The years 2011-2015 saw some incredible Cardinals teams. They won a title and made the playoffs every year during that stretch. In fact, the Cardinals made the playoffs 12 of the last 16 seasons before last year. They only missed the playoffs in back-to-back years once during that stretch. But last year, they won 14 fewer games than the year before, and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Will they miss the playoffs again this year? What went wrong for them last year? Let’s take a look at one of their most important pieces, which could answer some of those questions.
Carlos Martinez was the ace of the Cardinals’ staff last year, pitching to a 3.04 ERA in 195.1 innings. But, despite the solid ERA, it appears Martinez took a significant step backwards last year. Below, I’ve included some his stats from his first four years in the majors, as well as a projection for this season for most stats (from Steamer):
Let’s start with the good from these tables. This year, Martinez posted a career high in innings, games started, and ground ball rate. He’s also only 25, so he still has room to grow.
Now the bad: much of Martinez’s success last season was luck-driven. He posted a career low BABIP and a career high strand rate. The low BABIP doesn’t seem sustainable judging by this, because he had a career high hard-hit rate and he gets so many ground balls (which go for hits more often than fly balls do). Even though he had a weak exit velocity against him last year, the fact that this year it was slightly higher than 2015 and that he allowed more grounders should have meant a higher BABIP, not a lower one. For these reasons, FIP, xFIP, and SIERA (3.61, 3.81, and 3.97) were less fond of his work last year.
But, none of that is as troubling as this: Martinez’s strikeouts took a dive last year. After improving in that area in 2014 and 2015 (the latter year saw him post an awesome 9.22 K’s per nine in his first full season as a starter), his strikeouts bottomed out in 2016, falling more than one strikeout per nine. And the underlying plate discipline stats support the fact that Martinez wasn’t as filthy last year. Take a look:
He posted an O-Swing percentage that was easily a career-low (leading to a career-low swing rate), a contact rate that was his highest since 2013, and a swinging strike rate that was his lowest since 2013. What was behind this?
Well, Martinez especially struggled against lefties last season. He struck only only 7.49 per nine and walked 4.28. It would appear that the reason for this is because his command slipped significantly. This is especially evident when his heatmap versus lefties in 2015 is placed next to that of 2016:
Martinez was working that lower outside corner much more effectively in 2015, a location that is excellent to use for a sinker-balling right-hander against lefties. However, in 2016, many of those pitches moved higher up and more inside towards the middle of the plate. So, I think the main culprit behind his decreased ability to garner strikeouts is diminished command. Maybe this is due to an injury? Martinez’s 2015 season was ended prematurely by a shoulder strain. Maybe the injury lingered into 2016?
He was lifted early from a start in May due to “fatigue”, and he did get better as the season went on, so maybe an injury was the case. In his last 11 starts, he managed to strike out 9.26 per nine on the heels of a solid 10.4% swinging strike rate. Still, this is an arbitrary starting point.
One other interesting tidbit about Martinez to consider is the fact that he has exceptional movement on all of his pitches–maybe the increased movement is making Martinez struggle to control his pitches. Consider this table:
His four-seamer and two-seamer are both tailing away from righties and sinking more than ever. He clearly started throwing a different changeup in 2015 that moves much the same way as his fastballs, but is on average 8-10 MPH slower (excellent velocity separation with similar movement to his fastballs–that spells trouble for hitters). He also has another pitch that moves in the opposite direction, a slurve with nice bite. It’s worth noting that he’s upped the usage of his changeup as the pitch has improved:
He’s also throwing his four-seamer far less often, but that’s just because he has had to rely increasingly on his secondary pitches (which instigated the development of the changeup) as he has transitioned from a relief-role to being a full-time starter. Here’s some footage of Car-Mar’s awesome secondary stuff:
Changeup fooling Joey Votto (gif from FanGraphs):
Slurve from the 2013 World Series fooling Pedroia (gif from SBNation):
Here’s another changeup (I couldn’t resist) that fools Scooter Gennett (from MLB.com):
Compare the change to this awesome fastball (gif from PitcherList):
While the added movement may make his pitches harder to control, it also makes them harder to square up–so maybe Martinez can sustain a low BABIP after all. In conclusion, although the strikeouts declined last season, velocity and movement are still strong for Martinez; his skills certainly haven’t eroded. He already has an easy time keeping the ball on the ground (a skill that is becoming increasingly rare in today’s game) and he has two solid secondary pitches at age 25–he has a full skill-set, but he still has room to grow, since he’s so young.