March 3, 2016
Carlos Martinez was first known as Carlos Matias in baseball circles. Carlos Matias signed with the Boston Red Sox when he was just 17 years old for a modest $140,000. Red flags appeared during his routine background check, though, and Major League Baseball suspended him for a year and voided the six-figure bonus. During that year sabbatical, Matias (now Martinez) grew into his body and began sitting in the mid-90s, earning him a seven-figure signing bonus with the St. Louis Cardinals.
It was an unorthodox introduction to professional baseball for the Dominican native. Strangely enough, a beneficial one for the right-hander, too, according to some:
“I didn’t think it was right,” said one industry official. “He becomes a free agent and gets rewarded for the identity issue.”
Martinez wound up in one of the best developmental systems in the league and shot up the prospect rankings. In 2012, for example, Kevin Goldstein labeled him as one of the rare five-star prospects at the time (the Cardinals boasted two others in Oscar Taveras and Shelby Miller), despite an uneven performance the year prior, reflecting his gold-tinged pedigree. That season, he compiled a sub-3.00 ERA between High-A and Double-A. He followed it up in 2013 with a 2.51 ERA in Triple-A and a cup of coffee in the bigs.
The young fireballer couldn’t shake the “possible reliever” tag, no matter how hard he tried. It didn’t help that lefties lit him up in 2014 to the tune of a .289/.387/.462 slash line. To make matters worse, he walked more lefties than he struck out, which signaled deeper repertoire, command, and approach issues that should’ve relegated him to the bullpen—and it’s something that I routinely noted prior to the 2015 season.
WHAT WENT RIGHT IN 2015?
Most simply, Carlos Martinez was 23 years old and still developing as a pitcher. Right-handed batters still experienced night terrors, jolting themselves awake the night before Martinez’s scheduled start in a cold sweat. They hit .235/.303/.320 against him for the season—and that was actually a huge improvement from the previous year—and struck out 26.9 percent of the time. In fact, Martinez owns the ninth-highest strikeout rate against righties of any pitcher who has thrown 100-plus innings since the beginning of 2014. His fastball-slider combination overwhelms hitters and renders them largely impotent.
He further refined his changeup, too, and it became a legitimate weapon against opposite-handed hitters. Martinez didn’t bother with it much against righties—why mess with success?—but upped his usage 10-plus percentage points to 28 percent versus lefties. It helped his strikeout rate jump to 26.1 percent from a measly 11.1 percent in 2014. Decreasing the size of his platoon split resulted in better overall run prevention and a 3.01 ERA with strong win totals and strikeout numbers. He was one of the brighter fantasy stories of the year.
Moreover, Martinez finally shouldered a big load at the major-league level. He started 29 games and tossed 179.2 innings. For someone just six-feet tall and a “reliever” label that has dogged him for years, that was huge. One of the most underrated things a fantasy starter can do is eat innings and make starts, as it adds to strikeout and win totals. Ratios are important, but relievers can carry a lot of the water in those categories. Starters have to crank out strikeouts and, generally, have to throw a lot of innings to accomplish that. It was a step in the right direction for Martinez.
WHAT WENT WRONG IN 2015?
Two main negative things from last year: (1) the increased workload resulted in injury concerns, and (2) the underlying numbers suggest that his success could be unsustainable going forward.
Martinez suffered a right shoulder injury that prematurely ended his 2015 campaign, casting significant doubt over whether he truly can handle a starter’s workload on an annual basis. By all indications, it wasn’t serious enough to require surgery, so perhaps much of this concern is overstated. Still, a shorter pitcher experiencing shoulder issues the first time he eclipses 150 innings should worry the mind of fantasy owners. It perhaps even erases the entire last paragraph of the previous section.
The right-hander posted a 4.31 DRA, which is cosmically in another realm from his 3.01 ERA and 3.21 FIP. This casts significant doubt on whether Martinez was as good as it seemed last year. After all, his swinging-strike rate dropped from 13.1 percent to just 10.5 percent, which makes me a bit skeptical that his increased strikeout rate is sustainable. His 78.8 percent strand rate was also 12th-best among qualified starters, meaning he should probably be expected to allow more runs if everything else stays the same in 2016. It may seem like I’m splitting hairs—and I am to a certain extent—but DRA has proven to be more accurate than FIP at painting a picture as to what should have happened. That’s concerning.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2016
The flip side of the coin is that Martinez’s 90 cFIP suggests that he should be 10-percent better than the league average next year, which should help negate many of the issues that his 4.31 DRA raised. His changeup transformed into a legit offering against lefties. That should help him be more consistently effective against major-league hitters, especially as they’ve seen him as a starter over the course of an entire year.
What’s unclear and ultimately hurting his fantasy stock for 2016 is whether his late-season shoulder ailment will affect his upcoming season. Shoulders injuries are much scarier than elbow injuries, in some ways, so a clean bill of health throughout spring training will do wonders to ease the minds of fantasy owners. Unfortunately, most fantasy drafts occur prior to that point, so it’s mostly guesswork. He went through a normal offseason and hasn’t experienced any setbacks this spring. At the same time, the organization has kept him from at least one bullpen session already, citing a need to be cautious with him this spring, which never feels good.
If he does step onto the mound in April with no spring setbacks, he’s a good bet to sit in the mid-3.00s with healthy strikeout rates. There’s legitimate upside with Martinez, too, due to his improved performance against lefties and the fact that he’s only 24 years old. He also pitches in St. Louis, a positive environment for hurlers due to tangible and intangible factors. If Martinez is on the mound, he’s one of the brightest mid-tier options available. Of course, that “if” remains a bit too ominous for comfort.
THE GREAT BEYOND
As long as the right-hander doesn’t experience a devastating injury this year, his long-term outlook remains very bright. PECOTA sees him as a sub-3.50 guy for the next decade, maintaining strikeout stuff. Dynasty owners who have depth in the rotation may be tempted to “buy low” this spring, as people (like myself) are a bit skittish about his potential health in 2016, but his long-term value eclipses anything that we’re expecting for this upcoming season.
So many young starters dominate the game these days. Carlos Martinez isn’t on the same level as Jose Fernandez, Gerrit Cole, Noah Syndergaard, Chris Sale, Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom, Chris Archer, etc., but he’s one of the best of the next tier. If he can prove healthy and his performance against lefties takes a step forward, though, he could threaten to jump into that mix. That’s pretty special.