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Carlos at Closing Time

The Cardinals are leaning on one of their most talented pitchers to close games as we head into the final stretch of the season. It’s also a very familiar face.

St Louis Cardinals v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

It’s more or less official now: Carlos Martinez is the new closer. For now. Probably. Mostly.

I personally don’t mind Mike Shildt equivocating on naming Carlos the closer; I wouldn’t actually mind if he didn’t name a closer at all. Defined bullpen roles are often the bane of the sabermetrically-minded fan, who tends to believe outs are outs, innings are innings, and a good pitcher should be a good pitcher no matter what he’s being asked to do, so long as it involves getting hitters out.

I tend to fall into that category, for the most part; the whole Proven Closer fascination of coaching and front office types drives me a little bit nuts, particularly when it leads to inefficient uses of resources. But then again, there’s also the fact that I’ve read many, many times over the years quotes from relievers talking about how important they feel it is to know your role. Sure, guys usually pay lip service to the idea of flexibility and being ready whenever called upon as well, but an awful lot of relief pitchers seem willing to cop to the fact they feel far better about their jobs if they know who the guy is who’s going to finish the game. Psychologically, at least, they seem to believe things fall into place when there’s a hammer at the end, and it isn’t left up to a committee.

It’s a fascinating microcosm of the way baseball players seem to view the world in general; there are obviously players who relish the chance to simply do anything and everything, but there seems to be far more players who want some sort of predictability in their playing time and role on the team. Maybe that shouldn’t be overly surprising, either; I would think most of us like a little adventure from time to time in our jobs, if only to break up the monotony, but deep down very few of us would like to go into work every day not knowing what exactly we’re going to be doing. A little change of pace is good; feeling like you never know what to plan for can wear on you.

And so, even if in my heart of hearts I feel like any reliever should be able to throw any inning equally well, I have to admit that if the player doesn’t feel the same way, then he probably won’t perform great in multiple roles. If the pitcher in question feels like he’s best in the seventh, then he’ll probably be best in the seventh, if only in a self-fulfilling prophecy sort of way. By that same token, if relievers feel like it’s important to have one guy closing so that the rest of them can fall in line behind him, then maybe it really is important.

That’s not actually what I’m interested in this morning, though. Rather, I just want to consider what Carlos Martinez might be as a closer for this last little sprint to the finish line, and do so by zooming out slightly to look at how the 2018 season has gone for Carlos in general.

Overall, it’s been a disappointing season for El Gallo, who entered his age 26 season as the ace of the Cardinals’ staff, having accumulated just over twelve wins above replacement since making his debut as a reliever late in the 2013 season. He pitched almost exclusively out of the ‘pen in 2014, as well, before moving into a full-time starting role in 2015. He threw nearly 180 innings that season, broke 195 in 2016, and went over the 200 inning mark for the first time in 2017. He made at least 29 starts all three seasons (a couple relief appearances in ‘15 were all that kept him from 30+), and was generally a very solid starter. If he was occasionally seen as somewhat disappointing (by sane people, I mean, not the hairstyle weirdos), it was only because the talent was so incredibly obvious, and so pyrotechnic in nature, that it was easy to see Cy Young seasons in his future, rather than just very good ones. Given that context, it felt like 2018 had the potential to be a monster year for Carlos.

Instead, it’s been anything but. Performance hasn’t really even been the major issue for Carlos this year; or at least, it hasn’t been the main issue. For the first time in his major league career, Martinez has not been healthy this season. Now, he was shut down with a shoulder strain at the end of the 2015 season, in his very last start of the year (which put a major damper on the postseason, remember), but in the following two years there was not a whiff of injury surrounding him. This year, though, it’s been a litany of minor and moderate arm issues, including both a strained lat muscle and shoulder.

The stuff has been noticeably lessened this season, though it is admittedly tough to say for certain if Carlos’s reduced velocity has been due to inability or choice. He seems to pitch well below his maximum effort level more often than ever these days, presumably with an eye toward going deeper in games (which I respect a lot, by the way), but just chalking the reduced radar gun readings to a plan, rather than potentially diminished stuff, feels a little homerish, perhaps even naive.

This is the first season in which Carlos has failed to throw a single pitch over 100 miles per hour. His hardest pitch of the year was a four-seam fastball thrown at 99.23 mph on the 13th of July, in a game against the Cincinnati Reds. In every other season of his big league career, Carlos has broken the 101 mph mark. His average fastball velocity this season is down nearly a mile and a half from where he was in 2017, as well. Interestingly, his sinker is actually down almost two and a half miles per hour on average, which is a larger decrease than we see on any of his other pitches. That’s actually the greatest argument, in my opinion, in favour of a planned velocity decrease, rather than simple inability. Trying to ease off the sinker to get a little more movement makes sense, and in fact Carlos’s two-seamer does, in fact, have over an inch and a half more drop this season than last.

