In seven innings this season, including six in his start on Sunday, Carlos Martinez has faced 10 right-handed hitters. None of them has reached base and four hitters have struck out. Martinez’s early season dominance against righties is not altogether surprising. Splitting time between the bullpen and the rotation last season, Martinez faced 215 right-handers and struck out more than 30% of them while walking just shy of 7% and giving up only one home run for a 1.94 FIP.
Martinez featured a four-seam and a two-seam sinking fastball with his slider as his out pitch. The slider worked particularly well against righties, generating over a 25% whiff rate, per Brooks Baseball. Of the 87 plate appearances against right-handers that ended on a slider, 41 were strikeouts and five were walks. Martinez had the slider going against the Reds on Sunday, striking out four of the seven right-handed hitters he faced — three of whom he finished off with the slider. Against seven right-handers, Martinez made 31 pitches and threw 25 strikes. As a reminder, here is what the slider looked like against Zach Cozart.
Success against righties is nothing new for Martinez. He has, however, struggled in a small sample against left-handed hitters, and he had trouble with Jay Bruce on Sunday. In 2014, Martinez faced 171 left-handers: He struck out around 11% of those hitters and walked 13%. To improve as a starter and navigate lefty heavy lineups like the one he faced in Cincinnati (five of eight position players hit from the left side), Martinez needed to develop a new pitch, a new strategy or simply hope that his troubles were due to that small sample size. Based on his first start, Martinez appears to have developed a new strategy with the same arsenal of pitches.
Last season, Martinez’s pitch mix against left-handers looked like this, from Brooks Baseball:
The change-up is not a new pitch for Martinez. Joe Schwarz at Viva El Birdos wrote about the change in January and again last week after Martinez’s relief appearance on Opening Day. Jeff Sullivan gave Carlos Martinez the pitch comp treatment in February and noted the change is “a pitch he’d need, as a starter.” For a pitch used less than 20% against left-handers and 10% overall, it has been a minor offering in the past. On Sunday, though, Martinez’s pitch mix against left-handers looked like this.
Martinez threw 131 changes in 2014, but ge threw 29 in his first start this season. The pitch looked like it could be successful in brief spurts last year, generating whiffs around 17% of the time. Against the Reds, Martinez used the change often, and it was very successful. He got a swing and a miss on more than 18% of those pitches to left-handers, as well one of his two changes to righties. In other words, the pitch looked very good Sunday.
Against Joey Votto:
Fooling Billy Hamilton:
And against righty Todd Frazier.
Martinez got five strikeouts using the change on Sunday. He was efficient enough, too, getting through six innings in 100 pitches. He gave up two home runs, both after getting behind 3-0 in the count, and both came on four-seam fastballs. He walked Bruce in his other two plate appearances: the second time pitching around him on four pitches, followed by a strikeout of Brennan Boesch to end the sixth inning.
The four-seam fastball can be a put-away pitch, with upper-90 mph velocity high or out of the strike zone, but he is forced to use it in the zone when he gets behind in the count, particularly against left-handers. With three balls in the count against lefties last year, Martinez used his four-seam fastball more than 80% of the time. Against righties, he had no problems throwing his slider for strikes. Against lefties, though, he had to rely on his four-seam fastball.
The two-seam fastball is designed to help Martinez get quick outs. When it’s pitched low in the zone, the sinking fastball generates ground balls and suppresses home runs. For his career, Martinez has a ground ball rate of 52%, and his HR/FB rate is just 7% with just half a home run per nine innings. Fortunately for the pitch — but unfortunately for strike-throwing — the two-seam fastball generates so much movement from Martinez that it’s not a reliable pitch.
When Martinez got behind in the count on Sunday against left-handed hitters, he went after them with the four-seamer. He paid for it. Martinez is making his first major use of the change at the major-league level. He used it primarily as put-away pitch versus the Reds. If he can use that pitch in all counts — like he did in full count against Votto — Martinez will become much more dangerous than the one who struck out one-third of the hitters he faced in his season’s first start.
Martinez has generated a lot of excitement of late with Paul Swydan requesting his freedom, a great pitch arsenal and impressive pitch comps. No National League pitcher younger than 23 pitched more innings than Martinez did last season. He battled for a starting spot last year and made seven starts, but he wasn’t able to stick in that role. He again worked for a starting spot in the spring, and he almost came out without the job. Eventually, an injury to Jaime Garcia kept Martinez in the rotation. Martinez is a four-pitch pitcher with three effective pitches against both left-handers and right-handers. If he can keep throwing his change the way he did with the frequency he did on Sunday, he could remain in the rotation, perhaps for quite some time.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.