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The worry with Carlos Martinez

I’m worried we’ll never see the 2015-2017 version of Carlos Martinez

St. Louis Cardinals v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

With the news that Miles Mikolas will miss the rest of the season, the 2020 MLB rotation is in doubt. I will admit I’m a little bit annoyed that we didn’t get to see any Mikolas this year, but only because his seeming return pushed Kwang-hyun Kim back to the bullpen, where he most assuredly does not belong. (I’m also annoyed we can’t see Mikolas, but I was prepared for that already). So we’ll spend 56 games trying a lesser starter in his place, whether than be Daniel Poncedeleon, Austin Gomber, or some combination of options.

The Mikolas news also cemented Carlos Martinez is unequivocally one of the five best starting rotation options that the Cardinals currently have. Now, you may be wondering, we already knew that? I will confess actually that I was much less certain of that with Mikolas in the fold. And I’m trying to tread carefully with this post, because I’m not actually arguing anything should change (well except maybe that Kim should be quickly moved back to starter, but I think that one falls on deaf ears).

It is also worth pointing out of course that Carlos should have found his way into the rotation someway, somehow, regardless of if he was actually one of the five best. He was at worst the sixth best, and that would take a rather pessimistic reading. On top of that, he’s under contract for two more years, plus two club options, and the club options only make sense to pick up if Martinez returns to starting. Martinez is getting $11.5 million, or the prorated version of that in 2020, plus that in 2021 with club options for $17 and $18 million with very low cost buyouts. The Cardinals clearly have no problem with a $11.5 million reliever, but a $17 million is probably a bit much even for them.

And then there’s the fact of course that the reliever Carlos was not worth $17 million anyway, even if you want to take that chance. I’m going to throw out a perhaps hot take out there and say: reliever Carlos Martinez was super underwhelming. He was not remotely as dominant as he should have been theoretically. And by theoretically I mean a starter caliber pitcher pitching in relief should make it super obvious that he should go back to the rotation.

Despite flashes of brilliance and unhittable stuff, Martinez never did that. His reliever stats are actually about the same as his starter stats. They should have been considerably better. There’s no real reason Martinez should be an outlier to the rule that pitchers should pitch better in short dosages. The starters where that doesn’t apply are mostly pitchers who don’t necessarily have the best stuff, such as the current version of Adam Wainwright, whose stats I suspect would not meaningfully improve with a trip to the bullpen.

But that’s not a problem for Carlos. He’s the exact type of pitcher you’d imagine would get a boost, because his weakness is actually his command which is much less important in the bullpen. The current version of Carlos at least seems pretty unable to consistently throw the pitch where he wants to. He seems to throw the vast majority of pitches outside of the strike zone or right down the middle. That was the case last year, that was the case on Tuesday.

Now, you’ll ask me to show my work, so I will. Let’s do a side-by-side of his numbers as a starting pitcher and his numbers as a reliever. It includes Tuesday, but we’re dealing with a career here, so that should barely be a dent in his numbers since he was a starter for over three seasons.

Those are the stats I was more interested in, but for whatever it’s worth, Martinez’s ERA as a starter is 3.42; reliever 3.37. They are fascinatingly similar. They shouldn’t be. He has struck out slightly less, walked more, and been incredibly luckier on home runs as a reliever. Now, maybe that HR/FB as a reliever isn’t luck, but well, it’s pretty clear he never got that luck as a starter and he’s a starter now, so it’s kind of irrelevant if he’s not getting anywhere near the same benefit as a starter.

Let me tell you the main reason this worries me. Because with Carlos’ history and contract, it makes all the sense in the world to put him in the rotation. I’m not arguing against that. But it worries me because, he wasn’t actually very good as a starter in 2018 and I’m worried that’s his new normal. When his relief numbers didn’t see any kind of boost then, it worried me then as well.

I admittedly like xFIP more than most people I think. But even for people who don’t necessarily subscribe to that stat, it’s hard to deny that over his career, Carlos hasn’t been especially good at preventing home runs on a rate basis. That 2.89 FIP does nothing for me over a sample of 18.1 IP compared to a career of not being all that different from most pitchers when it comes to HR/FB%, which is the entirety of the difference between FIP and xFIP. xFIP assumes a pitcher allows an average HR/FB%, FIP assumes you have control over the home runs you allow. Carlos has a career 3.72 xFIP and 3.64 FIP as a starter which is barely a difference.

But again, it’s not necessarily the relief numbers that give me pause, it’s the starting numbers. The one year where Carlos got some benefit from HR/FB completely masked a sharp decline in pitching. His 11% BB rate as a starter narrowly beat his BB% as a starter in his second season and first year starting. His 2014 bullpen numbers are better than his 2014 starting numbers if you were wondering. He oddly struck out less in the bullpen, but walked way less, so his numbers still end up better. He too benefited from a favorable HR/FB% in the bullpen, not so much as a starter. (2.94 FIP/3.44 xFIP in bullpen; 3.60 FIP/3.71 xFIP)

In 2018, Martinez had a 4.45 xFIP as a starter, and if that’s the pitcher he is now - that he has been for the last couple years - then his numbers last year make perfect sense. That’s my worry. The projection systems are not particularly kind and do not help. ZiPS, in a year they projected completely in the bullpen, foresaw a 4.02 FIP and 3.46 ERA. I shudder to think what they think of him as a full-time starter. Steamer, seeing him with 10 starts and 4 relief appearances, has him down for a 4.59 FIP and 4.50 ERA.

Now, like I said, I’m not actually arguing against him in the rotation. Those numbers are about the same or better than all the other options (outside of Kim). And Martinez has more upside than any of them. I wish I had more of a point than I do, but my point I guess is “don’t be surprised if Martinez isn’t that great.” I’m not writing this because of one game, that would be absurd. This has been something that’s worried me basically since 2018, and I actually wish I had written this before the season, because then my point would seem less reactionary.

But I’ll finish with some optimism. Carlos is a very weird pitcher - see the part where he struck out less in relief back when he was 22? Also Carlos seems to choose to dial it back or go full speed, which may explain his underwhelming stats. Which of course means he need stop doing that. But it also means that a kick in the pants start could make him stop doing that and we’ll get classic Carlos. He’s still 28. And I’d certainly rather have him start than the alternative options (again options not named Kim - I might write a “Put Kim in the rotation post in the near future). So here’s hoping he just had a bad start against a great offense, that I’ve been overreacting for two years, and that he’ll pitch like old Carlos for the rest of the season.

I certainly don’t want to see him become a free agent after 2021. But to avoid that, he’s probably going to have to return to his old self, and what better time than now?