It is amazing how quickly luxury items become necessities. Whether it is that car, that television, or that grinder that makes the coffee beans just so, there are times we pined, saved, and dreamed of having that specific luxury item. Once it is ours, we quickly forget the item is a luxury, that we went without it for so long. We now need it. So it is with Carlos Martinez: Starting Pitcher.
For several years, we heard about this young pitcher drawing comparisons to Pedro Martinez. Last season we got a glimpse of his talent coming out of the bullpen, throwing fastballs nearly a hundred miles an hour with a devastating slider. He came to Spring Training with a shot to win a job in the rotation, but was deemed a luxury and sent back to the bullpen. Despite a few injuries, Martinez remained in the bullpen until he was given a start to give the rotation a breather.
Martinez' start was not an audition, but a gift to Martinez for being a loyal worker despite being passed over earlier in the season. Likely temporary, his stay in the rotation helped Adam Wainwright get a start off, then the same for Michael Wacha. At the time it was pretty easy to envision a start off for Shelby Miller, a start off for Jaime Garcia, perhaps another rest for Wainwright and Wacha. Wainwright came back as strong as ever, but Michael Wacha did not. Wacha was out indefinitely, and Garcia's own injury struggles resurfaced. The rotation, once a force, was down to ace Adam Wainwright, the always solid Lance Lynn, and the inconsistent Shelby Miller.
If Carlos Martinez' first few starts were an audition, he passed merely by showing up. Showing his trademark athleticism and infectious energy, Martinez performed well. He walked a few too many hitters and has not yet been completely stretched out as a starter, but he has shown four impact pitches: a two-seam fastball averaging over 95 miles per hour, a four-seamer that has reached a hundred, a devastating slider that batters miss on more than 50% of their swings, and a changeup that hitters miss more than 35% of their swings since becoming a starter.
Here are Martinez' first four starts this year compared to Michael Wacha's first four starts last season (From Fangraphs).
While Marco Gonzales came up from the majors just a year after the draft with the polished change-up, it is Carlos Martinez that provides the comp for Michael Wacha in terms of entering the rotation mid-season and the potential impact on the Cardinals' chances going forward. It would be nice to see Martinez lower his walks and pitch deeper into games, but if he does that, he's Adam Wainwright. Martinez is still building up endurance with no time in the minors to get his pitch count up. The innings will come. There is an argument that Martinez had the benefit of more time in the majors before his first four starts, and there is some truth to that. Here are Michael Wacha's next four starts after gaining major league experience starting as well as a stint in the bullpen.
Martinez still matches up well with Michael Wacha. Of course, there is another argument to be made about Wacha being just one year out of college while Martinez has been a professional in the Cardinals' organization for a number of years, but age is also a factor. Michael Wacha is older than Carlos Martinez. A year ago at this time, Wacha was a 22-year old making his first impression in the majors. Martinez is not making his first appearances in the majors, but he is just twenty-two and will not turn twenty-three until late September. Only one pitcher younger than Martinez has made as many as four starts in the majors this season: Jose Fernandez.
Much wringing of the hands was done by myself and others at the start of the season when Martinez was passed over for a spot in the rotation. At the time, I wrote this:
Putting Martinez in the rotation from the beginning of the season, perhaps skipping his turn a few times in April with multiple off days, and then moving him to the bullpen later in the season as he approaches his innings limit is a much more effective way to use the Cardinals' pitching resources.
With Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn, and maybe even Jaime Garcia on the staff, saving room for starter innings when Martinez would be unlikely to crack the postseason rotation seemed excessive. The decision to save the innings of Carlos Martinez, well-coiffed and newly dubbed "El Gallo", looks much better in hindsight. Due to his time in the bullpen, Martinez has racked up just 53 innings pitched this season. With 73 games to go, if Martinez makes fifteen more starts and averages six innings per start, he will only have 143 innings pitched heading into the postseason. The Cardinals decision to rest Martinez should allow El Gallo to enter the postseason without an innings restriction.
The Cardinals did not need Carlos Martinez in the rotation at the beginning of the year. He was a luxury the Cardinals could afford to keep on the shelf despite fans' desperate pleas to put him on the mound every fifth day. Even when he entered the rotation, Martinez was a luxury, simply buying time for a few banged up starters. Now in the rotation, it will be nearly impossible to remove him. He is no longer a luxury. He is a necessity. The Cardinals are 4-0 in his starts. He should be untouchable in any trade. With Wainwright providing excellence and Lynn providing stability, the Cardinals need Martinez to take a step forward if they want to win the division. From what Martinez has shown so far, he's ready.