Following a rough stretch in his 2016 campaign, it is possible that Carlos Martinez is having issues with his personal identity on the mound. After a rocky start in Los Angeles, what can Martinez do to rebound?
Every baseball player needs an identity. In a game littered with ups and downs, one must have confidence in their strengths as a player in order to consistently succeed. For both pitchers and hitters, the best remedy can sometimes be simplification, a return to the basic fundamentals or strategies that underlie professional success.
For Carlos Martinez, the remedy to his recent struggles may be a little more complex. After a season ending shoulder injury in 2015, Martinez expressed an interest in lowering his velocity slightly with the purpose of increased accuracy, thus lowering his pitch count through consistent contact. Early in the 2016 season, this approach seemed to be the perfect move.
Using this style, Martinez dazzled in his first 4 wins of 2016. Specifically, in his April 26th start against the Arizona Diamondbacks, he used just 105 pitches through 8 innings of scoreless work. Martinez only let up 3 hits in the start, needing a pedestrian 4 strikeouts to mow down the aggressive Diamondbacks. Using a newfound efficiency, Martinez strayed from his flame throwing tendencies, instead pitching to contact, mixing speeds and ensuring off-balance hitters.
Fast forward to the present. Martinez has lost his past 3 starts, showing little resemblance to the pitcher that started the season in a flawless fashion. Friday night’s start in Los Angeles serves as a perfect example of Martinez’s recent digressions.
Previously, Martinez had posted decent numbers against the Los Angeles Dodgers, posting a 2-1 record, along with a 2.89 ERA in 5 career starts. Tonight, however, was a different story. Martinez limped through 5 innings, throwing 85 pitches, with only 49 crossing the zone as strikes. Whereas he showed efficiency and maturity in his first 4 wins, Martinez walked 3 batters and hitting another during the start. The 5th inning marked the peak of Martinez’s struggles on the night, as he required 40 pitches to complete the frame.
#Dodgers saw 40 pitches from Carlos Martinez while scoring 3 runs in 5th including 12-pitch AB by Adrian Gonzalez. 2 hits, 2 walks
— Bill Plunkett (@billplunkettocr) May 15, 2016
Martinez strayed from his early season tactics, working slowly and failing miserably to pound the zone. Notably, in a bases-loaded at-bat with Corey Seager, he hit 99 mph and 101 mph on consecutive pitches. In a season where his average fastball velocity has dropped from 95.3 to 94.6, such heaters from Martinez were unexpected. He appeared frustrated on the mound, unable to accomplish his goals confidently on any given pitch. It appeared that Martinez had abandoned his 2016 pitching approach, instead resorting to his flame throwing methods of the past.
Martinez’s start against the Dodgers raises an interesting question: After losing 3 straight, where does Martinez go from here? Does he stick to his more efficient, accurate style, or does he resort to his previous strength, using incredibly high velocities to strikeout opposing batters?
While this may seem like a minor blip in an otherwise impressive young career from Martinez, it is important that he commit fully to one identity as a starter for the Cardinals. Neither approach is necessarily better or worse, but it is vital that Martinez avoids mental conflict, allowing himself to focus fully and pitch naturally.
In the past 2 years, Martinez has demonstrated that both approaches can attain success at the major league level. Posting a 14-7 record in 2015, Martinez struck out 24.37% of batters faced, ranking top 20 amongst all starters. Furthermore, he had a solid home run record, allowing .65 every 9 innings pitched. In 2016, Martinez is striking out less batters and yielding more home runs.
Positively however, his era was, prior to last night’s start, sitting lower than his 2015 counterpart (3.01) at 2.61. Likewise, he had a lower walk percentage, averaging 2.61 walks per 9 innings as opposed to 3.16 in 2015. While 2016 (obviously) provides a smaller sample size for these statistics, they prove that both methods have yielded success for Martinez.
At this point in the season, I do not believe there to be concern regarding the performance or trajectory of Martinez. However, he must be consistent with his identity as a pitcher, allowing himself to be mentally sharp in every outing. Whereas most players, as stated above, resort to the basics during a struggle, Martinez has an intriguing decision to make between two pitching strategies, a choice that will be an intriguing follow for the remainder of the 2016 season.