By Editorial Demand: Cody Martin’s Improbable Success

cistulli [4:59 PM]
I seem to be writing something about how Joe Kelly set a single-game strikeout mark for himself against the Yankees. Has anyone claimed anything like that?

davecameron [9:16 PM]
No one has. Can I suggest that maybe you write about Cody Martin instead? He’s a classic Cistulli guy and he’s killing it out of ATL’s bullpen right now.

davecameron [12:25 AM]
Cody Martin tonight: two more shutout innings, two more Ks. Now sporting a 0.12 xFIP through 5 1/3 IP. Write about him.

cistulli [10:41 AM]
I hear you, Cameron!

cistulli [10:45 AM]
Hey, additionally, did you see that weird double-steal by Mookie Betts yesterday? I was thinking of writing about that.

davecameron [10:46 AM]
CODY MARTIN

davecameron [10:46 AM]
You’re not allowed to do anything else until that’s done.

The above dialogue with managing editor and frequent pod guest Dave Cameron — excerpted from the site’s internal message board with only just minimal edits — will give the reader a sense of the hostile conditions under which FanGraphs contributors are compelled to work. Because he lives in North Carolina and the author of this post resides in New Hampshire, I’m unable to verify for certain that Cameron typed his end of the correspondence while wearing an actual iron fist. As for a metaphorical one, however, its presence is manifest.

Cameron has insisted that I write about Cody Martin — and lest I enter the ranks of America’s unemployed, I will endeavor here to fulfill that obligation. To begin, let’s evaluate some claims made by Cameron himself and examine their validity.

1. [Cody Martin] is a classic Cistulli guy.
By classic Cistulli guy, Cameron usually just means “anonymous non-prospect with no hope of major-league success.” In his more charitable moods, however, what he means is “performer with fringy tools.” Conveniently, that’s almost the precise phrase used by Kiley McDaniel to describe Martin when evaluating Atlanta’s rookie-eligible players this past January. Martin didn’t appear among the organization’s top prospects, but was featured within the Others of Note section — the equivalent, that, of honorable mention.

Martin is a Cistulli guy in a more immediate way, as well. Twice in 2013, Martin appeared within the weekly Fringe Five column I write here during the minor-league season and which is designed to identify the most compelling rookie-eligible players absent from the notable preseason prospects lists. At that time, Martin had just been promoted to Triple-A Gwinnett and proceeded to strike out 32 batters over his first 26.0 innings at that level.

2. [Cody Martin] is killing it out of Atlanta’s bullpen right now.
This is a true fact. Over four appearances and 5.1 innings, Martin has faced 17 batters and struck out eight of them. He’s allowed two hits and zero runs. Of the eight batted balls he’s conceded, six have been grounders. To the extent that one can “kill it” over 5.1 innings, that’s what Cody Martin is doing — and in the first 5.1 innings of his whole major-league career, it should be noted.

3. [Cody Martin] is now sporting a 0.12 xFIP through 5.1 innings.
This is nearly true. When he wrote this, Cameron was quoting the live stats featured at this site. However, following all play from Monday, Martin is now actually sporting a 0.09 xFIP. So an even lower number, in other words. He’s also done an embarrassing thing, which is to record a -0.41 FIP. ERA estimators are well equipped to deal with most pitchers, but they have a tendency to break down at the extremes. Martin currently resides within one of those extremes. By FIP, he’s expected somehow to allow negative runs every nine innings. The rules of baseball, however, allow no room for this contingency. Egg, then, is what’s on someone’s face. Probably not Cody Martin’s face, though. Otherwise, how would he have pitched so well?

*****

So, Cody Martin has been good in a limited sample — good enough that, despite the paucity of that sample, the results are sufficiently interesting for Dave Cameron to strong arm one of his staff into writing a post on the subject. “How has he done it?” is the logical question to ask in light of Martin’s early success. The reasonable response: to examine his repertoire so far.

Here’s that data concerning Martin’s repertoire. Note that lSwStk denotes the approximate league-average swinging-strike rate for the relevant pitch.

