Carlos Martinez is a starting pitcher now. He’s not some guy who throws 75 pitches and four innings a game. This year he’s often exceeded triple digits, and he’s one of the big reasons why the St. Louis Cardinals are where they are despite the loss of some important players. Before the season, there was some uncertainty surrounding Martinez, and it’s still not clear how he’ll hold up down the stretch. But after pitching well in Colorado on Wednesday, Martinez has turned in six strong starts in a row. His ERA is a hair under 3, and he has the peripherals to match.
With every starting pitcher who’s ever become good, the reasons behind the success are numerous. It’s never as easy as, “He replaced this pitch with this other pitch,” or “He added a tick of velocity.” So understand that, with Martinez, I’m sure there’s been a lot going on. Most conspicuously, Martinez is now throwing a changeup he believes in. Even though observers liked Martinez’s changeup in the minors, it wasn’t there for him in the bigs, and he had problems putting lefties away. That problem is in the process of being resolved, as Martinez has evidently found a changeup he likes.
It isn’t hard to find a clue. A year ago — as both a starter and as a reliever — Martinez struck out one of every nine left-handed batters he faced. This year — only as a starter — Martinez has doubled that rate. He still walks a few too many hitters, but those walks are now tougher to earn, and they’re more a consequence of simple deep counts.
As a starter last year, Martinez threw 11% changeups; 16% to lefties. Overall last year, Martinez threw 9% changeups; 17% to lefties. This year, as a member of the rotation, Martinez has thrown 19% changeups; 29% to lefties. He’s thrown the pitch regularly to start at-bats. He’s thrown the pitch regularly in even counts, and with the batter ahead. He’s thrown the pitch regularly with the hitter on the defensive. What Martinez has developed is a changeup he likes in any count.
And, take a look at the Baseball Prospectus PITCHf/x leaderboards. Let’s look at right-handed starting pitchers. Select changeups that have been thrown at least 100 times. Martinez owns the highest whiff/swing rate, which is the opposite of contact rate. That’s how quickly this pitch has become a serious weapon. Martinez has significantly upped his usage of the pitch, and it’s still the most difficult to hit of all the changeups in the sample. Doesn’t mean he has the best right-handed changeup in the game. It just means he has a good changeup.
It took some tweaks to get to this point. The changeup Martinez throws now moves differently from the changeup he threw a year ago. These tables aren’t going to be the easiest things to understand. I’ll try to explain them clearly. You’re going to see a pair of tables: One compares four-seam fastballs and changeups. The other compares two-seam fastballs and changeups. We’ll be looking at separations in velocity, horizontal movement and vertical movement. Up first, four-seamers and changeups.
Right-handed changeups, compared to four-seamers
The average right-handed changeup is 8 miles per hour slower than the average right-handed four-seamer. The average right-handed changeup has 2.7 inches more run than the average right-handed four-seamer. The average right-handed changeup has 4.5 inches more sink than the average right-handed four-seamer. It all makes sense. It’s what you’d expect, even if you never thought of it in terms of numbers before.
Now look at last year’s Martinez, and this year’s Martinez. The velocity gap is the same. Now, though, Martinez’s changeup has a lot more run, relative to his four-seamer. It also has a lot more sink. We’re talking a handful of inches. Now Martinez’s movement differences are greater than the average.
The second table:
Right-handed changeups, compared to two-seamers
Same ideas. Martinez basically has the same velocity difference. But now his changeup moves along the same plane as his two-seamer, which is more normal. A year ago, the pitches looked nothing alike. Now, relative to the two-seamer, Martinez’s changeup has gained four more inches of drop, and nearly four more inches of run. You’ve got similar pitches coming from similar arm slots, but separated by a full eight ticks. This is more like what a changeup is supposed to be.
Visually, the changes are subtle, but I think you can see the added movement. A 2014 Martinez changeup:
And a 2015 Martinez changeup:
They shouldn’t be so pixelated, but I’m still working out the best ways to use the new MLB.tv. I’ll get there, I promise. Even the pixelation can’t obscure the extra darting movement you see in the second image. I know there’s bias because we’re looking for it, but I also know it’s there, based on the PITCHf/x. So I don’t know what that bias means, or how relevant it is.
How do you change a changeup? Martinez, at release, in 2014:
Circle-change grip. Middle finger is across the seams. Martinez, at release, in 2015:
Circle-change grip. But now the middle finger is on a seam, rather than across. To simplify, think of it as Martinez going from something of a four-seam changeup to something of a two-seam changeup. As with fastballs, the observed difference is more tail and more drop. And, for Martinez, it appears this changeup is more comfortable. At least, that’s what his usage and results suggest.
He trusts the pitch more, so he throws the pitch more, and it’s effective. Martinez is throwing more pitches than ever out of pitcher-friendly counts. He has the same strikeout rate as Matt Harvey and Felix Hernandez. His adjusted xFIP ranks in the upper fifth. Martinez has always had those other weapons, and even the changeup has been adequate for him in the past, but it wasn’t that way in the majors. Not until now, with Martinez having transitioned to the rotation full-time. To this point, it’s going swimmingly. There’s still room for improvement, with command. Relatedly, there’s still room for improvement, with being efficient. Martinez isn’t as good as he could be. But then, the same could be said of every pitcher. Carlos Martinez found a changeup he likes. That’s some pretty dangerous news.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.