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The final hurdle for Carlos Martinez

Being better against left-handed batters appears to be the final hurdle for Carlos Martinez, starting pitcher.

St Louis Cardinals v New York Mets - Game One Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

In his first full season as a starting pitcher (2015), Carlos Martinez was voted in as a National League All Star (#VoteTsunami). Technically speaking, 2015 did not even end up being a true “full” season as Martinez was shut down with shoulder tightness six pitches into his September 25th start and was rendered unavailable for the Cardinals divisional playoff series against the rival Cubs. Regardless, Martinez participated in All-Star festivities and consistently showed to be the Cardinals most effective (and at times, dominant) starting pitcher.

Thus, the bar was set for 2016, and though Martinez did not repeat as an All Star, he led the rotation in fWAR (3.3) and bWAR (5.4), and the season has been generally considered a success for the 25-year-old righty. First and foremost, after a grueling offseason training regimen, he made it through the entire season fully healthy. That is the most important feat of the 2016 season. And while his strikeouts were down (to 21.5% from 24.4%), he was able to increase his innings per start by roughly one out. This may not seem like much, but after averaging six innings per start in 2015, one extra out puts him pitching into the seventh on a regular basis — a desired outcome for conserving a bullpen (and winning games).

Despite the fact that I just considered Martinez’s 2016 season a success, there was definite room for improvement. He may find his name atop the Cardinals rotation, but he is not quite to the level of top starting pitchers in the National League yet. He can certainly string together some Cy Young-caliber starts, but from a big picture perspective, he is still behind the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard, Max Scherzer, and Madison Bumgarner. Now that Martinez has proven capable of managing a heavy workload over a full season, the final hurdle to reach these ranks is being better against left-handed batters.

Carlos Martinez, Career Splits

Batter Handedness TBF AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Batter Handedness TBF AVG OBP SLG wOBA
RHB 1046 .226 .295 .299 .266
LHB 1028 .265 .350 .410 .332

Since entering the league in 2013, Martinez ranks seventh best in all of baseball against right-handed batters with a wOBA against of .266. Yet, as you can see in the table, left-handed batters have been a real menace to Martinez. In fact, his wOBA against of .332 ranks 22nd worst among those pitchers with at least 230 innings versus lefties.

As a right-handed pitcher, it is understandable for Martinez to struggle against lefties. However, what makes a good starting pitcher great is his ability to limit damage against hitters of the opposite hand. I must admit that this is an unfair comparator, but one of the pitchers ahead of Martinez on the right-handed batter wOBA against leaderboard? The left-handed-throwing Kershaw at .233. In fact, Kershaw tops the list entirely, despite being a southpaw.

Frankly, unlike the virtually one-pitch-throwing Lance Lynn, Martinez possesses a repertoire that should be effective versus lefties. His sinker, with its natural arm-side run, can be effective on the inside corner — a la Corey Kluber/Chris Carpenter — or the outside corner tailing away. His changeup, with marked left-to-right movement (aka screwball-like), isn’t fair when located off the corner away.

Just ask Miguel Montero:

Or Pedro Alvarez:

His slider, though definitely better suited for use against right-handed batters, could notch more than a handful of backdoor K’s if sequenced (and located) properly. The next logical step is taking a look at how Martinez has approached batters over the course of his MLB career:

Pitch Mix by Batter Handedness

Batted Handedness Fourseamer Sinker Changeup Slider Curveball
Batted Handedness Fourseamer Sinker Changeup Slider Curveball
RHB 31.04% 28.52% 6.23% 33.88% 0.23%
LHB 39.25% 22.08% 23.95% 14.23% 0.39%

What stands out in particular is just how often Martinez goes to his fourseamer versus lefties, especially compared to its usage versus righties. Though the pitch’s velocity is electric, its natural (arm-side) movement isn’t nearly as drastic as his sinker. Thus, if the hitter is able to time it up, something that will happen the second or third time through the order, he will be able to make solid contact, even if it’s located fairly well. Thus, if Martinez is going to continue to throw roughly 60% fastballs (fourseamer plus sinker), as I suspect he will do, I want to see him going to the sinker more frequently. His much-closer-to-even mix versus righties is a reasonable target.

Finally, just as I wrote at the very beginning of the offseason, much of Martinez’s success comes down to throwing a first-pitch strike. Using FanGraphs’ split tool, I tabulating the amount of times Martinez has gone 1-0 versus 0-1 for each batter handedness (obviously excluding all first-pitch balls in play), and the difference is significant. Versus righties, Martinez reaches an 0-1 count 60.84% of the time as compared to only 52.23% of the time versus lefties.

Bottom line, Martinez, as an MLB starting pitcher, has been good but not yet great. The final hurdle keeping him from greatness is being more effective against lefties. Now, it is not at all fair to expect him to be as good as Kershaw is against the opposite hand, but he doesn’t have to be. He just needs an incremental improvement from his career numbers, and it can all start with more sinkers (in place of fourseamers) and more first-pitch strikes.