We are at the point in the season where we can start to make bold statements about how a player has performed over the course of the year, and I think it is pretty safe to say that Carlos Martinez has had a phenomenal season so far in 2015. He has posted a 2.69 ERA and 3.45 FIP in 137 1/3 innings covering 21 starts and two relief appearances. His strikeout rate (24.3%) is noticeably higher than previous seasons, in large part due to an improved changeup, and he has been much more efficient overall, averaging close to 6 1/3 innings per start. Overall, he has done everything we could have reasonably asked for and then some.
Despite this, there may be reasons for concern. Martinez is entering uncharged territory in terms of innings pitched, and it isn't uncommon to see young pitchers "hit a wall" physically at this point in the season. Before this season, Martinez had never thrown more than 108 innings in a single season of his professional career. Because of this, the Cardinals openly talked about limiting Martinez's innings as the season went along in order to avoid a huge jump in innings pitched from last year to this year.
Limiting a young starter's innings may seem like a no brainer, especially if we believe the so-called "Verducci rule," which hypothesizes that young pitchers who add more than 30 innings to their workload from one year to the next have a higher risk of injury. While there is some debate about whether the Verducci rule is real or not, the general idea of limiting a young starter's innings seems to be something that many teams have bought into. The most publicized example of this took place in 2012, when the Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg for the season in September, despite making the playoffs.
Based on an article from MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch, the Cardinals appear to have altered their early season plan to limit Martinez's innings. According to General Manager John Mozeliak, many in the Cardinals organization "have confidence that he'll be just fine" based on the way he's throwing. Manager Mike Matheny doesn't seem to be worried, either, and he doesn't appear to be factoring in any long-term plans or innings limits when making in-game decisions. Matheny was quoted as saying that "the potential win supersedes anything we have in place right now." Of course, this quote came after Tuesday night's win, in which Martinez pitched eight innings in a game where he could have reasonably been removed after six innings.
While Martinez has not yet displayed any signs of fatigue, I find it concerning that the Cardinals don't appear to be holding back on using him, especially with the postseason looming. Besides giving Martinez a few extra days after the All-Star Break, the Cardinals have done nothing to skip starts or give extended breaks to Martinez. In addition, Mike Matheny and his staff have not been willing to bank innings for Martinez by pulling him an inning early in any of his starts.
Tuesday's start was a great example of this. Matheny elected to send Martinez out for the eighth inning to face Pirates batters for the fourth time, despite his early struggles and an already high pitch count. It should also be noted that the Cardinals were carrying a well-rested eight-man bullpen. The decision to leave Martinez in the game didn't end up hurting the Cardinals in that particular game, but it would be very concerning to see Mike Matheny push a talented young starter like this on a consistent basis.
If Martinez is given another ten starts, which is about what he is on pace for, he will come very close to 200 innings by the end of the year. This would mean that Martinez could nearly double his innings total from last season, especially if he pitches in the postseason. Of course, given how good the Cardinals' other four starters have been, it's quite possible that Martinez could get bumped from the rotation in October. especially if the Cardinals finally decide that Martinez's innings total is a concern.
Personally, I would much rather see Martinez's workload cut back in the next month and a half so that he is available to be a starter in the postseason. Among Cardinals starters, Martinez only trails Jaime Garcia in ERA, xFIP and SIERA. Martinez clearly has the stuff to dominate a top-tier lineup when he's on, and from a fan's perspective, it would be incredibly fun watching him pitch on the biggest stage in October. Barring an injury, though, I think there is a very real chance that the Cardinals put Martinez in the bullpen if they make the playoffs.
Fortunately, this scenario can be avoided if the Cardinals finally decide to think ahead and preserve Martinez for October. With a month and a half left in the season, though, the Cardinals are running out of time. They may be faced with the decision of either resting one of their best young players in the most important games of the year or risking injury by starting him. If this happens, the blame may fall squarely on Cardinals' management for failing to plan ahead.