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Carlos Martinez, the starter, receives another passing grade

After year two as a starter, Carlos Martinez still stacks up historically well.

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Pittsburgh Pirates v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The Cardinals won 100 games in 2015 for a myriad of reasons not the least of which being every starting pitcher who threw at least 100 innings outperformed their FIP. They were led by John Lackey who outperformed his FIP by .80 points, which was third in the National League for starting pitchers who logged at least 100 innings. Three other Cardinals starters (Jaime Garcia, Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn) ranked in the top 12.

We all know by now this past season the Cardinals weren’t as lucky. Carlos Martinez was the only Cardinals starter with at least 100 innings to outperform his FIP, which he did by 0.57 points, good for 11th in the NL. The next best starter on staff in this category was Garcia, whose ERA was 19 points higher than his FIP, which ranked 43rd in the NL for starters who eclipsed the 100 innings mark. Mike Leake and Wacha were the ninth and tenth worst NL pitchers, respectively, in this category.

To see a more complete picture, here is how the Cardinals’ core rotation stacked up with the average line for NL starters in 2016:

There are several ways to look at this, but it’s fair to argue that on an average week in 2016, the Cardinals were definitively only trotting out one above-average starting pitcher. That the Cardinals only won 86 games was disappointing, but when reminded of just how bad the staff was at run prevention 86 wins can also feel a bit miraculous.

With regard to that one above-average starting pitcher, imagine where this team would have been without Carlos Martinez. For my inaugural post on Viva El Birdos, I looked at Martinez’s 2015 season, and how it stacked up to other right-handed starting pitchers in MLB in their age-23 season since 1988, the year pitch-by-pitch info first became available. This is what it looked like:

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)

Martinez followed up that season - his first as a full-time starter - by throwing almost 200 innings, and, per above, being indisputably the best starter on staff. Now that there’s a bigger sample of Martinez’s work to analyze, I started again with 1988 and looked at right-handed starting pitchers in their ages-23 and 24 seasons combined, who threw at least 350 innings. This returned a sample of 54 pitchers and this is how Martinez now stacks up:

  • ERA: 3.02 (6th)
  • ERA-: 76 (9th)
  • FIP: 3.42 (9th)
  • FIP-: 86 (15th)
  • Strikeout rate: 22.9% (6th)
  • HR allowed: 28 (5th)
  • fWAR: 6.8 (23rd)
  • bWAR: 9.4 (10th)

Martinez didn’t take a huge step forward in 2016. That step occurred in 2015 after he pitched an erratic 32.1 innings worth of starts in 2014. Rather, as you can see from above, 2016 was a steady continuation of his arrival the year before.

He’s still walking too many batters. His walk rate (8.5%) ranked in the bottom half of the sample for the 23 and 24-age pitchers. But, looking beyond the stats from above, he has stranded 79.2% of runners to counter-balance the free trips he has allowed on base. From the 54-pitcher sample that’s being drawn from, only Jake Peavy was better (80.4%) at leaving runners on base. Peavy’s stats were a bit skewed as a result of an abnormal 83.9 LOB% in 2004, which was the sixth best mark in MLB since 1988 (Pedro Martinez tops the list with 86.6% in 2000), but his career LOB% (74.7) has now regressed a bit closer to the standard 72% average.

Unlike Peavy, Martinez’s (Carlos not Pedro) career is in its infancy, and his LOB% may be flukey but it’s also been stable in the early going. In 2015 it was 78.8%; in 2016 - 79.5%. Martinez had a below-average home run per fly ball rate (10.9%), which does little to explain Martinez’s success in this area but, as shown above, he’s allowed very few home runs mostly on account of how well he excels at keeping batted balls on the ground. From the sample, only Trevor Cahill had a better ground ball rate than Martinez (55.5%).

And leaving runners on base is something good pitchers do, especially those who strike out a lot of batters, and since 2015 only six pitchers (Max Scherzer, Madison Bumgarner, Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Noah Syndergaard) in the NL have struck out more total batters than Martinez.

This is not meant to be a predictive analysis of Martinez’s performance going forward. When conducting this search, another Cardinal, Joe Magrane, who John Fleming briefly touched on last week, frequently popped up because he was also a very successful pitcher for the Cardinals in his age-23 and 24 seasons but whose career was sidetracked because of elbow issues. Martinez, nor any pitcher, is not immune from the same fate.

In the Baseball Prospectus 2016 Annual, the players’ comments had this to say about Martinez heading into 2016:

Alas, he saved the only negative of the year for his last start in September, which he exited due to a season-ending shoulder strain, an injury that seems preferable to a torn UCL or labrum, and that isn't expected to impact his 2016 season. Not every short, lanky pitcher runs into durability problems, but it's a cliche for a reason. Until the often-dominant Martinez, whose delivery features significant recoil during the follow-through stages works a full season or two without incident, both his boosters and his skeptics will be saying "I told you so."

I’m not sure if “I told you so” is appropriate but Martinez passed the year two test. It’s now on to year three as a full time starter where he’ll hopefully get a bit more help from the rest of the rotation.

Credit to the Baseball-Reference Play Index and FanGraphs Leaderboards for the stats in this post.