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Carlos Martinez looks like an ace

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The torch has been passed to the 25-year-old Carlos Martinez, and one start into the 2017 season, against no slouch of an opponent, he certainly appears up to the task.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday night against the Chicago Cubs, Carlos Martinez, 25, became the youngest Opening Day starting pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals since 1989, when a then 24-year-old Joe Magrane toed the rubber against the New York Mets (for the record, Magrane, at 23, started Opening Day 1988 as well). Fortunately for the Cardinals, Martinez fared much better than Magrane (3.2 IP, zero strikeouts, two walks, seven runs) in his season debut start, going seven and one-third innings, striking out ten, walking none, and allowing zero runs. Sure, Martinez may not have earned the pitcher win (due to a blown save by closer Seung Hwan Oh), but he certainly made Kris Bryant and friends look silly in the process.

I know I wrote a little bit about Martinez’s start on Monday, but that was prior to Harry Pavlidis, PitchF/x guru and director of technology at Baseball Prospectus, combing through the data for BrooksBaseball.net. This is important to note because raw PitchF/x data isn’t always accurate when you are dealing with a repertoire as complex as Martinez’s. Due to the magnitude of its movement profile, his slider is often classified as a curveball, and the computer struggles determining the difference between his sinker and high-80’s/low-90’s changeup.

Manually, Harry doesn’t have this problem (which is why I prefer BrooksBaseball.net as my primary source for pitch data), and though the slider/curveball misclassification isn’t necessarily a big deal, the changeup/sinker one definitely is, especially for those looking to analyze his repertoire from a pitch sequencing perspective. Without further ado, let’s take a closer look at a comprehensive breakdown of the 105 pitches Martinez threw against the Cubs on Sunday night:

Remember, regarding horizontal movement in right-handed pitchers, a negative value means arm-side movement, whereas a positive value means glove-side movement.

Carlos Martinez’s Opening Day Pitch Breakdown

Pitch Type Velocity Count Whiffs Dragless Horizontal Movement
Pitch Type Velocity Count Whiffs Dragless Horizontal Movement
Fourseamer 95.3 MPH 23 3 -6.38 in.
Sinker 95.1 MPH 32 2 -12.94 in.
Changeup 87.1 MPH 22 8 -13.33 in.
Slider 84.8 MPH 24 8 12.66 in.
Curveball 78.0 MPH 4 0 12.29 in.
PitchF/x data via BrooksBaseball.net

First and foremost, Martinez’s pitch mix was beautiful as his four main pitches were each thrown at least 20% of the time, with his dynamite sinker leading the way at 30.5%. Trust the changeup versus lefties? You better believe he did as 16 of the 22 changeups Martinez threw came against left-handed hitters (you shouldn’t downplay your excitement that the pitch is becoming an option versus righties as well). What was most appealing about his changeup use is the fact that the pitch became his primary option (38%) when he fell behind in the count to lefties. The confidence to throw the pitch in counts when many pitchers turn to their fastballs helped lead to a ridiculous swing and miss rate of 66.67%.

The next aspect I’d like to discuss is the horizontal movement profile of Martinez’s pitches. When you include the (relatively) newly-introduced curveball in the conversation, Martinez possesses two clusters of pitches that follow equal but opposite horizontal movement paths. What I mean here is the magnitude of arm-side movement in his changeup (-13.33 inches) and sinker (-12.94 inches) is roughly equal to the glove-side movement seen in his slider (12.66 inches) and curveball (12.29 inches). While release point and vertical movement definitely play roles as well, the mimicking of horizontal movements across pitches can take over the lead role in pitch tunneling and sequencing. It doesn’t end there, either, as he then deploys the “great equalizer” in the fourseamer that rushes by bats while hitters are still trying to determine if the pitch is going to break or not.

Let’s start things off with probably Martinez’s easiest strikeout of the night — of a position player, at least — in which it took him three pitches to strike out former Cardinal Jason Heyward (BrooksBaseball At Bat).

Heyward courageously tapped the first pitch — a 97.6 MPH sinker (yellow trail) — foul for strike number one. Martinez entered the backdoor with an 86.3 MPH slider (green trail) for a called strike two. The Gold Glove right-fielder seemingly came out of his shoes with two strikes in the count only to have the 89.2 MPH changeup (blue trail) fall off the table completely for a swinging strike three.

