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Carlos Martinez back on track after start against Brewers

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It may have come against the Milwaukee Brewers, but Martinez put together his best start of 2016 on Monday. After a string of five straight losses, it almost felt like a necessary step in the right direction.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

On the surface, the start of the 2016 season for 2015 All-Star Carlos Martinez could not have gone any better as he won each of his first four starts. He was pitching deep into games (going an average of 7 innings per start) and held a sparking ERA (1.93), but given his electric repertoire, he just was not missing as many bats as you would expect (6.43 strikeouts per 9 innings). Thus, it should not have come as a major surprise when Martinez experienced trouble over his next five starts (0-5 record, 5 innings per start, and a 6.84 ERA). Plus, at the same time, he was fighting with a persistent flu bug, and as I surmised after his third bad start in a row, was potentially tipping his pitches.

Fortunately, nothing cures a pitching slump quite like an outing against the Milwaukee Brewers (team wRC+ of 90), compared to an average team wRC+ of 102 (Nationals, Pirates, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Cubs) in the five games prior. Martinez had a start where he began missing bats again (13 total whiffs), threw strikes (only issued one walk), and tied for his best start of the season via game score (also scored a 79 on April 26th versus the Diamondbacks).

Pitching Line

IP H R ER BB K Pitches Game Score
8.0 5 0 0 1 8 104 79

PitchF/x Basics (Via BrooksBaseball.net)

Pitch Type Count Avg. Velocity (Max.) Dragless Horiz. Movement (in.) Whiffs
Fourseamer 40 97.8 MPH (100.9) -7.71 5
Sinker 21 96.4 MPH (99.2) -14.01 1
Changeup 27 88.0 MPH (91.0) -13.89 6
Slider 12 85.9 MPH (88.4) 9.26 1
Curveball 4 75.9 MPH (77.5) 7.04 0

From a velocity standpoint, Martinez hadn't thrown harder than he did Monday in his first nine starts of 2016 -- which is saying something considering he already possessed the third fastest average fastball velocity among MLB starting pitchers. Couple the uptick in velocity with zero negative effect on his pitches' horizontal movement, and you have two of the main ingredients for a recipe of success.

A New Pitch?

If you regularly watch the Fox Sports Midwest broadcast, you have already been informed that Martinez throws a curveball in the "Hyundai Pitch Arsenal" (I believe that's what they call it, at least) segment at the beginning of every pitcher's outing. However, given the velocity and movement of Martinez's usual breaking ball, the FSM-classified "curveball" is actually more accurately classified as a "slider."

Well, in Monday's start, Martinez threw a breaking ball that averaged a shade under 76 MPH with less horizontal movement (but considerably more vertical drop) than his usual slider. He only mixed it into the game on four occasions, and it did not lead to any swings and misses, but this is definitely a development worth keeping an eye on considering it is a pitch that has the potential for up to a 25(!) MPH velocity difference from his fastballs.

98.3 MPH Fourseamer to Jonathan Villar

Martinez FB Villar

Martinez clearly missed Yadier Molina's spot here (he was looking for the fastball down and in), but given that he threw an 86.6 MPH changeup on the pitch immediately prior in the exact same location, the process simply could not have been better from a sequencing and pitch tunneling standpoint. Villar, a slap hitter when batting left-handed (.096 career ISO), did not stand a chance as the pitch was entering Molina's mitt before the barrel of his bat even made it into the hitting zone.

89.1 MPH Changeup to Hernan Perez

Martinez Changeup Perez

Good morning (97.1 MPH fourseamer fouled off), good afternoon (85.7 MPH slider called strike), and good night (89.1 MPH changeup whiffed on). If you haven't already, I suggest you read Eno Sarris' "Baseball's New Approach to the Changeup." In the piece, Eno writes about how right-handed pitchers, following the lead of Felix Hernandez, are beginning to throw more changeups down and inside to right-handed hitters, something that, even with the increase in frequency, is still relatively rare among RH pitchers.

Perez geared up for Martinez's first pitch fastball only to foul it off. He was fooled and subsequently didn't swing at the 0-1 slider. With an 0-2 count, Perez reasonably guessed that the Martinez-Molina battery would return to the hard stuff for strike three. Instead, Perez, swinging away, witnessed the bottom drop out of an 0-2, down-and-in changeup.

87.8 MPH Slider to Chris Carter

Martinez Slider Carter

Chris Carter strikes out a lot (career strikeout rate of 33.4%). When he swings at sliders, it is essentially a coin flip (49.81% whiff rate) as to whether or not he will even make contact with the pitch. Martinez already tallied strike two with a swing-and-miss slider, so why wouldn't he come back with an unhittable one in hopes of strike three? If Carter lays off the pitch,, there is no harm in a 1-2 count. If he swings, it is almost certainly strike three. Frankly, with the threat of a 99 MPH heater (Martinez started Carter out with a 99.2 MPH sinker), the result of the 0-2 pitch was quite predictable.

Finally, A Look into Striking Out One Hitter Twice in the Same Game

Martinez 2 K's

It is safe to say Kirk Nieuwenhuis did not enjoy his three battles with Martinez in Monday's game (two swinging strikeouts and a double play). In the fourth, Martinez got Nieuwenhuis to expand his zone on a 3-2 changeup that basically took a right turn halfway to home plate (and resulting in over 12 inches of horizontal movement). In the sixth, Martinez started Nieuwenhuis off with a changeup (this time, one in the strike zone), then threw back-to-back fourseamers at 99 MPH or greater (with the put-away pitch registering at 100.9 MPH).

I included both strikeout pitches in one GIF to show just how unfair Martinez can be to opposing hitters. Martinez was able to achieve the same result (a strikeout) to the same hitter through two very different processes. The takeaway message here is that Martinez, through the use of a rather complex repertoire, should not have an issue facing a hitter two or three times in a start (a starter facing a lineup the third time through the order is often a talking point on live broadcasts).

Coming off a second-inning double play and a fourth-inning strikeout, Nieuwenhuis probably was not looking forward to his third at bat of the game against Martinez, even if there were runners on base. Sure enough, the at bat did not go well as he once again expanded his zone with two strikes, this time striking out on only three pitches.

Bottom Line

From a results standpoint, one start is far too small of a sample size to declare a pitcher "back on track" as my title suggests. However, after sifting through the PitchF/x data on BrooksBaseball.net, I feel comfortable in making such a statement. We all already know Martinez's repertoire is electric. Since becoming a full-time member of the starting rotation last season, his repertoire may not have looked any better than it did on Monday afternoon.

Credit to @VanHicklestein for the beautiful GIFs included in this post. P.S. I apologize if the GIFs take a little while to load up fully (the SB Nation writing machine doesn't like when I have to upload GIFs instead of embedding them).