Pitch # Usg MPH H Mov V Mov SwStk lSwStk
Fourseam 48 73.9% 90.4 -3.9 8.7 12.5% 6.9%
Sinker 3 4.6% 88.3 -8.3 3.9 0.0% 5.4%
Slider 6 9.2% 81.3 4.1 -1.6 33.3% 15.2%
Curve 8 12.3% 73.9 8.8 -9.5 50.0% 11.1%

Relative to the league, both Martin’s slider and curve have produced markedly above-average swinging-strike rates. He’s only thrown those two pitches a combined 14 times, though. Rather, it’s the fastball that has done the heavy-lifting — and over a sample of nearly 50 pitches, Martin has induced swinging strikes with his fastball at a rate roughly twice the league average.

We’ll discuss the implications of that in a moment. First, let’s quietly regard some technicolor video footage of the fastball in question. All the clips below are from Martin’s debut, over the course of which he recorded whiffs on six of the 18 fastballs he threw. For reasons I can’t explain, only five of those fastballs appear here. The absence of the sixth pitch doesn’t matter because, in fact, nothing matters.

In either case, here’s Cody Martin throwing a fastball to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the former’s first-ever major-league pitch:

M1

And here’s the pitch after that, too:

M2

Here’s a two-strike fastball to the next batter, Adeiny Hechavarria, for a strikeout:

M6

And, in the next inning, another two-strike fastball for a strikeout — in this case, to Dee Gordon:

M9

And a final two-strike fastball — in this case, to Mike Morse:

M12

The hardest of Martin’s fastball whiffs in his debut was just 91.8 mph. He sat at just 91 mph over the course of that first appearance. Overall, he’s recorded an average fastball of just 90.4 mph. Include a few stray pitches that have been classified as sinkers and the average drops to right about 90 mph. That’s slightly below-average velocity relative to the entire sample of major-league pitchers. And yet, Martin has (in a limited sample) exhibited the capacity to generate swinging strikes with the pitch.

He’s not there yet, obviously, but in 2014 only 11 pitchers (of 334 total) produced a swinging-strike rate of 10% or better on their fastball while also recording an average velocity of less than 91 mph on that same pitch. They appear below, sorted by fastball swinging-strike rate. (Minimum 200 fastballs thrown. Rank denotes rank of fastball swinging-strike rate among all pitchers. K% denotes the pitcher’s overall strikeout rate. Data courtesy Baseball Prospectus. )

Rank Player Team Hand MPH H Mov V Mov SwStk K%
3 Nick Vincent SDN R 90.6 4.4 9.5 18.1% 28.8%
4 Darren O’Day BAL R 88.6 8.1 3.5 17.5% 26.9%
6 Vinnie Pestano ANA R 90.7 2.6 5.5 16.7% 33.3%
13 Koji Uehara BOS R 89.2 6.6 11.6 14.2% 32.1%
19 Hisashi Iwakuma SEA R 90.2 7.1 8.6 13.3% 21.7%
22 Jeff Beliveau TBA L 90.6 5.8 9.7 13.1% 28.0%
35 Tsuyoshi Wada CHN L 90.1 5.7 10.3 12.1% 19.7%
49 Erik Bedard TBA L 89.4 7.1 10.8 11.4% 18.7%
52 Mike Fiers MIL R 90.3 3.0 11.3 11.2% 27.7%
64 Joel Peralta TBA R 90.8 5.0 11.6 10.9% 27.9%
97 Louis Coleman KCA R 90.0 5.6 8.2 10.0% 15.6%
Median 90.2 5.7 9.7 13.1% 27.7%

In some sense, this group of 11 are the spiritual cousins of Cody Martin: they feature (mostly) below-average fastball velocity and (definitely) above-average swinging-strike rates on that same pitch. One also notes, however, that a number of the pitchers here possess some other manner of trait that distinguishes them from the generic. Iwakuma and Uehara, for example, both possess splitters that are objectively among the league’s best out pitches. O’Day and Pestano each throw from an uncommonly low arm slot. Nick Vincent, for his part, benefits from whatever supernatural force is responsible for producing San Diego Padres relievers. It would appear, in other words, that sustaining such a relatively high swinging-strike rate on the fastball while throwing at such a relatively low velocity might also require the existence of either (a) a top-shelf secondary offering or (b) a mechanical idiosyncrasy. It’s not obvious — from either the extant scouting information or otherwise available data — that Martin possesses either. For that and other reasons, it’s improbable that he’ll remain an impossibly successful shutdown reliever. For the moment, however, that’s what he’s been.





Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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