Carlos Martínez and the Cardinals have agreed to a five-year, $51-million extension. The deal covers Martínez’s three arbitration years and two free agent years, as well as including two team options that could extend the deal to seven years. It is now the new record holder for a long-term deal given to a player entering his first arbitration year. The previous record holder was Corey Kluber, who signed a five-year, $38.5-million deal coming off his 2014 Cy Young Award.
Martínez was mostly a relief pitcher during his first two seasons in the majors. He had a 4.03 RA9 in relief, which usually is not a good sign that such a pitcher should be converted to a starter. However, as a reliever, he had a FIP below 3.00 and a high BABIP. In addition, he had a great track record of starting in the minors, where he had a 3.01 RA9 and struck out 24.7 percent of batters faced. He had a fastball that could touch triple digits and a hard sinker that sat at 95-96 MPH. Combined with his secondary offerings, scouts believed that he could be a number two starter. After trading Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller, the Cardinals had an opening in their rotation going into the 2015 season, so they decided to give Martínez the opportunity to start.
It has worked out remarkably well. With the decline of Adam Wainwright, Martínez has risen to the top of their rotation. In the past two seasons, he has made 60 starts with a 3.19 RA9 for a total of 9.4 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference. That is at worst a good No. 2 pitcher.
What surprises me about Martínez is that he does not strike out as many batters as one would think given his velocity. His 24.8 percent strikeout rate ranked 17th among starters in 2015, so he got off to a good start. In 2016, however, his strikeout rate dropped to 21.5 percent, which ranked 30th among starters. It might not seem like much, but a three percentage-point drop in strikeout rate is significant. Early last season, Joe Schwarz of Viva El Birdos discussed some possibilities for Martínez’s drop in strikeout rate.
Before reading the aforementioned article, I had two thoughts about why Martínez was not striking out more hitters despite having a fastball in the upper 90s:
- Does he lack deception in his delivery? I combed through multiple scouting reports discussing Martínez when he was a prospect, and I could not find anything that discussed anything at all about his deception, so that likely is not it.
- Does he lack downward plane on his fastball? Martínez is listed at only 6' 0" tall. That is rather short for a pitcher, so it is tough not to have a flat fastball. I can’t imagine that he doesn’t struggle somewhat with this, but again, no scouting report that I found mentioned it.
Obviously it is always better to miss bats, but even if Martínez’s strikeout rate does not bounce back, he is still a ground ball machine. Thanks to that nasty sinker of his, he has a career 54.5 percent ground ball rate. Since he moved to the rotation in 2015, he’s allowed 0.67 home runs per nine innings, which ranks sixth in the majors.
Martínez could regress significantly — which he probably won’t — and still be a steal at $10.2 million per year. Given the track that he was on, he was likely going to get more expensive in arbitration, and then command a hefty contract as a very good starting pitcher entering his age-28 season. Now the Cardinals have him locked up for cheap until he is 30, with the options of hanging on to him for two more seasons after that if he is still effective.
The risk with the deal from the Cardinals’ perspective is whether Martínez can handle the rigors of starting. Yes, so far he has been durable, outside a shoulder injury he suffered at the end of September 2015. But as I mentioned before, he is listed at just 6' 0" and 190 lbs., which is fairly undersized for a starting pitcher. The track record of starters this size staying healthy isn’t great.
However, this is a minor quibble. From what I have gathered, most scouts believe he can handle starting, and the best predictor of future health is past health. In 2013, Derrick Goold wrote at Baseball America that “his frame belies a wiry strength and his efficient mechanics will help.” That is more reason for optimism.
Any risk that you can come up with is heavily mitigated by how team friendly this deal is. Yes, all pitchers carry a fair amount of risk, but given Martínez’s past two seasons and his age, the risk is minimal. Well done by the Cardinals.
. . .
Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.