clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Keeping the faith in Carlos Martinez

New, comments

The Cardinals pursuit of a high-profile pitcher has cast some doubt on Carlos Martinez' spot in the rotation, but confidence should remain in his ability to seize the role of starter in 2015.

#VivaElGallo
#VivaElGallo
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Fact One: Carlos Martinez is currently projected as the Cardinals fifth starter for 2015.

Fact Two: The Cardinals are currently looking for a starting pitcher.

Conclusion: The Cardinals do not have faith in Carlos Martinez as a starter.

The conclusion above is a fairly easy one to reach. The Cardinals are out gauging the market for Max Scherzer, David Price, and Cole Hamels. The pitcher each would replace is Carlos Martinez. That must mean the team sees Martinez as risky enough that they need to find a replacement for him in the rotation. However, the surface conclusion proves false when taken with all of the Cardinals' action this offseason.

The Cardinals are methodical and opportunistic. Their pursuit of a top-flight starter as the calendar edges closer to Spring Training is evidence of the latter. Their confidence in Carlos Martinez can be seen in the former. When the Cardinals made the trade for Jason Heywardthey preferred to keep Carlos Martinez over Shelby Miller. When the Cardinals unveiled plans for a competition for the fifth starter spot, John Mozeliak all but gave Martinez the job when discussing the need for another starter.

"I don't feel that's something we have to do," said Mozeliak. "The way we're structured, we really want to do something where we create an opportunity for Carlos.

"That's why we've addressed the bullpen the way we have. As that (starting) market develops, we'll definitely be on the sidelines watching."

Mozeliak acknowledges making moves for the bullpen specifically so Carlos Martinez could start. They then let him pitch in the Dominican Republic to get a few more innings on his arm to prepare for being a starter and he gave up just three runs and no walks while striking out 12 in just over a dozen innings. The Cardinals' actions indicate they want Martinez to start, and they have been doing everything they can to clear a spot in the rotation, not bump him out of it.

If Carlos Martinez were the worry for the Cardinals in the rotation as opposed to Adam Wainwright, John Lackey, and Michael Wacha, going after Hamels and Scherzer seems a bit much. If Martinez were the worry, names like Ryan Vogelsong and Kevin Correia would be sufficient for a backup fifth starter role. If Martinez were the worry, targeting players requiring multi-year commitments to bump a fifth starter in 2015 is a major overreaction. Going after ace-level pitchers indicates a worry higher up on the pecking order and an opportunity to add a core member of the organization independent of their belief in Carlos Martinez.

Not everyone shares that same view.

In his post at Fangraphs, Jeff Zimmerman watched a Martinez start against the Pirates and came away unimpressed.

Final thoughts: Right now he is a fastball/slurve pitcher who can over power hitters early in the game, but struggles later especially against LHH. Being able to throw his change consistently and command his other pitches would help. Right now he is 4-5 inning starter or a good bullpen arm.

Zimmerman indicated that Martinez has not shown an ability to pitch deep into games, a criticism that John Mozeliak has made as well. The game Zimmerman watched, Martinez made it through six innings on just 85 pitches. In addition, Zimmerman used as support for his argument Martinez's gaudy 1.362 OPS against the third time through the order. This sample is just 28 plate appearances. When Martinez was pulled from the rotation, I felt Martinez's inability to go deep into games was partially a manager construct.

Matheny handled Martinez like Tony LaRussa handled pitchers in the 2011 playoffs. There is nothing wrong with Matheny's approach given the quick transition from the bullpen, but putting the blame solely on Martinez for failing to pitch later into games is not entirely fair. In his second start, Martinez completed three scoreless frames in a row and was pulled after just 74 pitches. Against the Dodgers, Martinez breezed through the third and fourth innings, and was pulled at the first sign of trouble in the fifth after just 82 pitches. Martinez was in trouble against the Giants in the fifth inning. However, he struck out Buster Posey to end a scoreless fifth and with his spot due up the next inning, he was taken out after 88 pitches. He went six innings against the Pirates. Against the Brewers, Martinez struggled and given it was the day before the All-Star Break, there was no sense in pushing him after just 69 pitches.

