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Carlos Martinez Has Had a Strange Season (But a Very Good One All the Same)

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MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals won last night, and it was good.

Carlos Martinez pitched last night, and he was mostly good. And really, mostly good was plenty good enough, when the mostly good we’re talking about is Carlos’s version of mostly good. Carlos Martinez mostly good is downright dominant for most pitchers, in fact.

That’s worth remembering. It’s also worth reminding people of now and again, because a strange thing has happened with Carlos Martinez this year. It’s basically the same strange thing that has happened with Matt Carpenter this year. Namely, there’s a small, but extremely loud, segment of the fanbase that has decided, for reasons a bit tough to tease out, honestly, that Carlos — and Carp — are the problems with this baseball team.

Now, here’s the thing: to a certain extent, the frustration is understandable. It has been a frustrating season here in St. Louis, and while the recent play of El Birdos has certainly been a soothing balm helping to ease the minds and souls of Cardinal fans, there’s still a very, very real chance that the Cards fail to make the playoffs this year, due to the depth of the hole dug by the early-season version of the Redbirds. (Which, by the way, is remarkably different from this late-season version, in case you haven’t noticed.)

On the other hand, it’s utterly inexplicable that the fanbase would fixate on two of the best players the Cardinals have as the reasons for the underachieving status of the ballclub as a whole. Angry at Jonathan Broxton for coughing up leads and probably clogging up toilets? Sure, makes sense. Upset with Seung-hwan Oh for suddenly turning into a pumpkin, and specifically a pumpkin who can’t get left-handed hitters out? Okay, yeah. Pissed that Jhonny Peralta ate up so much playing time when it was clear to anyone and everyone watching at home that he just didn’t have it anymore? Absolutely. Get upset that Adam Wainwright isn’t healthy but is still out there, hurting his team’s chances. Get angry that Zach Duke rushed back in nine months only to give birth to an ERA over 6.00 and an FIP over 7.00. Be mad at Randal Grichuk and his inability to lay off the slider low and away, or Stephen Piscotty’s evaporating power. Or just go look at Aledmys Diaz’s numbers and ask yourself how we could have been so completely wrong about his offensive ability. All of those things are fair game, and fair points.

But to blame Carlos Martinez, or Matt Carpenter, for the things that have gone wrong this season, is utterly asinine. To the point that it really does make me question how knowledgeable this fanbase really is some days.

Which isn’t to say, of course, that either player is above reproach. Matt Carpenter’s baserunning is inexplicable, and inexcusable. Man’s got to know his limitations, as the saying goes, and Matt Carpenter’s got to know he is never, ever going to win baseball games with his legs. So stop trying, Matt. His defense at first is pretty good, but he’s miscast elsewhere on the diamond. He’s not a perfect player. But he’s also walking nearly 17% of the time this year, putting up a ~.380 on-base percentage in spite of some very poor batted-ball luck, and has played the whole season with a bum shoulder, which just might explain some of the less-impressive power we’ve seen from the Galveston Grinder this year. Matt Carpenter and his 119 wRC+ is not in any way, shape, or form the problem with this team.

But then there’s Carlos Martinez, and that...is a slightly more complicated subject. Not that Carlos is somehow a problem; there are, however, things about Carlos’s season we can look at and see some real reasons for the frustration with him. And that’s even pretending the racial and generational issues don’t exist, which is what I’m going to try to do very hard to do here today. No, Carlos is not a dour white guy, and yes, I understand that pisses off some fans. Get over it, or fuck off. Either way, really. But there are legitimate things going on with El Gallo this year that have created opportunities for frustration.

Most of all, I think it’s fair to say that Carlos Martinez’s 2017 season has been, well, weird. In some ways, really weird.

First off, it’s important to point out, once again, that Carlos has not been at all a bad pitcher this year. In fact, he’s been a fairly excellent pitcher. By FanGraphs’ FIP-based WAR model, Carlos has been worth 3.4 wins above replacement this season in 29 starts. If we go by the Baseball-Reference model, based on runs allowed (which I tend to prefer, feeling that the extra noise introduced is made up for by the contact elements left out by DIPS theory), he’s been even better, sitting at 3.6 wins for the season. By either measure, and whichever philosophy one subscribes to, Carlos Martinez in 2017 has been very, very good.

