the best sinker on staff, and it really isn't all that close. As I have brought up on numerous occasions, I also believe his changeup has the potential to be the best on staff as well (yes, even better than Marco's and Michael Wacha's). However, we need a much larger sample size before making that determination, so instead, we will focus solely on his sinker for this post, which admittedly, is also a pretty small sample size (487 sinkers thrown) at this stage in his career.

Sinker usage

Overall, as primarily a reliever, Martinez has gone with the sinker only 23.47% of the time (as compared to 43.86% with his four-seamer). Below, you will find a more detailed breakdown of his sinker usage, distributed by place in the count and the handedness of the hitter (courtesy of BrooksBaseball):

1st pitch Behind in count Ahead in count Even count Two strikes
RHH 25% 21% 22% 27% 16%
LHH 29% 20% 19% 27% 9%

As you can see, Martinez goes to the sinker roughly one time every four first pitches, with the rate being very slightly higher against lefties. When he gets ahead in the count, especially with two strikes, we see a distinguishable drop in sinker usage. Though technically it's a pitch in which we see a higher rate of balls in play (not always desired when the pitcher is one pitch away from a strikeout), it is still a pitch that leads to a decent amount of swings and misses as well (detailed further below). If I'm Derek Lilliquist or Yadier Molina, I'm discussing these usage splits with Martinez this spring with the intention of him going to the pitch (his best) more often.

Sinker data

Velocity Dragless Horizontal movement (2014) Whiffs Whiffs/Swing Fouls/Swing GB LD HR
96.44 MPH -8.24 inches 10.88% 22.27% 32.77% 16.43% 4.31% 0.00%

The 96.44 MPH average velocity makes Martinez's sinker one of the very fastest in all of baseball. For perspective, it averages one hundredth of a MPH faster than Gerrit Cole's and ~1.2 MPH slower than Yordano Ventura's. As a starting pitcher over the course of a 162-plus game season, the average velocity would likely decline, but by how much and its subsequent effects remain to be seen. The horizontal movement on the pitch is simply fantastic (again, virtually identical to both Ventura's and Cole's). The batted ball outcomes are also desirable—leading to even more whiffs than his four-seamer (10.88% versus 8.79%) while still maintaining a high ground ball rate and a low line drive rate. Also, as pointed out in previous posts, Martinez has yet to allow a home run off his dynamite sinker.

For pure enjoyment purposes, let's view two separate angles of a borderline unfair 97.7 MPH (!) sinker to Pablo Sandoval in game 4 of the 2014 NLCS:

Angle #1

Angle #2

Bottom line

At this point in his development, there are two main knocks on Martinez: 1) He has yet to prove himself as a starting pitcher, and 2) Questions behind his ability to be efficient enough to be a starting pitcher. We are all pretty much in agreement that there is extreme potential present and that his repertoire is just plain nasty. All signs point toward Martinez being able to address knock number one as early as spring training 2015, and in my opinion, knock number two can be easily managed by utilizing his sinker more going forward.

The ground ball and whiff rates would both contribute to making the sinker a valuable weapon for Martinez, the starting pitcher. To be frank, the sinker is so good that it should be a pitch he throws roughly 50% of the time. However, when I asked "Pitch Info" Pavlidis if we will see his sinker usage anywhere near this high of a percentage, he responded, "I hope so. But I don't quite expect it." I look forward to seeing what the Cardinals have in Martinez #18 next season.

As always, credit to BrooksBaseball for the PITCHF/x information and @mstreeter06 for the GIFs.


Also, as I posted in the comments of yesterday's barren daily thread, I proposed to my girlfriend (now fiancé) of nearly four years over the weekend (on 12/13/14 to be exact). My assumption is that the majority of you couldn't care less, but for those of you that may care, well, now you know.