August 13, 2009
Unless you're Jamie Moyer, last night's start by Pedro Martinez was a highly anticipated event. The 37-year-old righty has provided some of the great baseball moments of the last 15 seasons, and despite injury and ineffectiveness over the past three years, he retains a watchability, a presence, that made his return to the mound must-see TV. Throw in that the the Phillies' lead in the NL East had dwindled to 3½ games, and Martinez's start Wednesday night was the biggest story in the baseball world.
I'm invested, since I've written that I think Martinez has more than enough left to contribute to a contending team. His ERA with the Mets last year was inflated a bit by unusually high rates of home runs per fly ball (15.6%) and hits on balls in play (.329). He struck out two men for every one he walked, and whiffed 17.6 percent of the men he faced, both of which indicate he can still pitch in the major leagues. Even with less stuff than he had at his peak-one of the greatest peaks in the game's long history-Martinez has both sufficient skill to be a league-average starter and a tremendous pitcher's mind to make him better than that.
I'd like to say that what I saw last night supports this notion, but it was definitely a mixed bag. Martinez allowed three runs in five innings, pitching from ahead the entire way and with a huge lead in the last two frames. He threw a four-seam fastball in the 91-92 range regularly, and a changeup generally at 77-78, which is the kind of gap you like to see between those two pitches. (All pitch and speed data taken from MLBAM's Gameday application.) He also worked primarily off a four-seam fastball and that change, but also threw a two-seam, a cutter, and both a slow curve and a slider. That curve was, for my money, his best pitch, although the tailing movement on his change made that an effective weapon against right-handed batters. He seemed most comfortable throwing those two pitches. Martinez constantly changed speeds, and had the Cubs' hitters off-balance much of the night. His deep repertoire, the movement on his pitches, and the incessant change in velocity were all on display last night, and all were major league caliber.
The downside is that he gave up seven hits in five innings of work, the Cubs hitting .333 off him for the evening. Now, the easy excuse is that they went 7-for-17 on balls in play, a .412 mark that you would think is unlikely to be repeated. The problem is that the Cubs weren't hitting bleeders, weren't having balls fall in, and weren't getting noticeably lucky. The softest of the seven hits were probably Derrek Lee's first-inning double to right, or perhaps Milton Bradley's RBI single in the fifth over a leaping Chase Utley. The Cubs' other five hits included three ringing singles to center field and a double off of the center-field wall. They were squaring up Martinez, and had most of their success jumping on pitches early in the count-three first-pitch hits and one on the second delivery. This makes some sense; Martinez's advantage over hitters is that he can set them up and get them off balance by changing speeds over the course of an at-bat. He isn't going to blow you away on the first pitch or two, so if you can jump on one of them-all of the hits were on fastballs and changeups-you're taking his game away from him.
Perhaps the most interesting thing I noticed was how different Martinez was when pitching from the windup versus the stretch. Because he allowed hits on the first pitch of both the second and third innings, he had to throw a ton of pitches from the stretch in this game-nearly two-thirds of his deliveries came out of the stretch. He didn't take to this. From the windup, he threw 3.1 pitches per batter and spent a lot of time delivering balls in the strike zone, some of which were roped for hits (5-for-11 with a sac fly). From the stretch, he nibbled, throwing 5.6 pitches per batter, slowing the game to a crawl but doing a better job of getting results (2-10 with a walk).
So there's a conflict here. Martinez got his best results when he was able to set up batters by changing speeds and arm angles and giving them a variety of looks within an at-bat. In the eight plate appearances that were settled in the first three pitches, the Cubs went 4-for-8. In the 15 others they were 3-for-14 with a walk. (There's a bias here in that most strikeouts fall into the latter category.) When batters jumped on Martinez early, they had success hitting him, especially his fastball and changeup. However, if Martinez, for whom in-game durability was an issue half a decade ago, has to throw a lot of deep counts, he's going to have a hard time giving the Phillies five innings a start, much less six. Last night he had a 12-1 lead when he took the mound for the fourth inning and very nearly didn't qualify for the win. He needed 99 pitches to get through just five innings, and if he'd needed a 100th he might not have gotten to throw it.
At this point, I'm withholding judgment. The Cubs haven't been a very good offensive team this year, and they've about been a half-run worse without Aramis Ramirez (4.25 R/G in the 70 games he hasn't started) than with him (4.69 in his 42 starts), which was their state last night. They hit Martinez very hard at times and forced him to work to get through five innings. I'd like to say we'll learn more about Martinez in the coming weeks, but the schedule sets up beautifully for him: he'll face the Diamondbacks next Tuesday, and then the Mets' bench on the 23rd. The first good hitting team he'll see is Atlanta on August 28th. Martinez certainly could improve upon his approach from the stretch and his location when pitching the bases empty, but even if he made no changes at all he'd be in pretty good shape for his next two starts.
A final note on Moyer… in the same way that he seems to feel he was assured a rotation spot, I'm sure the Phillies feel they were assured above-replacement-level performance. Baseball isn't entirely a meritocracy, but it's pretty close to one, and when you don't perform, you don't keep your job. Despite some recent success, Moyer has been the Phillies' worst starter this season and was the natural choice to lose his job when Cliff Lee was acquired.
See, that's what's missing here. Moyer didn't lose his job to Martinez, who was signed at the All-Star break with an eye towards having him replace the string of mistakes that had served as Phillies' fifth starters this year. Moyer lost his job to Lee, acquired on July 30 in no small part because Moyer had failed to pitch better than he had to that point. It was Lee's arrival that gave the Phillies six starters, and that is why Moyer is a relief pitcher now. The order in which the two newcomers joined the rotation clouds that fact, but it's fairly clear that had Moyer pitched more effectively, the Phillies would not have felt the need to trade four prospects for a starting pitcher better than him.