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Carlos and the Cutter

Carlos Martinez added a new pitch to his arsenal this year in spring training. So far, it looks like a real game-changer.

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

First things first: I wrote yesterday about minor leaguers in the system off to huge starts. I made an executive decision to omit Jack Flaherty and his excellent start to the season, mostly because I don’t really think of Flaherty as a minor leaguer at this point. He’s a major league pitcher who just happens to be feeling the roster squeeze this year. I covered future MVP Max Schrock, the whole Memphis outfield, Dylan Carlson, Preston Guilmet, and Ronnie Williams, who may or may not have had me at hello. I threw in a note about Daniel Poncedeleon’s awesome start a day prior, and the amazing story of him making it back to baseball at all.

Unfortunately, I completely forgot to include a player having one of the, if not the, very best starts in the whole system. Commenter CardsRule pointed out the omission late in the comments section, and I immediately groaned inwardly, realising I had forgotten one of the players who was on my mental list before I started writing. Said player is one Juan Yepez, the infielder (primarily a first baseman), the Cardinals received from Atlanta as the return for Matt Adams, the left field attractive nuisance who continues to draw teams in like a moth to the flame.

Yepez, over the course of his first seven games and 28 plate appearances, is hitting .500/.536/.875. Is the BABIP high? You bet your ass it is. (.524, to be exact.) But Yepez is also running a 1:1 strikeout to walk ratio (10.7% on both), and driving the ball to the tune of a .375 isolated slugging percentage. All in all, it adds up to a 270 wRC+, which I think is fairly good, though I’m not 100% sure. Yepez and Carlson both returned to Peoria this season rather than moving up to Palm Beach, which is very interesting. Maybe the biggest downside with Yepez is the fact he’s mostly played first base, which not only costs him lots of value, but makes him a little tougher to fit into the puzzle of even the medium-term plans of the Cardinals should he continue to advance with the bat. If they could get him up to speed at third base, where he did play some last season, it would be a huge boon to his stock. Regardless, he’s crushing the ball right now, and deserved a spot at the table yesterday, which I completely forgot to set for him. So consider this my mea culpa, and his very deserved plaudits.

We heard a lot about a particular narrative this spring, a narrative about a pitcher adding a pitch. Now, in general, these stories are not the most notable things going on in camp; we hear about pitchers adding pitches basically every year. It’s not quite as much a rite of passage as the classic Best Shape of His Life trope that begins to crop up even before camp officially opens most years, but it’s in that neighbourhood of ubiquity. So really, when you hear a pitcher has added something to his repertoire, it’s easy to write it off as low-stakes experimentation (I mean, we all did some of that in college, right?), taking place primarily due to the environment, and perhaps a little due to simple boredom as well.

In the case of this particular pitch-addition story, though, there was a little more intrigue than usual. Carlos Martinez, the story went, has decided to add a cutter. Well, first off, anytime Carlos Martinez does anything it’s a little bigger story than with most other players, simply because of who he is. He’s the Cards’ best pitcher, for one thing, but even beyond that he’s a uniquely fascinating subject. The people who love Carlos love him because watching him pitch is like watching a Bob Ross canvas come together, so fast and abstract it’s hard to make out what’s happening half the time until it’s over, and the picture is complete, and you’re left rubbing your eyes and wondering how it all happened. For those who can’t stand Carlos, though, the hair and the flair and the ink and the delivery, he’s like a fishbone caught in the back of one’s throat, mostly harmless but irritating, a constant, impossible to ignore source of frustration until it clears away. No other player on the Cardinals, not even Matt Carpenter and his batting average plus lineup position debates, is so endlessly fascinating and divisive.

Even beyond that, there’s the fact that, after we first heard tell of the cutter coming into Carlos’s arsenal, Martinez odd spring. The results out of the gate were shaky, then he missed a start for personal reasons, then spent the rest of camp, basically, on the back fields. He was getting his work in, we kept hearing, but we didn’t see him. And all along the way, the idea of him tinkering with this new cutter swirled around what he was doing. It was weird. Other pitchers add pitches in spring training all the time and don’t then just not appear in games for a month. Why Carlos was throwing side work instead of going through a normal spring training was a mystery, and like all things Carlos Martinez, became an attempted referendum by a certain segment of the fan base on why he needs to be traded away for the good of the team.

As things stand here now, though, on the morning of the 16th of April, with three weeks of the season gone by, it would now appear that the strange spring of Carlos Martinez was one of those rare occasions where there really was smoke without fire, or at least without any kind of fire we have to worry about. His ERA stands at 1.75 over 25.2 innings, with a 27.5% strikeout rate and none of the home run issues (so far), he struggled with last season. The walks are strangely high, but between cold weather, some legitimate mechanical issues on Opening Day, and a seeming willingness to pitch around certain hitters at certain times, I’m not all that concerned about the control just yet.

