If Viva El Birdos has any one unifying point of view which bonds all of its writers, it is adamant and shameless fondness for the pitching stylings of Carlos Martinez. It goes beyond statistics for many of Carlos Martinez's most vociferous fans, though the statistics back up his praise, as well.
Only 28 pitchers, less than one per team, who are younger than Martinez, in his 4th MLB season, have started a game in the majors this season, and only a fraction of those pitchers have been full-time starters since Opening Day. But through his first 53 innings over nine starts in 2016, Carlos Martinez has not been himself. He has not been truly dreadful, but a 4.25 ERA, a 4.07 fielding-independent ERA, and a 4.17 xFIP is hardly the level of production that most were expecting from the young gun in his sophomore season in the Cardinals rotation.
His overall statistics have been mediocre, but his performance in May has been particularly troubling.
|Carlos Martinez, April 2016||28||1.93||108||16||3||0||2||8||1||20||3.55||4-0|
|Carlos Martinez, May 2016||25||6.84||113||28||3||0||3||12||3||22||4.69||0-5|
Carlos Martinez seemed like the best pitcher on the Cardinals a month ago, and in May, he has looked like a shell of his peak self. And after Martinez left his May 6 start against the Pittsburgh Pirates early and was held back from his next start for eight days due to fatigue, he has fired off three consecutive starts where he did not reach the sixth inning and allowed, respectively, four, four, and six earned runs.
Okay, okay, maybe don't panic yet. Or at least don't do what Kent Brockman and Guy Who Isn't Kent Brockman are encouraging. But it is completely reasonable to look at Carlos Martinez and be worried.
And when I say worried, this does not mean in a "Carlos Martinez needs to control his emotions" way which implies an immaturity which extends beyond the literal fact that he is not yet old enough to serve in the United States House of Representatives (also, there are citizenship requirements; this led me into a wormhole of researching whether or not Carlos Martinez will be eligible to run for mayor of St. Louis any time soon and unfortunately, this too seems unlikely).
The concern with Carlos Martinez is the same concern which reasonable baseball fans have with any young pitcher. While all athletes in all sports run the risk of injuries, pitchers in baseball are particularly vulnerable. Even Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey, who literally does not have an ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm and would seemingly be an indestructible pitching tour de force, has missed starts over the years due to groin, foot, and back injuries.
Nobody is indestructible. From 2012 through 2015, Lance Lynn pitched at least 175 innings per season and had no fewer than 29 starts (and that was only because of a late-season demotion to the bullpen), but he is missing the entire 2016 season as the result of Tommy John surgery. And not unlike Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn had an uncomfortable decline in performance.
In the first half of 2015, Lynn posted a 2.90 ERA, a 2.85 FIP, and a 3.55 xFIP. In the second half, Lynn posted a 3.19 ERA, but appeared lucky to have had such an imperceptible drop-off in run suppression: he managed a 4.16 FIP and a 4.33 xFIP.
The cases of 2015 Lynn and 2016 Martinez are an apples and oranges comparison, as the former is a tale of two half-seasons and the latter is a tale of two months. The two, however, do have some similarities. Notably, each pitcher's walk rate increased over time.
|Lance Lynn, 1st half of 2015||7.9%|
|Lance Lynn, 2nd half of 2015||10.5%|
|Carlos Martinez, April 2016||7.4%|
|Carlos Martinez, May 2016||10.6%|
Unlike Lynn, whose strikeout rate also declined, from 25.1% in the first half of the season to 18.9% in the second half, Carlos Martinez has actually increased his strikeout rate, albeit moderately, from 18.5% to 19.5%. Considering the notorious poor defense behind him, strikeouts are particularly valuable for the 2016 Cardinals, but a 10.6% walk rate is, to put it generously, alarming. To walk batters at a rate which only one qualified starter in 2015, Trevor Bauer of the Cleveland Indians, equaled is especially concerning considering the high expectations that the Cardinals, and particularly fans, have placed on the young fireballer known affectionately around these parts as El Gallo.
My natural reaction regarding most pitchers, Martinez included, is immediate dread of a debilitating injury. This is why after Martinez was removed from his May 6 start, I poured out a drink, listened to The Smiths, and wrote about how all sports are bad. But there is also the possibility that this is merely a bad stretch of games. Great pitchers, including great Cardinals, have had lackluster runs before.
Between July 19, 1955 and September 2, 1956, Larry Jackson had a ten-start stretch in which he posted a 7.38 ERA and did not post a Game Score eclipsing 50. He was an All-Star for the Cardinals in 1957, 1958, and 1960 (twice, in the multiple All-Star Game era). Between August 21, 1924 and May 28, 1925, Jesse Haines was even worse over ten starts, tallying an 8.82 ERA. Two seasons later, he finished 8th in MVP voting, and eventually, he made the Hall of Fame.
And with Martinez, we are really talking about five bad starts ("bad" being relative; none have included more than three walks and before Wednesday, none included more than four runs allowed). For the Cardinals, in the 2010s alone, there have been eight other streaks of at least five starts in which a pitcher failed to eclipse the 48 Game Score which has been Martinez's peak in May. And while being in the company of 2010 Blake Hawksworth may be a bit unsettling for fans expecting Cy Young-caliber performances from Martinez, this company also includes 2011 Chris Carpenter, the best starting pitcher on a World Series-winning team this decade.
It's been a rough patch for Carlos Martinez. I would never be so brazen or naive that I would conclude that he will absolutely, without a doubt, perform better, but it would also be premature to declare that Martinez is hurt, ineffective, a bust, or any other negative descriptors which go beyond "struggling" in scope.