Nick Martinez is Different, Maybe Better

At some point this year, the samples will be large enough that every post doesn’t have to come with a massive disclaimer. Of course we’re dealing with minuscule samples, but interesting things can happen in minuscule samples even if they don’t provide a lot of externally useful information. In particular, the first month of a baseball season can bring some extremely unusual and compelling stat lines, especially when dealing with metrics that are designed to be useful over larger samples. Enter Nick Martinez.

Martinez was the 564th pick in the 2011 draft and likely only has a safe spot in an MLB rotation this year because he is a member of a Rangers organization that has been decimated by injuries. While we saw Martinez toss 140 innings in his age 23 season in 2014, they were bad innings. He posted a 113 ERA- and 128 FIP-, both of which are still using park factors that treat Globe Life Park as if it’s more hitter friendly than it’s played since the renovations. If we’re being generous, he pitched like a replacement level starter and you might argue he was worse.

And while I’m a huge advocate of not burying players who don’t perform well in their first crack at the show, Martinez wasn’t exactly a serious prospect either. Marc Hulet didn’t rank him among the top 15 Rangers prospects before last season, and Jason Parks had nice things to say about his athleticism and makeup, but pegged him as a middle reliever as recently as last April.

The projection systems are all generally in agreement, and PECOTA, which publishes the percentile rankings, lists his 90th percentile as 1.3 WAR in 146 innings. Given that Steamer and ZiPS are in alignment on the mean value, we can assume they see his distribution in a similar light. In other words, if everything breaks right for Nick Martinez, he’s a league average starter. As I’m sure you can predict, in the early goings of 2015, he’s bucking that expectation. Sort of.

You see, Martinez is the owner of my favorite pitching line so far this year. Observe:

0.45 3.22 4.65

That’s an ERA under 0.50, a FIP around 3.25, and an xFIP about 4.50! Over large samples, those numbers will generally agree and when they don’t agree, we can usually figure out what that pitcher does to trick DIPS theory. In small samples, however, it’s not unusual to see these crazy differences, as Martinez is running a .222 BABIP and hasn’t allowed a dinger. It doesn’t really matter how many strikeouts or walks you have if no one is getting a hit or clearing the fence, you’re just not going to allow many runs.

If you just peek at the box score numbers, Martinez looks like this: 20 IP, 14 H, 6 BB (1 HBP), 2 R, 1 ER, and 9 K. A decently informed observer might look at that and notice the low strikeout rate, but he’s allowed two runs in 20 innings, so there’s overall excitement. He’s young enough that you want to believe in a breakout and unknown enough that the average fan didn’t already have an opinion about him until someone pointed out his microscopic ERA.

Certainly, because you’re a FanGraphs reader, you know that even if he’s an elite BABIP suppressor that .222 isn’t going to continue, and that even if he’s a terrific home run preventor, he’s probably not going to eliminate them entirely.  That 90.5% LOB rate is also a pretty easy target for brake-pumping-regression talk. Obviously, Nick Martinez isn’t the best pitcher in baseball, even though his ERA suggests he is so far this year.

So while the ERA catches your eye because of how broadly publicized that statistic is, Martinez is actually worth exploring because so many of his other peripherals are different this year. It’s not so much that these 20 innings of results tell us anything about Martinez, but Parks’ comment about Martinez’s makeup came to mind when I saw how much his pitching style changed this year. I’m not interested in Martinez because his ERA is under 1, but I am interested because he was horrible last year and showed up in 2015 ready to take a very different approach.

Let’s start with his pitch usage, via Brooks Baseball:

Year Fourseam Sinker Curve Slider Change
2014 61.91% 5.39% 6.94% 14.88% 10.83%
2015 53.44% 8.02% 6.11% 24.43% 8.02%

While small sample size applies to pitch usage as well, this is a pretty dramatic difference. Martinez threw 20+% sliders in a few individual games last season, but he never threw 24% in a game and now he’s averaging that many. The fourseam/sinker distinction is a little fluid, but the slider jump is certainly noteworthy.

And again, small sample size applies, but he’s getting a different batted ball mix too:

Season LD% GB% FB%
2014 19.7 % 32.9 % 47.3 %
2015 22.2 % 44.4 % 33.3 %

If you take a look at the plate discipline numbers, his contact profile hasn’t changed too much, but he’s inducing a lot more swings and has picked up the pace quite a bit.

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% Pace
2014 24.9 % 60.7 % 42.1 % 71.1 % 90.6 % 84.6 % 48.0 % 22.5
2015 36.7 % 65.9 % 50.0 % 70.7 % 92.0 % 83.5 % 45.5 % 20.6

Finally, here’s the one that really got my attention. Take a look at his pitch location to right-handed hitters:


I don’t mean to make too much of any one piece of this puzzle and I also don’t mean to suggest any of these changes have turned him into a frontline starting pitcher. However, I do think it’s pretty interesting how different the 2015 Martinez looks compared to his 2014 iteration. He’s throwing more sliders, getting more grounds, coming inside to righties way more, generating more swings, and he’s working a lot more quickly. I don’t know if he’s better, but he’s certainly different.

Maybe the new manager has played a role. Maybe Carlos Corporan noticed something and got in his ear. Maybe Martinez figured it out on his own. But clearly, whatever he was doing in 2014 wasn’t working and it’s pretty interesting how aggressively he seems to have remade his pitching identity.

After three starts, the jury is still in the early stages of deliberation on Nick Martinez’s season. He’s only 24 and has at least some handle on several different pitches. He doesn’t throw very hard and he doesn’t miss a ton of bats, but the fact that he’s doing a lot of things differently this year is interesting, even if it isn’t necessarily predictive of how he’ll pitch over the next five months.

Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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8 years ago

Good work, Neil. I think what also should be noted about Martinez is his propensity to induce infield flies, which can offset the lack of Ks some. Also, I think his strategy of going inside to righties more often could be the result of his new manager, Jeff Banister. The Pirates threw inside quite often while Banister was there as part of their shrewd infield shifting. Martinez also looks to have a noticeable lower arm slot when throwing his fast ball, which seems to be helping him go inside more.

8 years ago
Reply to  Dustin

I believe FIP includes infield flies as essentially strikeouts, but I could be totally wrong about that. Not that it would invalidate your point, just that the FIP would still reflect that skill.