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Carlos Martinez is the best of both worlds

He’s either a ground ball pitcher who strikes out a lot of batters, or a strike out king who also induces a lot of ground balls. Either way, it’s working.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Last June, Rob Mains of Baseball Prospectus tackled the issue of ground ball pitchers and their value in light of comments from Bill James on his website. I’m going to blockquote the same passage from James’s column Two Bits, Four Bits as Mains did:

You don’t want ground ball pitchers. Ground ball pitchers suck. Ground ball pitchers are Jamey Wright and Mike Morgan. Fly Ball pitchers are Sandy Koufax and Dennis Eckersley…If you like Ground Ball pitchers, you’re welcome to them. I don’t want nothin’ to do with them.

Seems harsh. I confess that while I enjoy Bill James, I don’t subscribe to his site so I can’t tell you the exact ins and outs of this particular column, but I’m guessing it falls in line with a lot of other critiques that we’ve read over the years about ground ball pitchers: They don’t strike many batters out; they don’t induce enough lazy popups which typically have the same effect as a strikeout, and so on. In spite of the fact that Mike Leake is currently leading the National League in ERA, you can imagine his career profile as the target of James’s ire.

Regardless, plenty of columns (in addition to Mains’s) have shown that there’s nothing inherently wrong with ground ball pitchers at all. Just as there’s more than one way to get on base, there’s more than one way to get a batter out, and ground balls work just fine especially if you’re good at inducing them. Basically, it’s a tradeoff. Pitchers who give up a lot of batted balls on the ground are likely to surrender more hits but also less extra-base hits.

In this age of the home run, when more fly balls are leaving the park than ever before - perhaps a product of batters adopting a more upper-cut swing to get more lift on the ball as we’re now reading about almost daily - the ideal pitcher seems to be one who strikes out a lot of batters and induces ground balls. That on its face makes sense, right? If a pitcher is striking out a lot of batters, while also keeping a high number of batted balls on the ground, then he’s likely not giving up a lot of home runs or other extra-base hits, nor are an inordinate amount of batters reaching base because of a ground ball with eyes.

Carlos Martinez more than any pitcher in the NL might fit this profile in 2017. He’s a ground ball pitcher that even Bill James could love. After last night’s impressive start against the Dodgers, batters are only slugging .337 against him, which is fourth best in the NL for starters who have thrown at least 50 innings (sample size: 48), behind Robbie Ray, Stephen Strasburg, and Max Scherzer. And overall, opponents are hitting just over the Mendoza line (.202) when facing Martinez, which is good for fifth.

After striking out nine batters over eight innings last night, Martinez is also now fanning 26.9 percent of batters faced while still inducing a ground ball on 50.5 percent of balls that are put in play. Those numbers rank 7th and 11th, respectively in the NL for starters who have thrown at least 50 innings. And here’s the entire list of NL starting pitchers in 2017 from the sample above (again, sample of 48) who have eclipsed a 25.0 percent strike out rate as well as a 50.0 percent ground ball rate:

  1. Carlos Martinez.

That’s it. That’s the list. Jump over to the American League and there are four other pitchers in this club (Lance McCullers, Luis Severino, Michael Pineda, Charlie Morton), but no one else in the NL is doing what Martinez is doing. And not many have maintained these numbers over the course of an entire season. Going back to 2010, when the league strikeout rate first climbed over 19 percent, here are the starting pitchers (min: 150 IP) across MLB who have eclipsed this 25/50 percent mark:

2016: Noah Syndergaard

2015: Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, Carlos Carrasco, Tyson Ross, Francisco Liriano

2014: Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Francisco Liriano

2013: Felix Hernandez, A.J. Burnett, Stephen Strasburg

2012: none

2011: none

2010: Jon Lester

Between 2010 and 2016, there were 680 separate seasons in which a starting pitcher threw at least 150 innings, and the 13 seasons highlighted above accounted for less than two percent of them, and averaged to a perhaps Kershaw-inflated 5.3 fWAR season. In layman’s terms, a strikeout rate above 25 percent along with a ground ball rate above 50 percent is not only pretty damn rare but also a pretty good recipe for success.

This isn’t a big change for Martinez - he’s always been a strikeout/ground ball pitcher. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2015, he’s struck out 23.6 percent of batters to go along with a 54.9 percent ground ball rate. For starters with at least 400 innings pitched during this 2015-2017 timeframe (sample size: 37), only Dallas Keuchel has a higher ground ball rate and only 11 pitchers have struck out batters at a more prolific pace, and no one ranks above Martinez in both categories.

Martinez is still walking too many batters (9.1 percent on the season; league average for starters is around 8.3 percent), and I’ve heard more than one person opine that he can’t be a legitimate ace in the league until that number comes down. I tend to agree but it’s worth noting that his walk rate has fallen to near seven percent over his last 50 innings pitched. Keep that up and this could be the finest season yet from a pitcher who borrows from the best of both worlds.

Credit to the Baseball Reference Play Index and FanGraphs Leaderboards for most of the stats in this post.