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Trust the changeup versus lefties, Carlos Martinez

Martinez possesses the tools to be successful versus lefties. Now let’s see him utilize them.

World Baseball Classic - Pool C - Game 1 - Canada v Dominican Republic Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Yesterday at FanGraphs, the great Jeff Sullivan wrote a piece titled “Carlos Martinez Has One Issue Left.” The issue, as Sullivan so eloquently explained, is his choice of flamboyant hairstyles — I kid, I kid — but rather, and whether the pun in the title was intended or not (knowing FG, it was), his struggles against left-handed hitters. After embedding some devastating changeups to the left-handed hitting Dalton Pompey (thanks to @cardinalsgifs, I have a few of these to share as well), Sullivan dissected Martinez’s dropping release point since becoming a full-time starting pitcher and his shift toward first base on the rubber. As Sullivan noted, a lower release point makes Martinez (even) more dangerous to righties, but at the same time, it makes him more susceptible to lefties, as it allows them to see the ball longer. For example, think of Randy Choate’s dropped-down release point and how he had zero business facing right-handed hitters, ever.

Fortunately for Martinez, he has a deeper, more complex, and frankly, better repertoire than Choate. Back in January, as you may recall, I wrote about wanting Martinez to utilize the sinker more frequently versus lefties, while also mentioning the importance of the changeup. Admittedly, I now understand that I did not do an adequate job explaining as to why throwing more sinkers would automatically lead to a better performance versus lefties. Considering the title of this post, I do not really plan on doubling back around to further discuss the sinker (even though I’d like to note that it was his most frequented pitch versus lefties (44.12%) in his World Baseball Classic start).

Rather, I just want to reiterate my thought process — however rudimentary it may be — behind why I think Martinez would benefit from throwing more sinkers versus lefties. My thinking is honestly pretty simple: the shape of the sinker’s ball flight. For a right-handed pitcher to exhibit consistent success versus lefties, he needs the ability to spot pitches with arm-side movement on or off the corners. Martinez’s sinker and changeup are his two pitches possessing (considerable) arm-side movement — near league-leading arm-side movement, in fact.

Thus, using this logic, it follows that if he is able to spot these two pitches, he should be able to have some success versus lefties. Again, I wholeheartedly understand that we need more data behind such “wish casting,” so yes, this is something I will be following very closely in 2017 and beyond. In the meantime, let’s just enjoy this 97 MPH sinker that George Kottaras simply gave up on rather early in its flight (a la Corey Kluber):

Returning to the changeup, we come across the following in Sullivan’s piece:

When you’re talking about righties facing lefties, you always start by thinking about the changeup. Martinez doesn’t throw a cutter, so the changeup is a crucial pitch, and the ones that Pompey had to deal with were perfect. If Martinez could just repeat that over and over and over again, he’d be unhittable. Give him a perfect changeup and that’s basically that!

Similar to my thought process regarding the overall shape of the sinker, we commonly look to the changeup versus lefties. Sullivan is obviously kidding around (hence the use of the exclamation point) because he knows it is much more difficult than just developing a “perfect changeup,” but as I have written about numerous times in the past, Martinez already possesses a deadly changeup. While the sinker may be showing more life in the WBC than we are used to, the life on his changeups to Pompey is really nothing new. Sure, he has yet to average nearly 11 inches of horizontal movement — as he did over nine changeups thrown in the WBC — but the inherent ability exists, as visualized here.

But, Joe, your title is “Trust the changeup versus lefties, Carlos Martinez.” You do realize it’s a pitch he went to 25.4% of the time versus lefties last season? Yes, but this was down from 2015 when he went to the pitch 27.98% of the time. Plus, and I will admit that I was not the first to notice this trend — Nick Pollack of noted it in his top 20 starting pitchers for 2017 — it’s a pitch he, relatively speaking, abandoned with two strikes versus lefties last season.

I included “relatively speaking” because in the scenario of two strikes versus lefties, he still threw the changeup 23.73% of the time, but also “abandoned” because this frequency was way down from its 2015 usage of 38.02%. And unlike the sinker, we actually have data to review and over the course of Martinez’s MLB career, his number one swing-and-miss pitch versus lefties has been his changeup (35.6%), and it’s really not that close (the slider is second at 26.69%). I understand and support Martinez’s goal of becoming a more efficient starting pitcher, but if he has already reached two strikes in the count — the exact scenario in question — he might as well go with his top swing-and-miss pitch — as he did in 2015. Early in the count, I understand inducing weak contact with his other pitches, but with two strikes, there’s no need to leave it up to the fielders when a strikeout pitch is readily available.

Now, let’s enjoy a few trailed GIFs of Martinez changeups from the WBC:

As usual, credit to @cardinalsgifs for the GIFs used in this post.