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How Carlos Martinez’s hair affects his pitching

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A look at how much Carlos Martinez’s different hairstyles are (or are not) affecting his performance

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Philadelphia Phillies John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

St. Louis Cardinals ace Carlos Martinez has been noted throughout his young career in Major League Baseball not only for his generally strong and occasionally spectacular pitching ability, but for his personality. Whether it was making pyramids out of paper cups or imitating the batting stances of his teammates, Martinez has always exuded a relaxed and loose attitude towards baseball.

But this looseness has come with some criticism. Notably, much focus has been placed on the various hairstyles which Carlos Martinez has donned in 2017. To begin the season, Martinez wore silver hair extensions, which he dumped in May.

MLB: Game One-Toronto Blue Jays at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Following a mediocre stretch, Martinez then switched to a more, for lack of a better term, conventional hairstyle. I suppose one could call it a Jheri curl? I know very little about hairstyles, so just look at the picture below and let that describe what it looked like instead of my feeble attempts.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

And then, after a lackluster start on July 2 against the Washington Nationals, upon the advice of his wife, Martinez dyed his hair blue.

New York Mets v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

There has been consternation about whether Martinez has focused too much on his hairstyles, not only from fans but from such prominent members of the media as St. Louis Post Dispatch columnist and Baseball Hall of Fame Rick Hummel, who noted on Monday what many fans themselves have noted—that Carlos Martinez has produced better statistics with what Hummel categorizes as his “normal” hair.

Certainly, there are worse things than being eccentric with one’s hairstyles—the super-majority of even Martinez’s most ardent skeptics would agree with this. Excellent pitcher/garbage human Aroldis Chapman remains a repugnant stain on the sport, and despite attempts to turn #1 overall drafted shortstop-turned-reliever Matt Bush into a redemptive comeback story, it is impossible to ignore his checkered legal history.

But if Carlos Martinez is engaging in behavior which is actively hurting his ability to do the thing he’s being paid $51 million through 2021 to do, this is a problem. It certainly isn’t as bad as committing actual crimes, but it does warrant criticism. The correlation, at least for 2017, appears to exist. Now it is time to examine the causation and determine once and for all how much Carlos Martinez’s diminished performances have been due to his hair.

April 2-April 27: The Silver Extensions Era

Carlos Martinez got off to a terrific start to his season on Opening Night against the Chicago Cubs, striking out ten and walking none in 7 13 shutout innings, but things started to deteriorate quickly from there.

It wasn’t his worst start of April (in fact, by ERA and FIP, it was his second-best, trailing only his aforementioned first start), but Martinez’s April 15 start against the New York Yankees may have been the most disconcerting. He struck out 11 batters in 5 13 innings, which sounds fantastic on the surface, but it was coupled with eight walks. By comparison, in 90 1/3 innings, Mets closer Addison Reed and Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen have combined for seven walks on the season.

Carlos Martinez looked exceptionally erratic at Yankee Stadium, but simply glancing at his statistics does not tell the entire story. Admittedly, I am nearly as ignorant on examining pitching mechanics as I am on examining hairstyles, but the only fair way to analyze his actual pitching, I believe, is by watching it. Here is some video of Carlos Martinez, not from one of his eight walks (it turns out, upon further examination, that Starlin Castro did walk following this pitch, which I suppose was statistically not exactly unlikely) but from a wild pitch which led to a run by speedy outfielder Brett Gardner.

The pitch was considerably outside, tailing off dramatically as it approached the plate before bouncing away from catcher Yadier Molina. Somebody smarter than I am (it shouldn’t be that hard to find) can break down the exact nuances of his pitching mechanics, but one thing I can say with absolute certainty is this: at no point during the pitch does Carlos Martinez’s hair directly impact his motion. It sits mostly atop his head, while the extensions flow behind him, but they do not whip around to obstruct his vision nor do they impede his arm’s movement.

