On Saturday, Carlos Martinez, nominally the fifth starter on the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals, got the win in his first start of the season. It was a solid performance from Martinez: six innings, two earned runs, four hits, three walks issued, and five strikeouts.
Sure, it was against an Atlanta Braves team which is not generally expected to come close to contention in 2016, but after Martinez was shut down for the remainder of the season late in 2015 due to a shoulder strain, any signs of the Martinez of old were inevitably going to be met with great enthusiasm from any Cardinals fans who witnessed his ascension as a starting pitcher in 2015.
After pitching primarily in relief in 2013 and 2014, Martinez became one of the best pitchers on last year's 100 win Cardinals team. Despite some early struggles, the youngest member of the Cardinals' rotation was as effective as anybody down the stretch, leading the team's qualified starters (Jaime Garcia did not pitch enough innings to be designated as such) in fielding-independent pitching and trailing only John Lackey in ERA.
But Saturday also brought the return of a familiar narrative with which consumers of Cardinals-related media have grown accustomed over Carlos Martinez's career. In Rick Hummel's write-up of the game, he referred to Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina as having "calmed" Martinez "when the wheels began falling off" on Saturday.
On the surface, this is a fairly banal sentence. It also fits within a common narrative regarding Molina, a player whose abilities with intangible factors such as helping young pitchers maintain focus in difficult situations have garnered extensive acclaim over the years. But it also hearkens to a years-long trend of Carlos Martinez being treated as a uniquely volatile member of the Cardinals pitching staff.
A few simple Google searches will uncover a history of stories about Carlos Martinez controlling his emotions or an alleged lack of mental toughness. And even after he was an All-Star last season, the refrains about Martinez learning how to handle adversity continued.
It was one thing when these stories were written about Rick Ankiel in the early 2000s after his 2000 playoff implosion or when he walked or hit 22.6% of batters that he faced the next season, as there was at least a modicum of statistical evidence to back up the narrative. But Carlos Martinez walked 3.16 batters per nine innings in 2015, a slightly above league average rate though nothing crazily out of line with his above-average strikeout rate. Among Cardinals pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched, he sported the team's best K-BB%.
Although the word "exciting" is often applied to Martinez for his charisma (Viva El Birdos has devoted an entire day to the guy), if one's entire knowledge of players came from perusing Baseball Reference pages, one would see a very good pitcher, arguably an exciting pitcher based on his ability to strike out batters, but not a pitcher encumbered by his own psyche.
So what is it that separates Martinez from, say, Chris Carpenter, whose ferocity was oft-celebrated? Or even from the less celebrated but equally intense John Lackey?
On Sunday, Adam Wainwright struggled, allowing five earned runs in five innings and walking five batters in a start for the first time since 2012. But absent from analysis were any serious discussions that Wainwright's struggles were a sign of mental weakness. Wainwright was instead labeled an unfortunate victim of circumstance: he was out of rhythm after missing time in 2015. There was no talk of Yadier Molina needing to help Adam Wainwright keep his emotions in check.
Nor should there have been. Wainwright is an adult and a perfectly capable big-league pitcher. He simply had a bad game, as every pitcher is wont to have. He does not deserve patronizing infantilization. And neither does Carlos Martinez.
Treating Carlos Martinez as though he has a special need to be handled with kid gloves is a condescending tendency that does not seem especially rooted in reality. Like any player, he is bound to have his ups and downs, but rather than treating those ups and downs as part of the natural cycle of a Major League pitcher, it is regarded as a referendum on Martinez's fortitude.
Much was made last week of Nationals superstar Bryce Harper's "MAKE BASEBALL FUN AGAIN" hat, which supplemented his previous claims that baseball needs more personality from its highest-profile stars, drawing inspiration from Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. And Carlos Martinez, simply by being himself, is fun.
And I mean this not to reduce Martinez to a caricature. He isn't just a fun baseball player: he is also a very good one with the potential to be a great one. He is also an adult. Just as we trust Michael Wacha to have agency and do not accuse him of mental fragility after, say, being the losing pitcher during postseason eliminations in 2013 and 2014, we ought to grant the same level of respect to a man just 82 days Wacha's junior.
So for 2016, I hope that we can stop with the claims that Carlos Martinez is fundamentally different from other pitchers. He may not look or act like Adam Wainwright on the mound, but the level-headed Wainwright wasn't exactly a clone of his predecessor as Cardinals ace, Chris Carpenter, either. And for the future of Martinez, the Cardinals, and baseball, that's perfectly okay.