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Cardinals 2020 Player Preview: Carlos Martinez Tries to Turn Back the Clock

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It’s been a rough few seasons for the formerly ascendant ace. Can he rediscover form back in the rotation?

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals - Game One Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Everything was humming along nicely for Carlos Martinez a few years ago. His career was following an obvious progression. His eye-popping talent reached St. Louis in 2013, when his arm electrified the run to the World Series. He spent 2014 mostly in the bullpen with a few spot starts. By 2015, he took his elite arm to the rotation, running up the 20th best FIP among qualified starters at the precocious age of 23. The following year was much of the same, and the question shifted to whether or not he could find another gear to attain truly elite status in 2017. He didn’t do that, but he still had a solid season with more strikeouts and a better xFIP. Here are his ranks among qualified starters over those three seasons:

Carlos Martinez Ranks among SP, 2015-2017

Category Rank
Category Rank
IP 14
wOBA 26
FIP 29
xFIP 28
K-BB% 35
Barrel/BIP 23
fWAR 22

Those are very good numbers bordering on great. Early in 2018, he appeared to be finally taking that next step, sporting a 1.40 ERA and 3.25 FIP through May 2nd. Then, all hell broke loose. Here’s the timeline:

2018

  • May 9: Placed on IL with right lat strain
  • June 5: Returns but struggles in 9 starts (5.32 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 4.90 xFIP)
  • July 20: Placed on IL with right oblique strain
  • July 30: Returns from IL but is removed in the 5th inning of his first start back
  • July 31: Placed on IL with right shoulder strain
  • August 21: Returns from IL, relegated to the bullpen for the remainder of the season, with the team unsure that he could build up enough stamina before the end of the season to return to the rotation.

2019

  • February 19: With high hopes of a return to the rotation, Martinez shows up to spring training and is almost instantly shut down for two weeks with shoulder fatigue.
  • March 13: Martinez resumes throwing with a different throwing program
  • March 25: Placed on IL for shoulder concerns/fatigue
  • May 18: Makes regular season debut out of the bullpen and finishes season without injury.

Despite the rocky journey, his 2019 out of the bullpen was plenty effective. To wit:

2019 Stats

48.1 IP, 9.87 K/9, 26.5 K%, 3.35 BB/9, 9.0 BB%, 0.37 HR/9, 5.7% HR/FB, 3.17 ERA, 2.86 FIP, 3.76 xFIP, 1.2 fWAR

That’s a lot like his 2015-2017, except it was out of the bullpen. Usually starters shifting to relief see a bump in velocity and K rates and Martinez was no exception. In the very least, his 2019 performance shows that he’s still very effective. The numbers, on a rate basis, are remarkably similar to peak Carlos Martinez. It just happened in smaller bites.

The problem is that nobody knows what to expect from him now. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS, which is based on performance history and is purposely agnostic of how teams plan on using these players, has understandably given up on him as a starter. ZiPS gives him the following projection for the coming season:

2020 ZiPs Projections

70 IP, 9.5 K/9, 25.0 K%, 3.7 BB/9, 9.8 BB%, 0.9 HR/FB, 3.60 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 0.7 fWAR

Those are very good numbers for a reliever. The FIP and fWAR projections are in the upper 10th percentile of MLB relievers (pitchers with less than 25% of their appearances projected as starts) in Szymborski’s output. However, the team wants him in the rotation. He wants to be in the rotation. The team needs him in the rotation. He’s going to get every opportunity to be in the rotation.

If his shoulder is strong enough and he can stay healthy through most of the season, those projections probably change drastically, mostly for the better. There would be more innings, likely a diminished K rate, but more WAR as well. A healthy Carlos Martinez landing at 75% of what he was from 2015-2017 represents approximately a 2.5 win swing over Michael Wacha’s 2019 production. Even half of what he was in that window is a 1.6 win advantage over Wacha’s 2019.

Alas, error bars are dark and full of (t)errors. On one end, Carlos Martinez returns to the rotation and finally finds that extra gear, becoming truly elite. On the other end, injuries limit him to the bullpen again with diminished performance or, worse, he loses large chunks of the season on the IL. There’s more volatility to his 2020 than the majority of other players.

It’s a pivotal year for Martinez and the future of his career. It’s a year that can have a dramatic impact on the Cardinals’ fortunes in 2020. For all of the starting pitching depth they have competing for Wacha’s vacated slot, none of the options possess El Gallo’s ceiling.