After his brilliant opening-night performance to dominate the Cubs, Carlos Martinez has roamed off course.
The log of his last three starts: only 15.1 innings, 7.04 ERA, 6.4 walks per nine innings, three homers. Martinez hasn’t lost his strikeout power, averaging 12.3 K/9 in his last three times out.
So what’s the problem?
Hint: It isn’t his hair.
Yes, there are actually people out there who go onto Twitter and present this as a serious theory. Martinez ruled the Cubs in that first game, with seven shutout innings, 10 Ks, and no walks. But then he changed to dreadlocks, and look what happened! Yep. It’s the hairdo!
My reaction: IT LOOKS LIKE WE’RE MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!!!
It must be the hair with Adam Wainwright. He’s let it grow, and it’s longer than what we’ve seen in the past. That must explain Waino’s 7.24 ERA this season, right?
Um, no one is talking about Wainwright’s long hair?
Gee, I wonder why?
Moving on …
Hint: It isn’t because Martinez is “disinterested.”
Over Martinez’ last two starts, we’ve heard team TV broadcasters refer to him as “ambivalent” and “disinterested.” During Martinez’ poor start against the Brewers Thursday night, Al Hrabosky said something about “slapping” Martinez to “wake him up.”
This is so awful on so many levels, it just about leaves me speechless.
But not quite speechless.
Disinterested? In his last two starts Martinez has struck out 33.3 percent of his batters faced. Presumably that strikeout rate would be 70 percent if Martinez only had more interest in pitching and competing. Martinez was wrecked by two long homers from the Brewers — they’ve crushed 32 already this season — but at one point he retired 11 consecutive hitters. Martinez must have been interested when he set down 11 in a row.
This junk has been going on since Martinez came to the majors.
When Martinez is animated and bouncing around … well, he’s too emotional and needs to mature.
Ah, but when Martinez is struggling to control the strike zone, and he’s low-key and focused and serious about getting out of jams … of course that means he’s disinterested and needs to be slapped.
Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways.
So what’s the problem?
It’s pretty easy to explain, actually.
Martinez isn’t commanding the strike zone.
He’s giving the advantage to the hitters in too many counts.
And he’s failing to command the strike zone because his mechanics are a mess.
On the homer whacked by Travis Shaw in Thursday’s game, Martinez missed location by about as far as you can miss. If you find the video on it, look at how Martinez is all but falling off the mound he’s so tilted to one side because of the mechanics malfunction.
Here are some numbers, thanks to FanGraphs or STATS LLC unless otherwise noted:
In 2015 he got a first-pitch strike 64 percent of the time.
Last season, it was 62 percent.
This season Martinez has gotten a first-pitch strike just under 55 percent of the time.
And that falls in line with an overall lack of command.
Martinez’ total strike percentage for the season is 45%. In 2016, it was 52.4 percent. During his three-game downturn, Martinez has been in the strike zone only 41.5 percent of the time.
This year his strike rate on changeups is down 6 percent from last year. His strike rate on fastballs (both kinds) is down 4 percent. His strike rate on sliders is down 5 percent. This adds up.
And over Martinez’ last three starts, hitters aren’t chasing those pitches out of the zone as frequently.
On opening night, when Martinez threw a pitch out of the zone, the Cubs chased it 33 percent of the time. Over the next three starts the “chase rate” was 27 percent. Smart teams know when a pitcher is having a difficult time throwing strikes. They can see his pitches sailing or tailing. So they take note and lay off.
How important is it for Martinez to control counts? This applies to every pitcher, but at least through his first four starts Martinez is really paying a price for getting behind in the counts. I have to drop some more numbers on you, but it’s the only way for me to get the point across.
Here are the hitters’ stats against Martinez in hitter-friendly counts, through four starts:
— After 1-0: .342 average, .457 OBP, .553 slug — plus two doubles, two homers, eight walks, seven Ks.
— And wen Martinez puts the hitters at a disadvantage by quickly getting up 0-1 in the count, they’ve only gone 5 for 39 against him (.128) with a .227 OBP and .256 slug and 24 strikeouts.
After 2-0: .333 average, .625 OBP, .444 slug.
After 2-1: .368 average, 500 OBP, .632 slug.
After 3-1: .250 average, .750 OBP, 500 slug.
Again, all pitchers are more vulnerable when they start off 1-0 on a hitter. But in Martinez’ case the corresponding numbers weren’t as severe a year ago; he was able to win a lot more battles after going down 1-0 on the count.
This could be another indication that hitters taking a more patient approach by declining to hack at as many pitches out of the zone.
The good news: Martinez is electric. His swing-and-whiff stuff remains nasty; it’s never been higher as it is right now, 31 percent. His strikeout rate, 30%, would be the best of his career. He’s always been prone to wildness, and walking hitters, and now he’s in an extreme phase.
These mechanics must be fine-tuned.
Martinez definitely has to fix his problem pitch…
Hitters are clobbering his sinker; it’s been his most ineffective pitch this season.
According to Brooks Baseball, hitters are batting .467 against the Martinez sinker this season. Compare that to a .115 average vs. his four-seam fastball, .192 against his changeup, and a .158 average on his slider.
And this is absolutely because of mechanics. As my colleague Kevin Wheeler points out, the Martinez two-seam sinker has flattened, and that’s a tell-tale sign of an out-of-synch delivery.
Martinez has been a terrific young starter in the bigs, but he isn’t a finished product. Sometimes we forget that he’s still only 25 years old, has only 515 innings of MLB pitching, and is still learning. That isn’t an excuse. That’s baseball. This game will test even the most talented players. Martinez is being tested now.
Thanks for reading …