Cardinals: Examining Carlos Martinez as a Closer

If you were here yesterday, you may have read my examination of Jordan Hicks as the potential closer for the Cardinals. If not, you can find it by clicking here. It was pure coincidence that he was called upon for the save the night before I published that. Yet again, it is coincidence that Carlos Martinez earned a 2-inning save the night before I typed this post.

I swear, this was always intended to be a two-part analysis of the top 2 candidates for the job.

I gave my endorsement for Hicks at the end of my post on him, but I can’t disagree with those that feel Martinez is really the man for the job. It makes a ton of sense, which is why I am here, examining his credentials.

Competition

Since yesterday’s Hicks post was the initial offering the min-series, it included the rundown of the candidates involved. Without repeating the details, the men to consider are Dominic Leone, John Brebbia, Dakota Hudson, Jordan Hicks, and, of course, Martinez.

Bud Norris is also a candidate to regain his job, but I won’t stretch this to a part 3 and review his candidacy. However, it was reported by Derrick Goold that Norris had reviewed video, following Monday’s blown save, and identified a mechanical change in his delivery. I imagine that Shildt tries him somewhere other than the 9th inning his next time around, but if the adjustment is effective, it’s worth stating here that he could take his job back in short order. His command has been terrible lately, so we should see a visible difference if that adjustment truly was the cure.

Michael Wacha could be a wild card for the role in the next few weeks, if he can’t start.

But, on to Martinez…

Experience

This is something that Martinez has that the other candidates do not. While he has never been a closer, he has worked in late-inning relief — during a couple of playoff runs, I might add — and has been in the major leagues for 6 years now. Only Bud Norris is his senior among candidates for this role.

Though his regular season career as a reliever isn’t spectacular — holding a 4.28 ERA over 117.2 IP — his postseason career is solid. Over 16 appearances and 16.2 innings on the biggest stage, he has a 3.24 ERA, 13 K’s, and 6 Holds. Consider that he was doing that as a 21 and 22-year old with serious command issues. It was a trial-by-fire situation.

He hasn’t been handed many final inning save opportunities — securing all 3 that he has received — but he is 27 for 32 in converting save/holds in his career, an 84.3% success rate. All 5 career blown saves occurred in the 7th or 8th innings.

All-in-all, he has much more savy than he did as a raw young thrower and knows how to better attack and set up hitters, rather than just relying on his stuff.

But he still has the stuff.

Stuff

There was concern about Carlos’ velocity floating around on Twitter yesterday. It was fair, as the numbers indicate that his average fastball velocity has fallen by about 3 mph compared to where he was early in the season, as a starter. The general expectation is for the velocity to increase as a reliever, but Carlos went the opposite way. However, as evidenced by several 97 mph fastballs (and one overthrown at 99 mph) on Wednesday night, it’s not an issue of whether or not he can do it. He still has the higher gear when needed.

Another thing that we saw in Wednesday night’s performance was that he was predominantly fastball/slider. He took the usage of his Change-up down to 7.5%, about half as often as he had been using it all season, and stayed mostly with the hard stuff (4-seam, sinker, cutter) and then attacked with the slider as a strikeout weapon. This season, his whiff-per-swing percentage on his slider is 41.34% and batters hit just .191 against it. The key is keeping it close enough to the zone to entice a swing.

This hard/slider approach is what you would expect, and hope, to see from him as a reliever. At times he looked absolutely filthy on Wednesday, so he seems to be letting it fly without concern of re-injury.

The Moment

As I said before, Carlos doesn’t have much experience as a closer, but he did do work in the late innings and playoffs early in his career.

A look at his leverage numbers shows that he knows how to bow his neck and get the job down.

In his career with runners in scoring position he has allowed an opponent average of .206 with a 25.1% K%. Among 42 MLB pitchers with 200 IP in such situations since 2013, Martinez ranks 5th best in opponent average and 7th in K%.

With RISP and 2 outs, that average drops to .203 and the K% increases to 26.2%. Among 37 pitchers with 90 such innings pitched since 2013, he ranks 11th best in both categories. His 25.2% strand rate in these situations is 3rd best among qualifiers.

In his career in high leverage situations, opponents bat .227 with a .269 wOBA and 23.5% K%.

Those leverage numbers aren’t that great compared to other relievers during his career. However, they are generally on par with some of the best starting pitchers in baseball.

That’s the difficulty in judging Carlos in this aspect. As a starter, he has done as well as anyone in high leverage, but the numbers simply don’t compare to those of late inning relievers. However, if we look only at his time as a reliever, we are looking at an extremely young and raw pitcher, which isn’t fair, either.

We reach a point where we have to believe that the combination of experience and changing his approach for the relief role will produce the desired results. It’s a moderate leap of faith.

Bottom Line

It’s hard to build a case for or against Carlos based on his career as a reliever as it was several years — and really, a different pitcher — ago.

From 2015 to 2017 he was one of the better starting pitchers in baseball and we have seen how dominant his stuff can be over the last 6 years. Where the case for Hicks is based on stuff and a notion that he has the composure to handle the role, Carlos is backed by actual experience along with his stuff.

His repertoire would clearly play as a closer, I have no doubts about this. His composure is there and was on display Wednesday night.

However, there is risk.

Where fatigue is a concern with Hicks, a balky right side is a concern for Carlos. How risky is it to plan your bullpen approach with him as the last guy? What if his shoulder issue or lat flares up with 1-out and 1-on in the 9th inning of a 1-run game? What if you have to pull him and you’ve already used Hicks and Norris in a setup capacity?

Now, I personally think he will hold up from a health perspective, but those are the questions you have to consider, given that it has been a start-stop season for him already. Honestly, there are risks with any candidate.

I stand by endorsement for Hicks, but would also be perfectly fine with Carlos shutting things down.

As long as the Cardinals are winning!

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Thanks to Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Brooks Baseball for the stats!

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TeamWLPct.GB
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Cubs9568.5831.0
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Last updated: 10/01/2018

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