And yet, there has been consternation far and wide with the Cards’ young ace this season, even ignoring the strange hairstyle debates and questions about his maturity level and/or intelligence. He’s too inconsistent, goes the argument, or he doesn’t study hitters the way he should, or he’s too busy fucking around in the dugout to be a proper, capital a Ace. Really, though, it all just boils down to: Carlos Martinez should be a better pitcher than he is.

So let’s take a look at what kind of pitcher Carlos has been this year, and decide if there is any merit to that, shall we?

Following last night’s six-inning, two-run performance last night, Carlos has now made 29 starts on the season, and thrown 189 innings. That’s an average of just about six and a half innings per start, which in the current baseball environment is very good. No, he’s not throwing complete games every time out, but that has a lot to do with where the game as a whole is now, rather than saying something about Carlos specifically. If Carlos throws 6.2 innings his next start, he’ll surpass his career high. There are 20 games left in the season including today; depending on how things work out Carlos will get three or four more starts. He will almost certainly exceed 200 innings. He crossed the 200 strikeout threshold last night.

In this season, typically seen as a bit of a disappointment for the 25 year old, Carlos is currently running the highest strikeout rate of his career. His walk rate is the lowest since he became a full-time major leaguer. His K-BB%, needless to say, is the best of his career. He’s thrown two complete game shutouts this season, and lost his chance at a third when the offense couldn’t score a single run in nine frames to support him. That hypothetical third shutout would have tied him for the major league lead, with....um, Ervin Santana, of all people. Huh. Instead, he has to settle for being tied for second with Corey Kluber, who is actually much, much better company if we’re being honest here.

So if Carlos is throwing more innings than ever before, striking out more hitters, walking fewer hitters, and is one of only a handful of pitchers in baseball this year to have even thrown a single complete game, much less a shutout, and multiple shutouts on top of that, then why is he seen as a disappointment?

Well, while attempting to avoid speaking for anyone else or assuming I can read other people’s minds — even people I think are idiots deserve the chance to speak for themselves, I feel — I think there are a couple of reasons why Carlos’s season has been at least a little frustrating at various points along the way.

First, there’s the matter of Carlos’s distribution of walks. For instance, remember that weird start against the Yankees back in April, when Carlos walked eight hitters? That was weird, right? Of course it was. Great pitchers do not, as a rule, walk eight batters in a single game, even when they strike out eleven and it looks like they’re maybe going for the seldom-seen Nolan Ryan double-double.

Martinez has made 29 starts this season, thrown 189 innings, and walked 63 hitters. That’s exactly three walks per nine innings, and that rate has held completely steady over Carlos’s last couple starts.

Funny thing about that walk rate, though: in just four starts this season, Carlos walked 21 hitters. There was a five-walk start in Milwaukee, two four-walk clunkers, and that bizarre eight-walk trudge against the Yanks. Four starts, 22 total innings, 21 walks. In the remaining 25 starts this season, Carlos has thrown 167 innings and walked 42 batters. That’s a 2.26 BB/9 rate, which is significantly more impressive.

Now, please don’t think I’m saying we should just throw those starts out. Those poor starts still happened, and points to some continuing inconsistency in Martinez’s mechanics from start to start, I think. There are games when Carlos seems to struggle much more than one might expect to find his delivery, and thus the strike zone. Why that is, I don’t really know. But his mechanics seem less consistent to me start to start than most other pitchers.

The other thing that’s a bit strange about Martinez’s season — and the really big issue that has kept him from taking the huge step forward I think many of us expected — is how oddly homer-prone he’s been this year. In his two starts in September, Carlos has avoided the long ball, and unsurprisingly has been outstanding. That has not, however, been the case for much of the year.

Since he became a full-time starter in 2015, Martinez has been one of the more difficult pitchers in baseball to hit a home run against. His HR/9 numbers in 2015 and ‘16 were 0.65 and 0.69, respectively. When you’re only allowing about two-thirds of a homer per nine innings, that goes a long way toward keeping runs off the board.

