On May 20, before over 45,000 fans at Busch Stadium, Carlos Martinez authored the greatest start of his career. The St. Louis Cardinals ace allowed just two hits over nine innings, issuing just one walk and striking out five batters. The contact he allowed was weak; the San Francisco Giants hit just two line drives, and thanks to being as economical as he was with his pitches thrown, Martinez threw only 93 pitches. Carlos Martinez’s Game Score as measured by Baseball Reference was 87, a career-best.
But because life is unfair, the Cardinals couldn’t buy a run that night. Well, they could, in the 13th inning, but only after Kevin Siegrist allowed three runs in the top of the frame. Not only did Carlos Martinez, who essentially threw a Maddux, not get the win, but the team didn’t get a win, because Jeff Samardzija similarly carved up the Cardinals lineup like a Thanksgiving turkey.
Pitcher wins are a bad statistic. Don’t give them any credence. But that’s a different topic for a different day.
Carlos Martinez had his career-best start. It was the culmination of years of progress, in which he went from an exciting but incomplete reliever to the best starting pitcher on the staff. That the Cardinals could not win the game was not a very informed assessment of Martinez, as the loss was the fault of the offense and bullpen woes rather than the starting pitcher, but there was a certain extra sadness with a loss that came while one player was having the game of his life. How much more did Martinez have to do? How could he possibly be better?
It took three weeks.
Last Saturday, Carlos Martinez once again pitched nine shutout innings, but this time, the offense came to play (including Carlos Martinez, who scored a run in the game). Against the Philadelphia Phillies, Martinez allowed four hits, striking out eleven batters to just one walk. His Game Score was 89, surpassing his previous career-best from May 20.
Martinez became the seventh pitcher in St. Louis Cardinals history at his age or younger to hurl multiple nine-inning games with a Game Score of 87 or higher. The first two to accomplish the feat were brothers Dizzy and Paul Dean, who each did it twice. This level was reached three times by Ernie Broglio from 1959 through 1960, and by Steve Carlton in 1967, 1968, and 1970. Silvio Martinez, the most forgotten name of the group, did it twice in 1979 and 1980. In the modern era, with more developed bullpens, there are fewer games that go to or near nine innings, and since 1980, only Jaime Garcia, in 2010 and 2011, has managed two outings as fine as Martinez’s two excellent starts from the last month at such a young age.
On Saturday, Carlos Martinez had a Win Probability Added of 0.311, a number which would have been higher had the Cardinals not given him ample run support (WPA, like pitcher wins, is a fun stat which generally correlates pretty well to a pitcher’s ability but which is also fundamentally flawed). It was the 12th game in Martinez’s career in which he posted a WPA so high, the most by a pitcher his age since Joe Magrane tallied 14 from 1987 through 1989.
Of course, his Saturday WPA paled in comparison to his May 20 WPA of 0.685, where the game’s outcome was hanging in the balance the entire time; it was the highest by a Cardinals pitcher who was 25 or younger since Jose Jimenez in 1999; no pitcher younger than Martinez had a higher WPA since 1997, courtesy of 23 year-old Matt Morris.
This year is Carlos Martinez’s age-25 season, and with nearly two-thirds of a season left to play, he is already the third-most successful Cardinals pitcher since World War II by (Baseball Reference) Wins Above Replacement in his age-25 season or before. At 11.7 WAR, he is likely to pass Joe Magrane (12.3 WAR) by the end of the season. While Steve Carlton’s 16.8 WAR might be a bit more difficult to reach—he would have to essentially be Clayton Kershaw going forward for this to happen—watching outings like those Carlos Martinez has had make it seem slightly more plausible.
After a somewhat mediocre start to the season, Carlos Martinez has a 2.11 ERA with a 2.76 fielding-independent ERA since the beginning of May. Martinez has been slowly improving throughout the years and in 2017, it appears that he has taken another step towards the potential ace-level pitcher he has flashed potential to be throughout his career.