Remember the trade that sent Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden? It seems like a lifetime ago, I know, but that trade happened during this very offseason. So long has passed you may have forgotten that the Braves did not at first ask for Miller's inclusion in that trade. Per Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Atlanta initially sought Carlos Martinez:
Let's put Jason Heyward aside for a while to discuss one of the more intriguing aspects of the Cardinals-Braves trade -- at least from the St. Louis standpoint.
Which is: the Cardinals chose to keep Carlos Martinez and trade Shelby Miller.
Post-Dispatch baseball writer Derrick Goold has alluded to this. The Braves apparently wanted Martinez as the receiving-end center piece of the Heyward deal. The Cardinals wouldn't do that, and traded Miller instead.
The Braves targeted Martinez. The Cardinals said no. The two sides then settled on the trade with Miller as the primary piece going from St. Louis to Atlanta, leaving Martinez a Cardinal, the presumptive frontrunner to replace Miller in the rotation. Another insight into the organization's thinking, reported by Miklasz in the same piece, is axiomatic to the first juicy morsel of intrigue:
The team's internal view -- and this is related to the first point -- is that Martinez has more upside. Now, the Cardinals could be wrong about that. Sure. But Martinez does have better "stuff" and has a larger variety of pitches that he can effectively rely on. It's difficult for me to say the Cardinals are making an error in judgment. This isn't to say that Miller isn't a good pitcher. But at this respective stage of their careers, Martinez simply has more ways to get hitters out.
Joe analyzed Miller's fourseamer early last year. During the Texan's rookie campaign, he hurled his heater 73.6% of the time in 2013. That was tops among all MLB starting pitchers. In 2014, Miller threw his fourseam fastball on 67.82% of his offerings, which was one of the ten highest usage rates among starters in the big leagues.
Why does Miller rely so heavily on his fourseamer? His other pitches aren't very good.
When Miller emerged from the minors, he had two secondary offerings that earned at best mixed reviews: a curveball and a changeup. Since then Miller has tinkered with a cutter a bit. Late last season, Justin Masterson taught Miller a sinker grip that he experimented with a little bit. However, none of the pitches has really developed into anything more than serviceable (and that adjective might be generous).
If you aren't reading the work Eno Sarris is doing, I highly recommend you start. Sarris is one of my must-read baseball writers at present. On Monday, he delivered another excellent piece: "What makes a good curveball?" Sarris has developed a metric that he calls Arsenal Score to gauge a pitch's effectiveness baseball based on whiffs and grounders, those most desirable of outcomes for a pitcher. By Arsenal Score, MIller had one of the ten worst Uncle Charlies in the majors.
Sarris explains the characteristics that a curveball tends to have in order to generate groundballs and swings-and-misses:
Here are the closest things to definitive statements that we can say from those outcomes.
* If you want whiffs from your curve, throw it hard.
* If you want grounders from your curve, make it drop.
Why is Miller's curve so bad? He doesn't induces grounders (due to lack of drop) and he doesn't generate a lot of whiffs either (thanks to a lack of velocity). Sarris explains:
Since velocity is so important for whiffs, let's notice that Shelby Miller, who shows up on this bottom 10 list, also lost more velocity on his curveball than anyone not named Brian Wilson, Tanner Roark, Sean Marshall, Jhoulys Chacin, Danny Farquhar or Jenrry Mejia. And many of the guys who lost more velocity were hurt. A couple ticks on the gun for Miller's curve might not have seemed like a big deal, but velocity is important to the curve. If he can't get that velocity back, maybe he'd be best suited trying to find a way to bury it -- Kluber and Ian Kennedy both added more than two inches of drop to their curves last season, to great benefit.
By Arsenal Score, Miller also has one of the worst changeups in the game.
Martinez, on the other hand, throws one of the game's nastiest curves by Arsenal Score. This is because Martinez throws a harder curve, one that induces whiffs at a rate over twice the league average, according to Sarris. You'll recall that Martinez threw a difference curve when he joined the Cardinals. Then pitching coach Derek Lilliquist altered Martinez's delivery and made it a faster pitch. Here's Goold's reporting on the alteration:
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.
Curveball or slider, whatever it's name, Martinez's breaking ball is a nasty pitch—one that's head and shoulders above where Miller's curve is at present. While Martinez's changeup didn't make Sarris's list of the game's best (or worst), I think it's safe to say that it's a better pitch right now than Miller's change.
When it comes to stuff, Martinez is better than Miller. That's why Martinez is a Cardinal and Miller is a Brave. Moving forward we'll see if having better stuff means that Martinez will be the superior starting pitcher.