His changeup is also sinking more this year than last season, by almost three full inches. For what it’s worth, all three of his offspeed pitches, the cutter, slider, and changeup, have created positive value this season. His fastballs, meanwhile, both two- and four-seamers, have been less effective than in the past. Again, I can’t say exactly why he’s pitching at a lower velocity, but increased movement and better command of his offspeed pitches would seem to point toward a pitcher trying to figure out how to have success without relying entirely on velocity; whether that’s by choice or necessity I cannot say.

Overall, though, it’s been a tough season for Carlos. He began the season by struggling in a nastily cold Opening Day assignment against the Mets, but then rolled off multiple excellent starts. Following that ugly performance at Citi Field, his next six starts brought Game Scores of 86, 53, 79, 69, 66, and 70. His ERA following a win over the White Sox on the 2nd of May was 1.40, and it looked like the breakout we had been waiting for had arrived. (Admittedly, his peripherals over that stretch were more good than great, but there were also multiple games during that time when it was clear Carlos was completely overwhelming hitters.)

Then came the injuries. First the lat strain, then a return, then a tweak of the right oblique, then one game back, then the shoulder strain. Pitching always brings with it the risk of injury, of course, but the start-stop nature of the 2018 season for Martinez has tanked what began as such a promising campaign. He’s still been good, worth 2.0 wins by FanGraphs WAR and 1.3 by BRef’s version, in less than 110 innings, but that doesn’t take away the sting of a year mostly lost due to niggling injuries in what should be the prime of his career. When he wasn’t on the shelf this year, on at least the occasion of his first return Carlos admitted to being afraid to work at his peak velocity, worried about reinjuring his troublesome lat. (That this crisis of confidence was attributed to both cowardice on the part of the player and incompetence on the part of the medical/training staff is an interesting sidenote, but I’m not sure what of use we can glean from that particular hullabaloo.)

And now, Carlos is closing. Carlos is the closer. He now has a chance to completely obliterate the negative memories of this lost season, should he go on a dominant tear closing games for a team that makes any sort of postseason run. Most of the truly memorable Cardinal postseason runs have, strangely, coincided with closer changes late in the season. The 2006 club memorably replaced Jason Isringhausen with a young power pitcher by the name of Adam Wainwright when Izzy’s arm gave out down the stretch. The 2013 season saw Edward Mujica run out of gas and give way to the fireballing Trevor Rosenthal as the playoffs approached. And 2011, most chaotic of all championship seasons, saw Ryan Franklin’s shockingly successful run as closer come to an end, Fernando Salas serve as the save man du jour for much of the season, and then Jason Motte emerge as a late-inning force who officially took the closing reins only in September. Why recent Cardinal World Series appearances have all featured newly-minted closers is beyond me, but it’s pretty clear we can plan on another Fall Classic trip this year. One does not argue with science.

As for what sort of closer Carlos might be, though, I have a hard time really drawing a comfortable box around him. I remember Carlos Martinez the reliever, of course, but that version of El Gallo threw 75% fastballs and featured a changeup barely four percent of the time. Modern Carlos Martinez throws five distinct pitches and occasionally breaks out a curveball just for shits and giggles. (Modern Carlos also leans more heavily on his slider than I would like, personally, but that’s an issue for another day.) The version of Carlos we see on the mound nowadays is experimental almost to a fault, mixing pitches, speeds, location, and deliveries in unending combinations that feel perhaps overly complicated at times. Carlos Martinez in 2013 pitched like Greg Holland; Carlos Martinez in 2018 pitches like Johnny Cueto. That sort of wide repertoire is a strange fit for the bullpen, where things are typically boiled down and condensed into a concentrated form; relievers are strictly freebasers most of the time.

What we’ve seen so far, though, has been at the very least extremely intriguing, if admittedly a bit of a mixed bag. The last few appearances, Carlos has pitched with the kind of swagger that has all too often been missing this year, buried beneath phone booth pitching and an emotional control dialed up to eleven.

Who knows, really; it’s possible the pure adrenaline of the ninth inning is exactly what Carlos needs to snap out of his self-imposed grownup phase and just cut things loose again. It’s also possible a pitcher with five pitches who tends to need an inning just to dial in his feel for the day will end up a terrible fit for what is usually the highest-leverage assignment possible.

But this is a story we’ve seen before, where a late-season bullpen crisis leads to an unexpectedly brilliant solution, and a playoff run is ignited. The 2018 season has been one of mass frustration for Cardinal fans for long stretches, and a similarly disappointing campaign for the club’s most talented, and oftentimes best, starter in recent years. There’s no guarantee that the 2018 Cardinals and 2018 Carlos will find redemption together, but it’s possible. We’ve seen it happen before. And possible is good enough for a team, and a pitcher, who have seemed snakebit from the start in 2018.

Possible is really the best we can ask for.