One Pitch Can Determine Whether Carlos Martinez and the St. Louis Cardinals Make a Quantum Leap in 2016
Even with all the injuries the St. Louis Cardinals had withstood all season, the news on September 26 that righthanded starter Carlos Martinez’s season was over cast a pall over all of Cardinal Nation. The reaction showed just how much the 24-year-old had come into his own in 2015. Before the season, no one really knew what he’d do.
The Cardinals are in the same position heading into 2016.
Martinez gave up more than his fair share of free passes in 2015, with a strikeouts-to-walks ratio under 3-to-1. His 63 walks were
among the most in the National League (albeit still fewer than Lance Lynn’s 68). But make no mistake, Martinez enjoyed a breakout campaign this past season. He harnessed his electric stuff — a 97-mph four seamer, 86-mph slider, 96-mph sinker and 88-mph changeup — to win 14 games and rack up 184 strikeouts in a career-high 179.2 innings of work in 2015.
Ever since the St. Louis Cardinals signed Martinez out of the Dominican Republic in 2010, scouts, coaches and team executives have raved about that four-seamer, and with good reason. The speed and movement of the pitch makes it unhittable when Martinez can locate it. But the secret to the righthander’s success has more to do with his changeup.
Heading into this season, Martinez threw it less than 10 percent of the time, as a show-me pitch to keep lefthanded hitters off his fastball and sinker. The strategy wasn’t particularly effective. In 141 at bats in 2014, lefties batted nearly .300 off Martinez. In his big league debut season, 2013, they did, hitting .326 in 46 at bats.
The changeup is a tough pitch for anyone to learn, particularly for pitchers who rely on high-velocity fastballs to get outs. The pitch is thrown with the same arm action as a fastball, but the grip — usually with the ball nestled deep in the palm and within a circle formed by the thumb and forefinger – takes anywhere from 5 to (ideally) 10 mph off the pitch. It seems as if a pitcher is making it easier for the hitter by throwing slower, when in fact the changeup throws the hitter’s timing completely off.
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For a guy like Martinez, who can touch triple digits with his four-seamer — throwing a good changeup is almost unfair. Hitters gear up for the heater, committing early to get the bat head out in time, only to see the ball still floating toward the plate. By the time they see what’s happening, it’s too late.
This year, Martinez trusted his changeup and threw it more than 17 percent of the time — and nearly 28 percent of the time against lefthanded
We know Carlos Martinez can throw hard. It’s his changeup that will put him into ace territory. Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
hitters. Wellah! Southpaws batted .262 off the righthander. In fact, everyone had trouble with Martinez’ change. It generated the third-highest swing-and-miss rate among all big league changeups. According to Baseball Prospectus, his 43.48 whiff rate was lower only than Francisco Liriano’s 44.14 and Cole Hamels’ 48.22.
Martinez’ increased confidence in his changeup is good on several fronts. One, it obviously helps him neutralize lefthanded hitters. Two, it makes his other pitches more effective. And three, it saves some mileage on that golden arm of his. Even though the change is thrown with the same arm action as the fastball, it puts less strain on the shoulder than, say, a slider or curveball.
Martinez is just 6-feet and 185 lbs., and he uses all of it to hurl baseballs plateward. His max-effort delivery certainly factored into his season getting cut short.
If the righthander can stay healthy and build on his breakout 2015 — with generous help from the changeup — the St. Louis Cardinals have themselves a bonafide ace. Like last spring with Martinez, we’ll just have to wait and see.