Carlos Martinez averaged 16.4 pitches per inning as a starter in 2014 while Lance Lynn averaged 16.9 last year. Martinez has room to improve, but his pitch counts are not astronomical. Zimmerman also mentioned Martinez' slider was very good, but when it was hung, it got crushed. Blending scouting and statistics can be incredibly effective, especially when scouting just one start. In the start against the Pirates, Martinez did hang a slider and it was hit for a home run. That was one of just two homers Martinez gave up against the slider all season and one of just five extra base hits against the pitch in 369 pitches and 109 at bats that ended on that pitch. Zimmerman correctly points out that the slider is a problem against lefties. Four of the five extra base hits last season against Martinez' slider were against lefties, although he still maintained an above-average 19% whiff rate against lefthanders.

Looking at individual starts by Carlos Martinez can be a fascinating exercise in part because Martinez has been developing on the fly over the last two seasons. It is amazing that he has been so successful despite constantly making adjustments to his pitch arsenal and development. Prior to the 2012 season, Keith Law ranked Martinez as the number 22 prospect in baseball and wrote about his best pitches.

He now hits 100 mph as a starter and pitches in the mid-90s, with a hard curveball that has sharp two-plane break and tilt that puts it somewhere between a curve and a slider. As good as the curveball is, however, it's so far below the fastball's velocity -- 16-18 mph -- that he's sometimes actually helping the hitter by throwing it. He'll flash a plus changeup that he turns over very well, but when he moved up to high Class A, his lack of deception caught up to him, especially against left-handed hitters.

Looking back, the "helping the hitter" comment about the curveball is striking. Law wrote about Martinez heading into 2013, and still the curveball was his second best pitch. The comment about the curveball jumps out because despite its effectiveness in the minors, the Cardinals staff had him abandon it in favor of a now-incredible slider. As Derrick Goold wrote during the season:

Last year, Martinez came into the majors with the notion that his curveball was his second-best pitch. There were times in the minors when even though he was packing that sizzler fastball he would get off-speed happy. That wasn't an issue in the majors, though his curve was. Martinez would slow his mechanics for the breaking ball and telegraph what was coming. A hitter could pick up the type of pitch that was coming before it left Martinez's hand because of the righty's tell. To correct that, pitching coach Derek Lilliquist suggested that Martinez go back to a hard breaking ball, one that he could throw with the same delivery, same anger as his fastball. The slider was born, and it became an effective pitch for him.

One of the pitches that got Martinez to the majors was quickly abandoned and Martinez adapted immediately, succeeding in the 2013 playoffs. He is still adapting to his incredible ability to pitch. He has a changeup that can be effective against lefties, given the 39% whiff/swing rate and 17% overall whiff rate. He used his sinker just 20% of the time last season, yet it has the potential to shorten games and still get swings and misses, as Joe wrote about earlier in the offseason.

Carlos Martinez has electric stuff and some of it has come through on the mound, but his ability to adapt and continue to work shows the potential for even more. When Eno Sarris put together a pitch arsenal score, Martinez came through as second in all of baseball. As Mike Podhrozer noted, all four of Martinez' pitches have an above average whiff rate. Martinez has yet to figure out lefthanders, a critique that has also been levied against Lance Lynn, but his pitches are so good and the number of plate appearances against lefties relatively small, there is hope that Martinez can resolve this issue.

Martinez has been between roles the last two years, but it has not prevented him from piling up innings necessary to make a jump to the rotation full-time. In 2013, between the minors, majors, playoffs and winter league, Martinez pitched about 130 innings. He was closer to 120 innings this season, but bumping him up to 150 innings or more is hardly drastic. ZiPS projects Martinez for a 3.22 FIP, a 3.66 ERA and 2.2 zWAR over 150 innings. Getting above average production in less than a full season of work would be a very positive development for both Martinez and the Cardinals. He might not have put it all together yet, but even his body of work statistically thus far shows optimism for the future.

As Fangraphs writer and noted Martinez supported Paul Swydan has written, the Cardinals do not need to make a splash. The Cardinals can be opportunistic and have the potential to add to their aging core and keep their championship window open a little longer. Pursuing Max Scherzer, Cole Hamels, and David Price should not reflect poorly on Carlos Martinez or the Cardinals apparent view on him. The entire offseason, the Cardinals have shown confidence that Martinez will come to spring ready to start. Regardless of the remaining moves the Cardinals make, Carlos Martinez is very likely to start this season and reward the Cardinals' faith in his abilities.