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Carlos Martinez's rank among baseball's elite young arms

Carlos Martinez is already a good MLB starting pitcher, but the not-yet-25 fireballer ranks even higher when compared to his peers.

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Following his eight shutout innings on Tuesday, Carlos Martinez lowered his 2016 earned run average to a stellar 1.93. While his peripheral fielding statistics suggest he hasn't been that good, his 3.56 fielding-independent ERA is hardly bad, though it is worse than his 2015 season FIP of 3.21. But that just speaks to what a resounding success the St. Louis Cardinals career of Carlos Martinez has been up to this point.

Carlos Martinez has always had skeptics. Very few of these skeptics have dismissed his raw ability, which he has in spades. Rather, Martinez's role has been questioned, with some doubting he can ascend even higher going forward.

In 2013, Carlos Martinez joined the MLB team primarily as a reliever, and in the short term, few questioned this. Martinez was, after all, just 21 at the time of his debut, and he was just getting his feet wet against the top hitters in the world. But heading into Spring Training in 2014, there was a purportedly open competition for the 5th spot in the Cardinals rotation between Martinez and Joe Kelly, and despite superior statistics, Martinez was relegated to the bullpen.

In 2015, Carlos Martinez earned a spot in the rotation, but in spite of an All-Star appearance and arguably emerging as the team's best starter, he was the fifth Cardinal to start a game in 2016. Whether this makes him truly the "fifth starter" or simply being handled carefully for potential lingering injury issues after ending 2015 on the disabled list is debatable, but to anybody simply glancing at who is starting for the Cardinals, Martinez seems like a fringe starting pitcher. He isn't.

Now, Carlos Martinez hasn't established himself as a perennial ace in the vein of Clayton Kershaw. Nor has he been as dominant over the last couple of seasons as Jake Arrieta. Presently, even doubters see what Martinez is doing, however, and it is impossible to deny that the quality of his time as starter is magnified by his youth.

Carlos Martinez currently stands at 4.9 career Wins Above Replacement by Baseball Reference's measurement. While this may not sound like a jaw-dropping WAR total (Mike Trout is only a month and a half older and has been worth 39.3 WAR), only one pitcher younger than Martinez, the preternaturally gifted Marlins starter Jose Fernandez, has more. In addition to Fernandez, four pitchers born (earlier than Martinez) in 1991 outrank El Gallo in career WAR, though Martinez fares even more favorably when looking at WAR on a per-inning basis (Martinez's raw totals are hindered by his initial season-plus of MLB service in the bullpen). All stats are current through Wednesday's games.

Pitcher Date of Birth Career WAR WAR per 180 IP
Jose Fernandez July 31, 1992 9.3 5.4
Julio Teheran January 27, 1991 8.9 2.4
Alex Wood January 12, 1991 6.6 2.6
Michael Wacha July 1, 1991 6.2 3.0
Yordano Ventura June 3, 1991 6.0 2.8
Carlos Martinez September 21, 1991 4.9 2.7

Fernandez clearly leads the pack on a rate basis, and even if he is penalized some for durability concerns, it would still be reasonable to rate him the best of the group. Next are Michael Wacha, Yordano Ventura, and Martinez.

Eleven pitchers born in 1991 or 1992 have thrown at least 200 innings in the majors. Six of the eleven have been above average by ERA+, which makes sense: even though young pitchers are worse in a vacuum, teams are less likely to utilize young pitchers who do not appear to be top-tier talents. The six above-average pitchers by ERA are the six listed in the above table, with Martinez ranking behind only Fernandez and Wacha.

At this point, you may be wondering why I'm writing about Carlos Martinez because while this all makes him look good, it makes his teammate look better. But while Wacha has perhaps been taken for granted by Cardinals fans, Martinez has arguably shown more promise going forward with his superior fielding-independent numbers. Here are the eleven born-in-1991 or younger pitchers by career FIP.

Jose Fernandez 2.52
Carlos Martinez 3.22
Alex Wood 3.39
Michael Wacha 3.44
Yordano Ventura 3.66
Taijuan Walker 3.70
Kevin Gausman 3.76
Julio Teheran 3.94
Martin Perez 4.02
Trevor Bauer 4.34
Jacob Turner 4.46

There are virtues to ERA-based pitcher analysis as well as FIP-based pitcher analysis, and relying on one without at least giving consideration to context which the other can provide is often a mistake. With regard to Martinez, his ERA has been noticeably better as a starter. I have three theories on why this may be the case.

  1. His ERA is just catching up to his FIP. His FIPs have been similar regardless of role and perhaps this ERA regression (progression?) was just an inevitability given enough time.
  2. Martinez, for reasons I could not begin to explain with any actual, tangible backing beyond just listing platitudes about his "feel" for starting, or something to that extent, is just better suited as a starter.
  3. It has nothing to do with the role in which is pitching; he's simply improved at pitching to contact and it just so happens that his time as a starter came with a little bit more experience under his belt.
All three of these theories would bode well for Martinez, but #3 in particular would mean a Carlos Martinez who could truly terrify opposing teams for years to come. Of the 20 pitchers with 100+ innings since 2015 born in 1991 or later, Martinez leads the group in ERA+ with a 139, meaning that he has been 39% above league average. He ranks above Lance McCullers and Noah Syndergaard (125 each), and it's not as though Martinez has just been getting lucky in that time: of the 20, only Syndergaard has a superior FIP.

Carlos Martinez, even considering his poor start by ERA, has a superior ERA+ before the age of 25 than CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke, or Johnny Cueto. It would be perhaps unfair to expect Martinez to become the perennial ace that these three were in their primes, as each of these pitchers seemed to turn a corner in their mid-20s. However, there is also evidence that Carlos Martinez is already turning that corner. And the prospect of a version of Carlos Martinez who is even better than what he has experienced to this point should delight Cardinals fans.