My very first post at Viva El Birdos nearly two years ago focused on Carlos Martinez and how his 2015 season fared with other recent, age-23 starting pitchers in the National League. You probably already know this but he fared quite well. In 2016, Martinez didn’t take a huge step forward as a starter, but he turned in another above-average grade. That’s what I called it anyway at the end of the 2016 season when I basically did a “Part 2” of that first post, and compared Martinez’s two season in the books to other NL starters in their age-23 and 24 seasons.
Since this is the first post at Seat Cushion Night (first post of substance, at least), I’m going to start off the same way. Consider this “Part 3” of the series. And if you want to know why 1988 is used as the starting date, I don’t have that great of an answer other than that’s what I believe a half-earnest Sam Miller tabbed as the beginning of the modern era of baseball on an old episode of Effectively Wild. Makes sense. It covers the entire steroid era up to the present and it just cuts off 1987, an outlier year of high-octane offense relative to the rest of the 1980s.
So here we go. Using Baseball Reference’s Play Index (which might honestly be my favorite thing online – subscribe here) and also comparing notes from FanGraphs Leaderboards, I looked at the three combined years for starting pitchers in the NL going back to 1988 in their age-23, 24, and 25 seasons. With a set minimum of 400 innings pitched, I got a sample of 88 pitchers. Of the 88, here’s where Martinez ranks in the following categories:
- IP: 580 (26th)
- ERA: 3.24 (14th)
- ERA-: 80 (8th)
- FIP: 3.59 (27th)
- FIP-: 88 (24th)
- K%: 23.7% (10th)
- BB%: 8.4% (53rd)
- GB%: 54.0% (2nd)
- OPS: .675 (25th)
- bWAR: 12.3 (12th)
- fWAR: 10.1 (27th)
Carlos Martinez is no Clayton Kershaw (few are), who has a stranglehold on a lot of the categories outlines above, but Martinez rests comfortably in the top third of every notable category but for walks, which he lowered from 8.7 percent in 2016 to 8.3 percent this past season – a mark right in line with the NL average for starters in 2017. He’s also excelled at striking out batters and keeping the ball on the ground. Last season he was one of only three starting pitchers (min: 175 IP) with a strikeout rate above 25 percent and a ground ball rate above 50 percent, joining Luis Severino and Jimmy Nelson.
Also, here’s a screenshot from the Play Index of the first 20 of the 88 as ranked by bWAR:
As shown, Martinez is firmly embedded with some of the best young pitchers the NL has seen over the last 30 seasons. Martinez, of course, rates well in bWAR, which is calculated using more basic run prevention numbers, i.e., what actually happens on the field, and Martinez’s 3.24 ERA since 2015 is approximately a full run less than the NL average for starters during that span. fWAR is calculated with a “three true outcomes” FIP approach, but Martinez’s 3.59 FIP still outpaces the NL average for starters since 2015 which comes in around 4.20.
So what do we make of this? That depends on your outlook.
Personally, I think the most welcoming sign is that Martinez is proving himself a durable pitcher. He threw 205.0 innings in 2017, his first time eclipsing the 200 IP mark and second to only Jeff Samardzija (207.2) in the NL. Now, maybe he shouldn’t have thrown that many innings. Last month, Tyler Kinzy of Viva El Birdos made a pretty convincing case that Mike Matheny is too slow to yank starting pitchers. But be that as it may, Martinez’s durability is not a trivial thing since it’s not easy figuring out where the innings are going to come from in 2018 with Mike Leake gone, Lance Lynn likely heading elsewhere as a free agent, and an aging Adam Wainwright coming off his second straight sub-par season.
Whether Martinez is an “ace” probably depends on your definition. What should be clear though is that he’s the most valuable pitcher on the Cardinals’ staff, and from that standpoint he is an ace, or at least he’s our ace. And he’s been one of the better young starting pitchers in the NL over the last 30 seasons.