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Carlos Martinez is evolving once again

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Most pitchers would be more than happy to settle on a solid four-pitch repertoire. Carlos Martinez isn’t like most pitchers.

St Louis Cardinals v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Carlos Martinez has come such a long way from his primarily fastball (76.22%)-slider (19.69%) bullpen ways back in 2013. I briefly documented this evolution in a piece published last April titled, “The evolution of Carlos Martinez, starting pitcher.” I concluded by stating that Martinez had developed into a starting pitcher capable of throwing four above-average pitches in virtually any count. For most pitchers, four pitches seems like enough. Fortunately for all of us, Carlos Martinez isn’t like most pitchers.

According to J.J. Bailey’s latest for KMOV (you really should give him a follow on Twitter as well: @TheJJBailey), the Cardinals staff ace doesn’t appear to be settling on just a four-pitch repertoire. The caveat applies that more often than not, new pitches introduced in spring don’t become consistent options in the regular season, but Martinez appears to be at least making the attempt (after introducing it last season), with a specific goal in mind:

“I’m really working on my breaking ball. That’s going to make the innings go faster,” Martinez said. “That’s what I think my strongest pitch is and that’s what I’m going to work on.”

His slider, already dominant at high velocity, is providing the seed for a new pitch. By slowing it down, he’s able to create a breaking ball closer to a true curve. It arrives later, featuring a deeper break than anything hitters have seen from him before.

Introducing a pitch with a new, slower velocity is probably the most important aspect of this reported development. To illustrate the sheer magnitude of its importance, let’s take a look at Martinez’s 2016 repertoire through the lens of velocity alone, via, you guessed it, BrooksBaseball.net:

Carlos Martinez, average pitch velocities in 2016

Pitch Type Velocity (MPH)
Pitch Type Velocity (MPH)
Fourseamer 97.03
Sinker 95.24
Changeup 87.49
Slider 85.60
Curveball 77.87

As you can see, Martinez’s repertoire currently possesses essentially two velocity pairs: his two fastballs in the mid- to upper-90’s and his changeup/slider combination in the mid- to upper-80’s. Utilizing a pitch in the mid- to upper-70’s — as referenced in Bailey’s piece and as we saw in an extremely small sample size last season (more on this below) — adds yet another wrinkle to an already complex repertoire.

What’s important to consider, though, is Martinez’s consistent ability to disguise the curveball through release. At up to 25 MPH slower than his most frequented pitch — the fourseamer (at 32.15% of the time) — there is an inherent risk of telegraphing the offering through the use of a different release point or even the slowing of mechanics entirely. No matter how much break Martinez can produce on a mid-70’s curveball (trust me, it’ll be a whole lot), a Major League hitter will have little trouble connecting with it if he is able to pick up on it just after or even during its release.

Remember, his personal goal for the incorporation of the pitch is to “make innings go faster.” This means he isn’t necessarily focused on developing a pitch with the sole purpose of inducing swings and misses, which, for outing efficiency, is a good thing. He already has two dynamic pitches — the slider and changeup — playing the “swing and miss” role. Rather, he wants the pitch to be a change-of-pace first-pitch strike (and we all know the importance of the first-pitch strike for Martinez) or a pitch to shake the balance of a hitter, which oftentimes leads to weak, easy-to-defend (even for the Cardinals; I kid, kind of) contact.

So when exactly did the pitch originate, you may be wondering? As you probably don’t recall, after five straight losses in May (in which he posted a 6.84 ERA over 25.0 IP), I shockingly wrote a piece about Martinez’s sixth and final start of the month (8.0 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 8 K) in which he seemed to get “back on track” (he posted a 2.75 ERA the rest of the way). Sure, the May 30th start came against the Brewers, but one of my main notes from the outing was Martinez’s seeming introduction of a new pitch — one he had not yet thrown in his entire PitchF/x-tracked MLB career (of note, Martinez did throw a slow curveball at times in the minor leagues):

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.

I revisit this finding because of a point I made above, as well as in my piece two days ago. New pitches introduced in spring training harmlessly fizzle out legitimately all the time. Martinez’s use of the curveball in the regular season last year (however limited it may have been), combined with a clear focus on how the pitch fits into his particular repertoire (i.e. early strikes, weak contact), increases the chances of the pitch staying around for the regular season and beyond. Bottom line, Martinez is already extremely difficult to hit. With hitters now potentially exposed to a pitch in the mid- to upper-70’s, I can only imagine some of the looks and body gestures Martinez will receive as opponents make their way back to the dugout after a strikeout or a weak ground ball.

Should be fun.