This season, however, Carlos has had a pretty serious home run problem. Those last two starts of dinger-free baseball have obviously helped bring his rate down a fair bit, but even so he’s allowed 1.14 home runs per nine innings this year. Before his last two starts, the number was close to double his 2016 rate. Even with two clean sheets in a row he’s allowing almost half again as many home runs as he has in the past.

The question, of course, is whether this year’s homeritis is something to be concerned with long term going forward. In 2015 and ‘16, Carlos’s HR/FB% was identical, at 10.6%. This season, that number has jumped up to 16%. In other words, that half-again as high home run rate is supported by a similar ratio of fly balls turning into homers. Martinez has also seen his groundball rate decrease slightly this season, from 56.4% in 2016 to 51.7%, which isn’t a huge concern, but coupled with the higher HR/FB rate it’s easy to see why the dingers have been much more of an issue for Martinez this year.

What’s really interesting is how much of a warping effect the home runs seem to have had on Carlos’s season, and probably the perception as well. For instance, do you realise that from the seventh of August through the end of the month, Martinez made five starts, threw 33.2 innings, struck out 31 batters, and walked just four? It was perhaps the most consistently excellent stretch of control we’ve seen from Carlos, not only this season but in his young career.

And yet, that stretch was accompanied by message board posts about how disappointing Martinez has been this year, and comment-section trade proposals, and even what should be relatively level-headed media types on the radio and in print venting their frustrations with Carlos letting the club down as they tried to climb back into contention. The reason why? Over that five-start stretch, in which Martinez posted an absolutely elite K:BB ratio, he also allowed a ghastly seven home runs. Again, in less than 35 innings. It’s tough to get your outstanding control noticed when you’re allowing roughly two and a half homers per nine innings.

Carlos has allowed 24 home runs this season, which is nine more than he allowed all season in 2016. It’s eleven more than he allowed in 2015. And while home runs are certainly up this year, they’re not up by ~60% over last season. It’s a fair question to ask if Martinez is just going to be more homer-prone now that hitters have seemingly made a widespread adjustment to get low pitches into the air more often. Unfortunately, we don’t have an answer to that one just yet.

But really, that question is one we’ll just have to wait to answer, and not really my point here anyway. My point is this: 2017 has been a season of improvements for Carlos Martinez, in virtually every way. He hasn’t made an enormous jump in any one area, but he’s improved some in almost every aspect of his game. When you improve in nearly every area, you would usually expect to see that improvement acknowledged. Appreciated. But rather, we’ve seen Martinez cast as one of the real poster boys for the Cardinals’ underachieving ways this season. And while it’s easy to dismiss the hair stuff or the personality stuff as the same kind of dogwhistle ugliness that permeates the rest of our national conversation these days, there’s also the unavoidable fact that, while Carlos Martinez has almost certainly become a better pitcher this season, and is moving ever closer to the ranks of the game’s truly elite, undeniable starters, there have been a few strange things that have held him back, and helped to create this narrative of disappointment, regression, stagnation, even disintegration.

A full 33% of Carlos Martinez’s walks this year have come in just 11.6% of his innings. In less than 14% of his starts, in fact. He’s allowed 60% more home runs this year than last, in six fewer innings. That second fact has obscured much of the real improvement Carlos has made in his pitching this year, and that first fact has fed into the perception that he’s inconsistent, unreliable, maybe even a headcase. And there doesn’t seem to be much of anything any of us can say to change the minds of those who believe that.

Here’s the good news, though: those improvements, obfuscated by the home run spike and the Hrabosky narrative though they may be, are still very real. They are very much still there. Carlos may not have improved across the board in every single way this season, but in most of the really important ways he has. And personally, I’m hoping that the few weird things that have so defined Carlos’s 2017 season in the minds of a handful of very loud, ill-informed fans turn around next season, and we see what a Carlos Martinez without strange five-walk outings and a huge home run rate looks like.

Until then, though, we’re stuck with this 2017 version of Carlos Martinez. Which is, as you should hopefully recognise, is very good.

But not as good as it could have been. And for a couple of really strange reasons.