According to WAR, and this is the case for both fWAR (3.3) and bWAR (5.4), Carlos Martinez was the most valuable starting pitcher on the St. Louis Cardinals this season. While one certainly should not complain too much about the staff’s most valuable pitcher, one could still make the point that 2016 felt like a step sideways for Martinez, and generally, that is okay considering his level of performance in the season prior. Yet, after being voted onto the National League All-Star team in his first full season as a starting pitcher, the sky was the limit regarding 2016 expectations for Martinez, fair or not.
Now, one must remember that expectations are by no means the same as projections. Just because we expect Martinez, armed with an electric repertoire, to take over as the clear staff ace and become a top five or ten starting pitcher in all of baseball doesn’t mean it will definitely happen. In fact, Dan Szymborski’s 2016 ZiPS virtually nailed its Martinez projection as it pegged the 25-year-old righty at 3.4 zWAR over 172.1 innings with a declined strikeout rate. Sure enough, as stated in the opening paragraph, Martinez accumulated 3.3 fWAR in 2016, but it required more innings (195.1) to get there largely due to the strikeout rate declining even further than ZiPS projected (8.02 K/9 versus 8.72).
So what can Martinez do in 2017 to truly reach a “new level” and find his name consistently mentioned in top five to ten lists compiled by baseball analysts across the nation, you ask? We could begin a complex pitch sequencing discussion (hopefully coming later this offseason), we could talk about better pitch location, or we could revisit the idea that he may or may not have been tipping his pitches earlier in the season. But, as the title suggests, this step forward just may be a whole lot “easier” than you think.
As you would expect, Martinez experienced better results after throwing a first-pitch strike. This is not a new development as it is almost certainly the case for all pitchers. However, when you look at the disparity between the two splits, Martinez was essentially Clayton Kershaw after throwing a first-pitch strike last season. And Kershaw, throwing all of the nonsense postseason narratives aside, is the best starting pitcher on the planet.
To even group Martinez and Kershaw in the same sentence is a step toward a “new level” for the Cardinals’ best starting pitcher last season. Thus, logically speaking, a concrete goal for Martinez in 2017 would be to intensely focus on that first-pitch strike, keeping in mind that he becomes Kershaw-like through an 0-1 count. The one problem here is Martinez’s first-pitch strike percentage of 62.3% was already higher than the 2016 league average (60.7%). In fact, it was just outside the top 25 in MLB.
Fortunately, we are talking about a pitcher on the cusp of being considered great (not a league average one), so even the slightest improvement could make a drastic difference. If Martinez can bump his first-pitch strike percentage up to 65% (a mark reached by nine starting pitchers last season), we could soon be talking about Carlos Martinez, National League Cy Young contender. Of course, there is much more to pitching than the first-pitch strike, but when you possess a Martinez-level repertoire, sometimes it is best to focus first on the “easy” things, such as starting as many possible at bats with an 0-1 count.