Fourteen months ago, Nick Martinez joined the Rangers rotation without much fanfare. An 18th-rounder who played second base most days at Fordham, Martinez moved to the mound permanently after being drafted. He took well to his new role, reaching Double-A in his second full professional season, then skipping Triple-A to begin his third. That hastened path to the majors did little to inspire national interest in Martinez—he went unmentioned on Prospectus until January 2014—and at times during his rookie season seemed to hurt his development, as he finished with 29 appearances, a 4.55 ERA, and even worse component measures.
Yet in 2015 Martinez has shone as one of the brightest spots on and—because happy endings rarely come together so prettily—most polarizing aspects of the suddenly competitive Rangers.
Under normal conditions, Martinez’s 2.65 ERA would be celebrated as a mark of his improvement; instead his ERA is divisive due to its abnormality. Pitchers who record 1.79 strikeouts per walk and who lead the league in hit batsmen aren’t wont to possess shiny ERAs. In fact, only two others (Mike Pelfrey and Kyle Gibson, both Twins) entered Tuesday with statistics similar to Martinez’s—at least 50 innings pitched and at most a 3.00 ERA and 2.00 K/BB—and neither had hit as many batters.
What Martinez is doing is irregular, and while laying on the horn and shouting “Regression!” is the easiest response, examining irregularity can lead to a greater understanding of the player and the game. So let’s approach Martinez with one question: Is there any legitimacy to his play? To answer, let’s break him down by the main components of pitching: stuff, deception, and location and sequencing.
Where do you begin when evaluating a pitcher? Probably with his pitches. Martinez’s repertoire is more average than not. His fastballs sit around 90 mph and touch 94 (both lower than last season) with a little life. His most-used secondary pitch is a slider with 12-6 break and the ability to miss barrels. Martinez also throws an improved changeup and a waste-pitch curveball against lefties.
For the most part, Martinez’s pitch-specific statistics reflect those observations. His fastballs don’t miss bats; his slider is a groundball generator; his curve is seldom within the zone or offered at; and so on. The lone point of interest involves his changeup, which has inspired a league-leading rate of swings among starters, a good thing given his usually on-point location of the pitch.
No matter your preferred method of evaluation, you come away believing Martinez has a playable three-pitch mix (four if you separate fastballs). Useful, but not enough alone to explain his surge.
Since Martinez’s raw stuff isn’t the key, you might suspect his pitches are enhanced by tricky mechanics and/or an extreme release point. Sure enough, there are misleading elements to his delivery, including a short arm stroke and closed landing that help him shield the ball from opposing batters:
However, the most noteworthy aspect of Martinez’s delivery is his stride. By now many of us are familiar with the concept of extension, or at least we understand the relationship between release point and perceived velocity. A long stride is part of the reason why someone like Ian Kennedy, who is an inch shorter than Martinez, can throw low-90s fastballs past big-league hitters. Martinez is Kennedy’s inverse: His stride is extremely short, forcing his pitches to travel a longer path, and allowing batters more time to react. The obvious, unanswerable question is whether Martinez’s deceptive tics atone for or outweigh his short stride. As such, it’s hard to say how much deception matters to his success.
Location and Sequencing
So if Martinez isn’t getting by thanks to the nastiness of his stuff or the trickiness of his delivery, then how about where and when he throws his pitches? Here, at last, we might be onto something.
Martinez is a smart and gutsy pitcher armed with the know-how to keep batters off-balance and the control to execute his schemes. More often than not he places his pitches where he wants them, which includes his fastball to both sides of the plate, even inside on hitters. That willingness to work in has contributed to those hit batsmen, and to his majors-leading increase in groundball percentage (from 35 percent in 2014 to 45 in 2015). In Big Data Baseball Travis Sawchik wrote about the Pirates’ internal studies on pitching inside and noted they found that “players were more likely to pull outside pitches on the ground after being pitched inside earlier,” and were “less likely to lunge to the outside corner,” thus validating Bob Gibson and every other old-timey pitcher’s thoughts on the subject.
Martinez’s increased reliance on the ground out also plays to his defense’s strength. Although the Rangers rank in the middle of the pack in overall defensive efficiency, their infielders are the sixth-best at turning grounders into outs. Double plays are a happy byproduct of the overlap between Martinez’s and his defense’s tendencies; already he has coerced nine in 63 attempts (14 percent) after last season inducing 11 in 124 opportunities (nine percent), according to Baseball-Reference. Add in how Martinez has a league-average infield-fly rate and better-than-average home-run and extra-base-hits-allowed rates, and you can finally form an explanation for his good ERA.
That explanation goes like this: Martinez is allowing fewer runners to reach scoring position and making it tougher for the opposition to score a runner from first. In essence, he seems to be doing what Joe Saunders did during his peak effectiveness: getting the out when it was most crucial, even if he didn’t miss bats, generate an extreme amount of grounders, or post wicked strikeout-to-walk rates.
Is this a sustainable method? Nah. There’s a reason Saunders is known foremost for his mediocrity. Besides, Martinez would have to continue to suppress extra-base hits and home runs while holding true to his other gains. Odds are that’s not going to happen, not to the extent that he’ll hold onto a sub-3 ERA.
Still, concluding that Martinez is likely to slip as time moves forward isn’t a diss. He’s an enjoyable pitcher to watch—one who works quickly, throws strikes, and shows an understanding of his craft—with a cool background. Plus, while the current package adds up to a back-end starter, Martinez’s relative inexperience and athleticism could mean there’s some more chicken left on the bone than anticipated; being under Mike Maddux‘s watch is a point in his favor as well.
The Rangers have three veteran starters on the comeback trail, including Derek Holland, Martin Perez, and Matt Harrison. Assuming one of those three suffers a setback, and that Yovani Gallardo and Wandy Rodriguez are safe barring collapses, then Martinez could be competing with Colby Lewis and Chi Chi Gonzalez for one spot; in other words, it’s possible he gets bumped to the bullpen before the season ends. However Martinez’s season plays out, he’s succeeded in a big-league rotation for a third of the year. Fourteen months ago, that would’ve been unfathomable.
Special thanks to Craig Goldstein for the idea.
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