From a pitch tunneling perspective, this is far from Martinez’s best work (that comes in the next featured at bat). But, if you divide the hitting zone into four quadrants, Martinez executed perfectly at targeting the low and outside zone, utilizing three different pitches, at three different velocities, in the process. Knowing Heyward is susceptible to swinging and missing on pitches down, away, and out of the zone, the location of Martinez’s strikeout changeup was downright perfect.

Notice how Yadier Molina extends his left leg outward when setting his target? It’s obvious that the legendary pitch caller didn’t want the pitch landing in any other location. And it’s hard to tell given the off-center ESPN camera angle, but as I described above when talking about movement, Martinez’s strike two slider (9.08 inches) exhibited a roughly equal but opposite amount of horizontal movement as compared to his strike three changeup (-10.13 inches). Filthy.

Progressing to a little bit tougher of a strikeout, let’s take a look at how Martinez attacked Cubs shortstop Addison Russell (BrooksBaseball At Bat):

Honestly, your immediate focus should be on Martinez’s release point. The strikeout took six pitches, and four of them are displayed in this GIF (two swinging strikes, two foul balls). As you can see, Martinez matched his release points almost perfectly. Despite all four pitches being of a different type, due to a repeated release point, they followed an identical path toward home for at least the first ten or so feet out of the hand.

After starting Russell off with a low and just barely outside 82.7 MPH slider (not pictured), Martinez induced strike number one with a 94.9 MPH sinker (yellow trail) that Russell just barely fouled off. Remember back to the Heyward at bat, and you will get a better understanding of just how hard it is to square up Martinez’s sinker. He followed the sinker up with an 87.7 MPH changeup (blue trail) that mimicked the previous pitch’s flight almost perfectly, only to cross the plate noticeably later given its 7.2 MPH velocity drop.

In an attempt to record strike number three, Martinez spoiled a slider down and away (not pictured) followed by a bit of a hanging one (green trail) that Russell was only able to foul off. Sure, Martinez was fortunate to get away with the 85.8 MPH hanging slider, but at the same time, it set up his 99.3 MPH fourseamer (red trail) perfectly, as the two pitches cross paths twice in their respective journeys to home plate, excluding the fact that they shared almost an identical release point.

Putting it all together, here is what Martinez’s strikeout of Russell looks like:

You thought I would finish a Martinez article without revisiting a strikeout of the reigning National League MVP? No chance (here’s the BrooksBaseball At Bat). In fact, there is a reason I saved this strikeout for last. Like the Russell at bat, it took six pitches to strike out Bryant. There’s a new wrinkle to this strikeout, though, as you can see by the yet-to-be-introduced pink trail below. Yep, Martinez threw a fifth pitch type — a 77.3 MPH curveball.

Remember, this strikeout took place in the sixth inning, meaning that after already striking out Bryant in his first two at bats, Martinez decided it was time to unleash his full repertoire against the career 141 wRC+ hitter. Sure, the curveball (pink trail) never once looked like a strike during its entire flight home, but to show a hitter yet another velocity, especially the third time through the order, is a weapon very few pitchers have.

For inquiring purposes, I’ll classify the other pitches in the at bat, but beyond that, my words aren’t needed to describe the glorified filthiness of Martinez in this strikeout. Strike number one was a fouled-off 83.9 MPH slider (green trail). Strike number two was a corner-painting 95.3 MPH sinker (yellow trail). Bryant was able to foul off an 87.0 MPH changeup (blue trail) before being blown away, up and in, by 98.5 MPH fourseamer (red trail).

Bottom line, Martinez has always possessed the raw repertoire of an ace — hence the fact that the majority of my articles have been about him. However, and I understand we are dealing with a one-start sample size (but we do have his World Baseball Classic starts to think about as well), he appears to have grasped what it takes to bring that raw repertoire to fruition — or what old school analysts would describe as “pitching instead of just throwing.” Frankly, Martinez looked to be in mid-season form already on Sunday night, and considering it was only Opening Day, opposing hitters should be frightened by what’s still to come for the 25-year-old ace.

This post would not be complete without giving the proper credit to @cardinalsgifs for the work he put in on the GIFs embedded above. He is a literal trailblazer who has helped make my pitch analysis so much easier to articulate.