In the early going, though, the most interesting story has been that cutter we heard so much about during the spring, and how Martinez has incorporated it into his arsenal. So let’s talk about that.

So far this season, Martinez has thrown his cutter just over 13% of the time. (13.15%, to be exact.) As far as velocity goes, it’s the slowest of his three fastballs, coming in at 90.6 mph. Interestingly, Carlos’s velocity is down a bit across the board, roughly a mile and a half on most of his pitches (not all, though), but he’s getting more movement than before. The movement, as well as the fact not all his pitches have dropped in velocity by the same amount, suggests to me what he’s doing this year in backing off slightly is deliberate, rather than simply a velocity falloff.

As far as movement goes, the cutter really doesn’t have a ton. It drops more than his four seamer, but less than the sinker. Both the fastball and sinker have lots of armside movement, 4+ inches on the four-seamer and over nine and a half for the sinker, the cutter has just 0.66 inches of horizontal movement, to the glove side. In other words, the pitch is actually very close to straight. When compared to his other two fastballs, however, that’s when we see a big difference in the movements of the pitches, to the point hitters can get overwhelmed by the diversity of offerings on display.

The pitch mix on the whole has seen some changes this season, particularly due to the cutter’s addition, which has mostly come at the expense of Carlos’s four-seamer. In 2017, Martinez threw his four-seam fastball (hereafter known as simply ‘fastball’, whereas the two-seamer will be a ‘sinker’, because I’m tired of hyphenating four-seamer), not quite 27% of the time. He threw the sinker a little over 29% of the time, giving him a roughly even split between the pitches.

This year, we’ve seen that cutter come in 13% of the time, and the fastball has dropped from ~27% to just 15.1% usage. He’s actually upped his sinker usage slightly, from 29 to 31%, so the cutter has come almost entirely at the expense of the vanilla fastball. He’s also dropped about four percentage points off his changeup rate, from 16.4% to 12.66%, so there’s been a little shift there as well.

And that makes, sense, really, doesn’t it? The cutter was introduced as a means to try and better combat left-handed hitters, which means it would probably take away some of the usage from the pitch Carlos previously used to get lefties out; namely, the changeup. It also makes sense for the cutter to take more fastball opportunities than those of the sinker, since the cutter is largely being thrown inside to lefties. Previously, the fastball was the easier pitcher for Martinez to get inside against left-handed hitters, whereas the sinker tended to leak out over the plate a bit too much. Thus, he went inside with the four-seam, which location has now been usurped by the cutter.

What’s interesting about that change is how much more strategic Carlos has been this season about deploying the fastball. His whiff percentage on the fastball in 2017 was 7.61%, which isn’t bad, but not elite or anything. This year, however, that number has jumped up to over 18%, which is...definitely something. For reference, that’s about the whiff percentage of Kenley Jansen’s cutter most years. So...yeah. Now, I’m not saying I expect the fastball to continue missing bats at quite that high a rate, but using the fastball so rarely and working it at the top of the zone more often this year has definitely made a real difference in the quality of swings hitters are getting against Carlos’s heater. It’s a much more effective weapon when he’s throwing it less often, and being more strategic with when and where he goes to it.

As for results on the cutter, to this point hitters have just a .200 batting average against the pitch, and just a .300 slugging percentage. Obviously, we’re dealing with tiny samples, but those are pretty good numbers. More importantly, the cutter has a 13.2% whiff rate, so it’s missing bats in addition to opening up tactical opportunities.

It’s still early in the season, of course, so we’ll have to wait awhile to see just how successful the addition of the cutter really was for Carlos Martinez. But through four starts, it’s hard to think anything but so far, so good. The pitch itself is good, and it fits well into his overall repertoire, allowing him to attack hitters in different ways.

Most specifically, it has, at least here in the early going, made a big difference in the level of success Carlos has had against left-handed hitters, which have always been a bit of a bugaboo for him. In his career, Martinez has held right-handed hitters to a .266 wOBA, while lefties have knocked him around to the tune of a .330 wOBA. In 2017, the divide was even worse, as he kept righties at a .263 but was unable to contain left-handed hitters as they posted a .337 against him.

In 2018, right-handers have a .298 wOBA against Carlos, with the biggest part of their success coming from an elevated walk rate. So he’s actually been slightly worse against righties than in the past, but that seems to mostly be some small-sample control issues. Left-handers, on the other hand, long Martinez’s nemeses, have just a .250 wOBA against him this season. Is it early? Sure. It absolutely is. But I think there’s a real chance that Carlos has found his equaliser for facing lefties. And if he has, baseball as a whole is going to be talking about Carlos Martinez a lot, very soon.

All usage, movement, and pitch result stats come from Brooks Baseball.