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Small Sample Size Theatre Presents: Carlos Martinez vs. The Sinister Menace

A largely pointless exercise in looking at largely meaningless numbers, which are largely meaningless because of being largely tiny.

Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the season, we all knew the narrative, right?

''Carlos Martinez will never be a starter. He's too small. Can't hold up. He doesn't have enough pitches. Won't be able to get through a lineup more than once.''

And, of course, most damningly:

''He can't get lefties out.''

That last one was the most damning question regarding Carlos mostly because it was the one that rang the most true. The stature and related durability we don't, and won't, know until, well, until he either breaks down or he doesn't. It's just the way things go, really. Personally, I think he'll be fine. He has some of the best mechanics of any pitcher on the Cardinal staff, and the size concern for pitchers has always seemed largely overblown to me.

As for not having enough pitches, he has a pair of fastballs, both of which probably warrant 70 grades or better on any given day, with the sinker maybe even being better than that. He has an occasionally dominant slider, has brought back the slower curve, at least as an occasional surprise offering, and possesses a changeup that, despite being severely underutilised in previous seasons as a reliever, shows the kind of movement and action that puts it among the elite offerings in the game. That's four above-average pitches by my count, not to mention the curve that occasionally can look average-ish. More than enough pitches.

The lefty thing, though...well, that's harder to argue against. In fact, it's downright impossible to dismiss as a concern, given the numbers. In 2014, Carlos held righthanded hitters down in a big way, to the tune of a .239/.308/.301 triple slash line, good for just a .275 wOBA. Lefties, on the other hand, gave Carlos fits. He was torched by portsiders for a .289/.387/.462 triple slash, which translates to a .363 wOBA. For reference, Jhonny Peralta in 2014, when he was at least a down-ballot MVP vote-getter: .343 wOBA. Matt Holliday in 2014, hitting at his usual might-be-a-Hall-of-Famer level: .360 wOBA.

So against Carlos Martinez in 2014, every left-handed hitter he faced basically hit like an MVP candidate.

Actually, the worst number of all isn't even reflected in those above figures, though they are suitably horrifying. The worst is probably this: in 2014, Carlos Martinez faced a total of 171 left-handed hitters. Of those 171, he walked 22, while striking out just 19. That is way beyond just ordinary bad, and into the realm of numbers you have to look at multiple times just to make sure you didn't misread them. So, yeah, there has to be real concern about Carlos Martinez's ability to not simply get blown out of the water by lefty hitters, to the point his viability as a starting candidate really does start to come into question.

Here's the thing, though: that last point actually kind of relates to the previous point. That bit about how Martinez doesn't have enough pitches, that I was able to fairly easily refute? If there's a key to Carlos answering the legitimate question of his vulnerability to lefties, it will almost certainly come in the form of the answer to the not-so-legitimate questions about the depth of his repertoire. Put more plainly, that changeup that went so underused in 2014 is likely going to be the key.

Of course, given that we're all of two starts (and one relief appearance), into the 2015 season for Carlos, the numbers are, at this point, just shy of meaningless. But hey, that's the fun of early-season numbers, isn't it? There's a magical sort of transience to them, knowing all the facts could change completely in a week or two. Stats in the middle of April are just slightly more real than dreams, and, at least to my mind, equally as charming in their own strange way.

And so, with all of our talismanic small sample size disclaimers clutched firmly in hand, what do the numbers say about Carlos Martinez vs left-handed hitters so far in 2015?

Well, to be honest, if you look at just the raw numbers, it doesn't look like things are any better at all. To wit, lefties are currently putting up a .368 wOBA against El Gallo, which, if you remember from five minutes ago, is actually worse than what they did against him last season. So, we can conclude it's pretty much back to the 'pen for Carlos, right? Not so fast.

There are some encouraging signs to be gleaned from Martinez's performance against opposite-handed hitters this season. First, there's the .208 batting average against; left-handers are still doing damage against Carlos, but they aren't doing it by racking up a ton of hits. Second is the six strikeouts against 29 lefties faced; where in 2014 El Gallo struggled in striking out just barely better than 10% of the lefties he saw, his K rate against them in this young season is a much more robust 20.7%.

The downside to all this is that Carlos isn't getting BABIPed to death or nickel-and-dimed by lefties all day long. Rather, walks and homers have been the big issue for him with a lefthander in the box, as he has walked five and given up a double and two home runs against hitters of the sinister persuasion.

Of course, given the microscopic nature of the sampling, it's hard (read: impossible), to determine how much, if any, of the numbers are ''real''. For example, of the five walks Carlos has allowed against lefties, four of them were to Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, and all came with somewhat extenuating circumstances. Bruce homered off Martinez in his first plate appearance, then walked both times he came to the plate after that as Carlos simply refused to challenge him with anything over the plate. That could be read as Martinez and Yadi being too afraid to come into the zone against the guy who blew Carlos up the first time he saw him, or simply a tactical approach to a situation if one wanted to be generous. The two walks to Votto felt similar, in that the Cards in general seemed to take the stance of being unwilling to offer Votto much of anything to hit, which might not be a terrible idea given how hot he has been through the first two weeks of the season.

The non-Bruce home run and double were both courtesy of Billy Hamilton, however, which is a little harder to excuse away. Still, Hamilton's extra-base knocks came as a result of a down-and-in miss aided by a tiny home ballpark and one authentic Great Piece of Hitting on the double. Even so, getting beaten by Jay Bruce or refusing to give in to Joey Votto is one thing; giving up bombs to Billy Hamilton is quite another.

What hasn't changed at all is the gulf between Carlos's results facing left-handed and right-handed hitters. Compare that .368 wOBA versus lefties to El Gallo's line facing right-handed hitters, whom he has limited to a comical .091/.091/.227 line, with a K:BB ratio that is currently impossible to calculate, and will remain so until such time as he walks one of them. That 20.7% strikeout rate against lefties looks much better than last year, until you compare it to his current 31.8% K rate against same-handed hitters, at which point one might find oneself circling back around to buying in to the original premise of this article, stated way back at the beginning. Maybe Carlos really can't make it as a starter, since even with a much-improved and far more extant changeup in hand he seems to be struggling nearly as badly against lefties as he has in the past.

Of course, in the end, the size of the samples we're dealing with here render the numbers virtually moot altogether. I find Carlos's increased changeup usage and the ridiculous movement on the pitch to be enough hope for me when it comes to his future dealings with lefthanders, but it would be easy enough for a less charitable sort to look at the numbers and simply conclude that, Pedro-esque changeup or no, Carlos Martinez is still not really able to get lefties out with any real degree of success, and so the bullpen is still likely his ultimate destination.

So overall, what did we learn here today? Well, honestly, virtually nothing. That's sort of what you always learn when it comes to numbers this early in the season, actually. But, hey, it's still sort of fun to think about, isn't it? Especially when things are looking so bright as a 7-3 record and a potential sweep at home with your ace on the mount. Right?


In which case Carlos should be just fine. (You know, because it's right and not left.)