Once destined to be a reliever, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Carlos Martinez has now emerged as one of the best starters in Major League Baseball.
When Carlos Martinez first came up and debuted with the Cardinals, he was a flame-throwing reliever with a devastating slider. He seemed to be the perfect fit for that seventh or eighth inning role to set up closer Trevor Rosenthal.
With the addition of Kevin Siegrist,a lefty, the bullpen was solid right out of the gate.
Given Martinez was 21, Rosenthal 22 and Siegrist 23, this seemed to be the perfect recipe for success in St. Louis for years to come. However, an injury to Jaime Garcia prompted the Cardinals to shift Martinez to the rotation, which raised some questions initially.
Looking back now, the only question is this: how did he reach such a high level so quickly?
After initially being signed by the Boston Red Sox in Feb. 2009, Martinez saw his contract voided – and a year later, the Cardinals came in and added him to the mix in the system.
At the ripe ole’ age of 18 years old, Martinez was playing professional baseball and dominating hitters. He was a starter throughout his time in the Minors, ranging from Rookie-level ball to Triple-A.
During that time, he posted an impressive 2.61 ERA in 338 innings of work, showcasing the ability to light up the radar gun with fastballs in excess of 100 mph. While his heat was impressive, what was even more eye-catching was his command.
Throughout his minor league career, he held a 2.92 strikeout-to-walk ratio while averaging an impressive 9.2 K/9. With numbers like that, It was only a matter of time before he earned a promotion.
In 2013, he got the call.
On May 3, Martinez made his big league debut at just 21, tossing a scoreless inning of relief against the Milwaukee Brewers.
However, after a couple rough outings out of the pen, in which his earned run average jumped up to 4.50 in seven innings of work, he got sent back down to Triple-A Memphis.
While down south, he was used as a starter eight times before being called back up to pitch in a trio of games before heading right back down to Memphis.
This back-and-forth continued until he made his starting debut against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was a forgettable night for Martinez, who allowed four runs in just 4 2/3 innings, earning the loss in his first big league start.
This wasn’t anything out of the norm for pitchers who dominate the minors and struggle in the majors. It’s a whole different playing field and for a 21-year-old pitcher, it can be eye-opening.
He would make two more trips to Triple-A that year before finishing the season in the St. Louis bullpen. It seemed as though the bullpen may be his future home for the Cardinals – but, as we know now, that wasn’t the case.
(insert dramatic music)
Martinez made the Opening Day roster for St. Louis out of the gates to open the 2014 season. He was ticketed for the set-up role and was racking up holds early-on.
As mentioned, he started out hot but then hit a few bumps in the road that made his ERA spike to 4.82 at the start of June. On June 16, he was called upon to start yet another game in place of injured Jaime Garcia.
The result was similar to his first start against the Dodgers – four innings pitched, but no earned runs this time, surrendering four walks. But because of the injury, he would stay in that starting role for six more starts. He had some success, but never made it past the sixth inning in any of his starts.
So it was back to the bullpen for the young Martinez.
Later that year, he was sent back down to Memphis to make two starts, holding opponents scoreless in 10 1/3 innings of work. It was apparent he had the potential to be a Major League starter. He just needed to make that transition from minors to majors, but it wouldn’t come until after the 2014 season.
Last winter, St. Louis made some big moves to bring offense back to the ball club. These moves also meant the departure of right-hander Shelby Miller, which opened the door for Martinez to make the starting rotation for the 2015 season. The one-through-four spots in the rotation seemed locked down with Wainwright, Lynn, Wacha and Lackey, but with Garcia and potential fifth starter Marco Gonzalez on the DL, it was Martinez’s job to lose.
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I think one of the biggest reasons behind the jump in Martinez’s performance came from the passing of one of his best friends and teammates, Oscar Taveras.
As sad and devastating as it was, Martinez began pitching every game for him and had more motivation to dominate in his honor. He started the season out as perfect as he could have hoped with his career-best performance coming on April 24 against the Brewers.
He pitched past the sixth for the first time, going seven strong innings, only allowing four hits, striking out eight Milwaukee hitters.
He held a 1.73 ERA heading into May, where he allowed seven runs in back-to-back starts against the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates, respectively.
However, other than those two outings, he hasn’t allowed more than three runs in each of his past 11 starts. He ended his first half on a All-Star caliber note, pitching 7 1/3 innings, while allowing four hits and striking out eight against the Pirates to pick up his 10th win of the season and lowering his ERA to 2.52.
It was performances like this one that helped him receive the Final Vote for the All-Star Game and he deserved every vote.
The more that Martinez finds out how great he actually is, the more he brings to the Cardinals’ rotation. It seems as if the starting rotation is now and for years to come his absolute best fit.