It is perhaps important to maintain some perspective. Carlos Martinez is 25 years old. He was born in the Dominican Republic, and when he was 18, he spent his first year with a Cardinals affiliate. Last month, he agreed to a $51-million contract extension. Martinez is already a massive success story as a professional. Barring some unlikely series of catastrophic decisions, he and his family will never have to worry about money again. We should all be so blessed.
So the Martinez path is already something like four or five standard deviations better than the usual. But, you know, we’re bad at perspective. We tend to think of these people as baseball players first, and, say, just last week, we got to glimpse Martinez as a baseball player, pitching in a competitive environment for the first time since signing the multi-year guarantee. I want to show you two pitches I haven’t been able to stop thinking about.
Here is one of them:
In the top of the first in that game between the Dominican Republic and Canada, Martinez exceeded 100 miles per hour with his fastball a few times. Me, I love a good heater, but nothing can compare to a perfect changeup. Above, you see Martinez throw two of them, back to back, to Dalton Pompey. They both clocked in north of 90, and Pompey was left with little chance. The broadcast actually thought the putaway pitch was a sinker until a slow-motion replay showed the particulars of Martinez’s circle-change grip.
Martinez threw just nine changeups before coming out. It’s a small sample, then, from the earlier part of March, in one environment under one set of circumstances. But according to Brooks Baseball, the change averaged about 89 ticks, and just shy of 11 inches of horizontal break. No righty starter from last year threw a changeup with that much tail. It’s a rare pitch, in terms of its speed and its shape. And it continues to be an important pitch for Martinez, because of what’s shown in the following table.
I calculated those averages by looking at the 139 right-handed starters who’ve thrown at least 50 innings against both righties and lefties over the past two years. Martinez has allowed a wOBA against righties 65 points better than his wOBA against lefties. This is supported by big differences in his peripherals. Against right-handed batters, Martinez has been close to the league leaders in all four statistics. When Martinez has had the platoon disadvantage, he’s been around the middle of the pack.
We can stop here real fast. Obviously, there’s nothing too terribly wrong. Martinez has already been a quality starter by disproportionately maiming other righties. Yet you can imagine another level, even just by eyeballing his stuff. If Martinez were to reach that level, one clear route would be getting lefties out more often.
When you’re talking about righties facing lefties, you always start by thinking about the changeup. Martinez doesn’t throw a cutter, so the changeup is a crucial pitch, and the ones that Pompey had to deal with were perfect. If Martinez could just repeat that over and over and over again, he’d be unhittable. Give him a perfect changeup and that’s basically that! Yet there are a couple other interesting observations. For example, look at what’s happened with Martinez’s arm slot since he became a regular starter:
Martinez has lowered his arm fairly significantly, and if we can trust the WBC data, the trend has continued. The general rule is that, the lower the arm slot, the wider the platoon splits. Opposite-handed batters get to see the ball longer, and the sinker Martinez was throwing to Team Canada most closely resembled Charlie Morton’s sinker from last season. Morton’s always had problems with lefties. Getting a bunch of horizontal movement is a neat trick, but if anything, Martinez lowering his arm could make him more exploitable.
What could Martinez do? Again, if he just throws more perfect pitches, it doesn’t matter what his motion looks like. But he’s someone who’s going to pitch off his fastball, and the most recent fastballs we’ve seen would profile as hittable with lefties at the plate. Martinez could use his four-seamer to try to pitch lefties more inside. He could work on improving this curveball, which is like a slower version of his already-successful slider:
And it’s worth noting that, in the WBC game, we can see Martinez pitching from the first-base side of the rubber. Here are some screenshots of Martinez from last season:
Early on, Martinez was more to the third-base side. He gradually moved over, which might’ve been an attempt to compensate for the lowering arm. Moving on the mound is about changing attack angles, and it’s possible Martinez could find the most comfortable angle possible to put lefties away. By moving over, maybe Martinez will be better able to locate over the inner half. Maybe it’ll just make the ball that much harder to pick up. And we shouldn’t forget the other possibility that, maybe, nothing will change. Martinez is still a work in progress, in this respect. He’s already developed into a wonderful starter, but lefties still see him a lot better than righties do, and that’s the one thing left Martinez has to tackle.
One more note I ought to acknowledge: Martinez doesn’t have to improve against lefties, especially if these new angles continue to give righties fits. All the tail Martinez gets on his pitches, the lowered arm slot — if he’s just total death to righties, then he could follow the Max Scherzer route toward ace-hood. While Scherzer tends to run large platoon splits, his baseline ability is so very high that even the worse version is good. This is legitimately realistic.
Could be, then, that’s an even better plan. Could be that’s the plan already in motion. Ask the Cardinals, though, and I bet they’d tell you they’d like to see Martinez get more lefties out. When you see his best changeups, you wonder how he ever gets touched. Yet he pitches almost like a righty specialist. Just because Martinez got a big guarantee doesn’t mean he’s a finished product.
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.