St. Louis Cardinals: Opening Day Redbird Rants Mailbag

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /
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St. Louis Cardinals
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The Redbird Rants Mailbag makes its debut to answer your St. Louis Cardinals questions.

St. Louis Cardinals baseball is just around the corner and opening day is just a few days away. Depending on when you’re reading this, it might already be here. Either way, we received some great questions in the Redbird Rants Mailbag for this week, so I’ll jump right in. If I missed any, let me know in the comments and we’ll make sure we hit it next time!

Joe S. (@stlCupofJoe): What is your favorite pitch of the current Cardinals staff and why? And yes, I mean specific pitch, not pitcher.

After reading this question, I immediately turned to Carlos Martinez. Without Alex Reyes, Martinez undeniably has the most electric repertoire on the St. Louis Cardinals. Basing off Joe’s Twitter and his articles on Viva El Birdos, I am certain that he agrees.

As for a specific pitch, I’m a sucker for a good changeup. Martinez has an elite one.

Harry Pavlidis over on Baseball Prospectus studied what makes a good changeup back in 2013. The biggest factors, in no particular order (at least that I’m aware of) are fastball velocity, a velocity gap between the fastball and changeup, vertical and horizontal movement relative to the fastball, and location. The changeup is defined off the fastball, and Carlos Martinez throws a great one of each.

The first part is fastball velocity, and Martinez throws hard. Among all 181 starting pitchers with at least 50 IP in 2016, he had the fourth fastest fourseamer, which clocked in at an average of 96.5 MPH and topped out at 100.9 MPH. His twoseamer (or sinker, if you prefer) wasn’t far off, ranking sixth at an average velocity of 95.0 MPH and topping out at 99.5 MPH.

Pavlidis suggests that the velocity gap between the fastball and changeup starts to produce whiffs at a high rate when it reaches ~10 MPH. As the velocity gap shrinks, a changeup induces more grounders but induces significantly fewer whiffs.

With a changeup averaging 87.0 MPH last year, Martinez had an average 9.5 MPH-gap between the changeup and fourseamer and an average 8.0 MPH-gap between the changeup and twoseamer. That fourseamer-changeup velocity differential ranked in the top 15% of the 126 pitchers with 50+ innings last year.

By movement, Martinez changeup is clearly one of the best. Among those same 126 pitchers, he gets the eighth most sink on his changeup (top 7%) and the 19th most arm side movement (top 15%). The only other pitcher to get that kind of action? Max Scherzer.

Defining movement and velocity off the fastball, Martinez ranks in the top 20% for velocity and zMov differential, and in the top 40% for xMov differential. Only Carlos Rodon and Scott Kazmir generated that much velocity and movement differential, and both of their changeups were rated among the best in baseball by FanGraphs pitching guru, Eno Sarris.

Before I get into location, I want to talk a little bit about pitch tunneling, introduced by Baseball Prospectus. The tunneling concept suggests that pitchers can deceive hitters by throwing pitches that look almost the same at the point where the hitter must decide to swing, and that break substantially enough after to induce weak contact or miss the bat entirely.

So how does that apply to the Carlos Martinez changeup?

The red trail follows a fourseamer (the eight pitch of this at-bat), and the blue trail follows the next pitch, a 3-2 changeup for the strikeout. I’ve watch this GIF probably almost a hundred times, and I can barely tell the difference. Yet, you can see the pitches fades down to Yadier Molina’s knee, while the fastball stays up at Molina’s shoulder. The difference by the time they cross the plate is approximately twelve inches.

Here, the movement differential is more pronounced. The red trail follows the first pitch in the at-bat, while the blue trail follows the changeup for the punchout. The pitches come from an identical release point and follow the same path for more than half the pitch flight. Yet, they end up more than fifteen inches apart.

Another thing that stands out in both GIFs is the nearly identical release points between the fastball and changeup. He’s able to repeat the exact same delivery with both pitches every single time.

St. Louis Cardinals
St. Louis Cardinals /

By matching his release points, hitters are less able to distinguish between the fastball and changeup out of his hand. Instead, they’re left to guess against one of most talented pitchers in the game.

If there’s anything really to work on, it would be location. Below are Carlos Martinez 2016 changeup heatmaps vs. RHH (on right) and LHH (on left).

St. Louis Cardinals
St. Louis Cardinals /

Martinez doesn’t have any problems throwing the changeup for a strike against RHHs or LHHs. When he misses, he misses away from lefties and down to right-handed hitters. If you were picking places to miss, you couldn’t pick better spots.

Against lefties, Martinez changeup location is already really good. He has a tight core low-and-away, he rarely misses over the plate, and he rarely misses in. He threw more than 75% of his changeups to lefties, so the majority of the time the pitch was almost perfect by location.

Against righties, he allowed the pitch to leak over the heart of the plate more often, though he still generated a core on the low-outside corner.

It’s really easy to love Carlos Martinez. He deserves recognition as one of the best pitchers in the MLB, and his changeup deserves to be recognized among the best right now.

Credit to Brooks Baseball and Baseball Savant for the data used here. The GIFs come courtesy of @cardinalsgifs, who you need to follow on Twitter.