It's no secret, especially in these parts, that Carlos Martinez had a pretty successful 2015 campaign. And that was a huge relief because truth-be-told, even though his potential was worth the excitement, it wasn't unreasonable to wonder whether he could be a reliable starting pitcher for a 162-game season. In fact, such a concern was quite reasonable. For starters, it was pointed out to me before the season that he hadn't averaged more than five innings per start at any level heading into 2015. Also, in 32.1 innings as a starter in 2014 Martinez wasn’t exactly a steady hand. He posted a 4.45 ERA, and even though he had a strikeout rate of 23%, he walked an unseemly 10.8% of batters.
Naturally, I watched Martinez's first start of 2015 with a bit of trepidation. It was a Sunday day game in Cincinnati, a venue where the ball likes to leave the park. Not the most ideal setting if you're looking for a young pitcher to begin the season with a shot of confidence. Turned out, there was no need to be concerned - Martinez threw six strong innings, gave up one run on four hits, struck out eight, and walked two. There was nothing incredibly special about the start but given the circumstances it seemed perfectly acceptable to be excited and at some point I turned to my friend and said something like, "Oh hell, I think this is going to be fun."
And it was; Martinez was very good in 2015. There were rough spots - particularly in August - but in total he pitched just under 180 innings and posted above-average numbers in nearly every notable category and was worth 3.4 fWAR. In his last full start of the season, on another Sunday afternoon, he pitched 6 2/3 innings and helped the Cardinals salvage the final game of a contentious series with the Cubs at Wrigley Field. It was likely the Cardinals biggest win of the regular season. Maybe a season saving win if we’re talking solely about the NL Central and not the NLDS, which I’d still prefer to think didn’t really happen.
Nevertheless, perhaps the most impressive part about Martinez in 2015: It was only his age-23 season. Taking that into account, using Baseball-Reference's Play Index page and FanGraphs Leaderboards, I took a look at age-23 seasons for right-handed starting pitchers from 1988-2015 who pitched at least 162 innings, and it turns out Martinez's 2015 season stacks up very well. (Note: Borrowing an idea from Baseball Prospectus, I'm using 1988 as my cut-off date because that was the first year that complete pitch-by-pitch info was available. And it leaves out 1987 when home run totals were abnormally high which helped Andre Dawson win the NL MVP even though Ozzie Smith and Jack Clark were both more deserving. But that's probably for another day.)
In total, there are 77 pitchers in that time period who fit the above-parameters, with Martinez being the only one from 2015. Of those 77, here's where Martinez's 2015 stats rank in the following categories:
- ERA: 3.01 (10th)
- ERA-: 79 (11th)
- FIP: 3.21 (9th)
- FIP-: 83 (12th)
- Strikeout rate: 24.8% (3rd)
- HR allowed: 13 (6th - tie)
- fWAR: 3.4 (24th)
- bWAR: 3.9 (19th)
Felix Hernandez, Jake Peavy, Jose Rijo, Mike Mussina, and Carlos Zambrano were the only pitchers to each finish ahead of Martinez in the first four categories. And only Yovani Gallardo and Peavy struck out batters at a higher rate. Martinez also walked 8.0% of batters in 2015 which needs to improve going forward, but that number is trending in the right direction from 2014 and falls near the middle of the pack for right-handed pitchers in their age-23 season. Lastly, of those who logged less than 200 innings, only Chad Billingsley, Peavy, Ismael Valdez, Rijo, Mat Latos, Tony Armas, and Jarrod Parker were worth more wins above replacement by fWAR and only Billingsley, Peavy, and Valdez were ahead of Martinez in both fWAR and bWAR.
So what does this mean for Martinez in 2016? Assuming his shoulder is not a lingering problem, I’d like to think it's pretty strong evidence that the Cardinals will continue to be in good hands when he's on the mound. Dan Szymborski, founder of the ZiPS projection system, certainly seemed to think so last October. Current Steamer predictions are slightly more bearish but still project Martinez to be a 3+ win pitcher.
And that's comforting because with John Lackey signing with the Cubs on Friday, a rotation with the only other sure-things being Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, and Michael Wacha is one we know to be capable of dominance yet prone to fragility. Not only that, just like it was predictably hard for the Cardinals to replicate their 2013 .330 batting average with runners in scoring position, the Cardinals pitching staff likely can’t count on exceptional run prevention and cluster luck to be on their side again in 2016. Instead they’ll need to count on Carlos Martinez, and after 2015 I don’t think that’s a bad position to be in.