Martinez is pounding the zone, but it may come back to hurt him.
Carlos Martinez has never thrown this many strikes. The St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher seems to have changed his approach towards an emphasis on throwing strikes and gettign ahead in the count. SO far, upon returning to the rotation this season, he is off to a good start. His 3.72 and 3.80 FIP are solid, especially for someone who is only being asked to fill the back of the rotation. Additionally he has pitched into the eighth inning in each of his last two starts, and this ability to save relievers in a welcome change from the beginning of the Cardinals’ season. Despite his early season success, however, it is unclear if Martinez will be able to continue performing well.
Carlos Martinez has thrown 56.2% of his pitches in the strike zone this season. That is nearly 6% above his career average, and it is nearly 8% above the league average. Not only is he getting strikes, but he is also getting first pitch strikes as his first pitch strike rate of 68.2% is well above both the league average (60.5%) and his career average (61.7%). This is helping Martinez limit his walks and pitch deep into games as he has posted a career low 6.1% walk rate so far, and is also averaging over six innings per start. These numbers are encouraging considering Martinez’s struggles in 2019, and the offseason questions of whether or not he can pitch in the rotation again.
Not only is Martinez limiting walks, but he is also limiting home runs. This is another encouraging sign as he has always been good at limiting home runs, but struggled in that department in 2020 (2.70 HR/9). The 29-year old is allowing just 0.50 home runs per nine innings, which is below his career rate of 0.73 home runs per nine innings.
While these are good signs, there are plenty of warning signs surrounding Martinez. TO begin with, even though he is pounding the zone, he is not getting whiffs. Currently, his whiff rate is a career low 18.2% as hitters are making above average contact on pitches n the zone and out of the zone against Martinez. This has led to an extremely low 13.5% strikeout rate.
If Martinez is going to pitch to contact, then he must generate plenty of soft contact to make up for his lack of strikeouts. The problem is that this is not happening as Martinez is allowing an average exit velocity of 89.8 mph, which puts him in the 38th percentile. Additionally, he is in just the 30th percentile in barrel rate (10.4%). As a result, his xwOBA, xFIP, and xERA are all significantly higher than his wOBA, FIP, and ERA, respectively.
So, it is encouraging to see Martinez pounding the strike zone. However, with his apparent inability to generate swings and misses it is a dangerous approach, especially since Martinez throws a below average amount of his pitches on the edge of the zone. Thus, with so many pitches over the plate, Martinez is relying heavily on his defense to make plays, and opposing hitters to not make solid contact. So far, the right hander has not been hurt by this, as he has limited home runs despite a below average barrel rate and exit velocity allowed. Some of this likely has to do with a strong defense behind him. However, it seems unlikely that Martinez will be able to keep this approach all season without getting hurt.
He has pitched well in his last few games, but this kind of success is unlikely to last. If he keeps pitching like he has been, it is likely that he will begin to struggle. A pitcher simply cannot pound the zone as much as Martinez if he cannot generate whiffs or weak contact. Martinez is currently struggling to do both. Thus, something has to give. He either must get better as generating whiffs or weak contact, or he must pitch more on the fringes of the strike zone.
It is good that Martinez has been able to successfully return to the rotation. However, he must now make adjustments if he wants to continue having success.