The most plausible mechanical theory I can gather is that the weight distribution between his head and his arm changed (slightly, but baseball is a game of small measurements, as the phrase totally goes) and thus it threw off Martinez’s equilibrium, but none of this aligns with the rest of Martinez’s April, during which his next-worst performance in terms of allowing walks was when he allowed three in six innings on April 27 against the Toronto Blue Jays—a slightly above-average number of walk, but nothing that would, itself, cause much consternation.

Through April, Martinez had a 4.71 ERA, a 3.91 fielding-independent ERA, and a 3.53 xFIP, along with a record of zero wins and three losses. But by the time his next start came around, Martinez was sporting a new hairstyle.

May 2-July 2: The end of the extensions

From the point that Carlos Martinez dumped the silver hair extensions through his final start before dyeing his hair blue, Carlos Martinez’s ERA improved by over two runs per game, standing over these two months at 2.61. His FIP also improved, though less dramatically, to 3.40. His xFIP went up a tick, to 3.61, but unless you are an xFIP absolutist, most would argue that Martinez had a better second and third months of the 2017 season than his first month.

Martinez had several great games over these two months, but two in particular stand out as exceptional performances. I will focus on his pitches from his start against the San Francisco Giants, using that I attended the game as a tiebreaker, so that I can use my first-hand experiences as well as video proof to inform my analysis. Here is video of Martinez striking out Denard Span.

This pitch was, like his previously analyzed pitch against the Yankees, outside, though close enough to the strike zone that a Major League hitter such as Span could reasonably swing at it, particularly with two strikes already on the count. It seemed, strategically, to be the smart move—Martinez could risk Span, who has decent plate discipline but is hardly Joey Votto, holding up, because the odds that Span would chase were good enough.

And on this particular pitch, once again, Martinez’s hair appears to be out of the way of the pitching motion, no more and no less than his wild pitch against the Yankees. At no point during his nine innings that night did I notice the hair impeding or aiding his pitching. If anyone can find an example otherwise, please let me know.

July 7, the blue hair

Against the New York Mets, Carlos Martinez debuted a new hairstyle and he struggled. He was stretched out to five innings, allowing five (earned) runs, including two home runs surrendered, and he walked three while striking out four. The FanGraphs version of Game Score scored Martinez at a well below average mark of 27.

On paper, this is a mark against Martinez’s hairstyle eccentricities, but this was actually a minor improvement from the 24 he scored in his previous start against the Washington Nationals. His pitching lines were identical except that he turned one walk into a strikeout.

Once again, the hair did not intrude on Martinez’s pitching mechanics, and it seems unlikely that the Mets were simply motivated by seeing their team color coming at them from the mound. But again, I’m not a pitching expert.

The most likely scenario

Carlos Martinez had some good games and some bad games with his silver extensions, a hairstyle which I did not particularly enjoy on an aesthetic level but which I also do not consider symbolic of great moral decay. He had some good games and some bad games without the extensions. While he has yet to have good games with the blue hair, the sample size currently stands at one. If he sticks with the blue hair long enough (he could probably give it a month), he will probably add some good and bad games to his record.

Carlos Martinez did spend some time off the mound contemplating his hair, certainly, much in the same way that Adam Wainwright spends some time off the mound giving interviews to Fox, while Dexter Fowler spends some time while not playing staring at him, while Martinez poured sunflower seeds on Wainwright. And in Wainwright’s next game, while BABIPed without mercy, he struck out eight batters and walked one in five innings. The next game, he allowed just one run in 6 23 innings.

It was as if Adam Wainwright were a professional athlete who spends a lot of time working on his craft, but who also is capable of occasional moments of leisure. And Carlos Martinez is the same way. Implications that Martinez must be singularly focused on baseball at all hours of every day or his game will go astray feed into a long and troubling history of infantilization towards Carlos Martinez which has become all too common.

The truth is something much more boring from a baseball perspective—that Carlos Martinez is a talented but still imperfect pitcher who will occasionally make mistakes—but one which grants Martinez the respect as a competitor and as a person that he deserves.