Yesterday, for the second time this season, Carlos Martínez took the mound against the New York Mets for a duel with Noah Syndergaard. “Duel” might be doing some heavy lifting here because the first match-up on Opening Day hardly resembled a battle of aces. Syndergaard wasn’t great, and Martínez was worse. It remains the only start this season in which Martínez 1) didn’t make it through six innings (he didn’t even make it through five); and 2) allowed more than a single run. Yesterday, however, was more of what we have come to expect from these two pitchers. Although neither got the decision in the Cardinals’ 4-3 win in extras, both pitchers made it through at least six and each allowed only a single run.
And remove that first start and Martínez has looked almost 1968 Bob Gibson-ian from a run prevention standpoint. In five total starts since, he has thrown 33.1 innings in which he has allowed only two runs, accounting for a 0.54 ERA.
Syndergaard has been pretty good since his opening start, too, and the conventional wisdom likely says that of the two, he is the better pitcher. And he probably is. His 2016 season was far more dominant than anything Martínez has been able to put together since they both became full-time starters in 2015, and his peripheral stats look better than Martínez’s in the early start to 2018. But they have both succeeded to varying degrees because they excel in areas that bode well in today’s modern game.
Here’s the context to which I am referring, a lot of which you likely already know: Since around the 2015 All-Star Break, home runs have been on the rise, coalescing last season with 412 more home runs hit than the next highest season (year 2000) on record. Is it because the ball is different? Maybe. Probably. And this, along with a host of other reasons, has contributed to an environment in which there are not a lot of balls put in play when compared to the days of old. Last season, over one third of all plate appearances ended in either a walk, strikeout, or home run. Aaron Judge, who topped out at 57 percent of his plate appearances ending in one of the three true outcomes, was the poster boy for this trend.
As of this morning, almost 35 percent of all plate appearances in 2018 have ended in one of the three true outcomes, so far a slight increase from last season. A lot of that has been due to a historic number of strikeouts, with the overall whiff rate sitting at 22.9 percent, a noticeable difference from last season (21.6 percent).
Further, there stands a chance home runs have actually been suppressed so far in 2018. The current home run per fly ball rate is 11.9 percent, down from 13.7 percent in 2017, possibly a result of so many cold-weather games (which are now hopefully gone until October). You often hear when a ball dies on the warning track in early April that it would be a home run in the sticky, sweaty days of July and there might be some truth to that. On a recent Effectively Wild episode, host Ben Lindbergh noted a study (I can’t remember whose study it was at the moment) which said that ten degrees equals an extra 2.5 feet for fly balls. So look out, more home runs are probably on the way.
And last I checked, giving up a home run is the worst possible outcome for any pitcher in any situation. I feel confident saying there are no exceptions. So if you are a pitcher who is trying to keep his head above water in this batted ball environment, you can survive by striking out a lot of batters, which, per above, is happening. After all, if a ball is not put in play, a ball can not end up in Big Mac Land. Simple enough. You can also pitch to induce a lot of ground balls, for a ball hit on the ground has about a zero percent chance of resulting in a home run. (My research has found this to be the lone exception.) Ideally, you can do both, and this is where we circle back to Martínez.
So far in 2018, starting pitchers in the National League are striking out 22.4 percent of batters and inducing ground balls at a rate of 44.5 percent. Here are the NL starters who are going above and beyond in both categories by striking out at least 25 percent of batters and getting a ground ball at least 50 percent of the time, as sorted by K% (min: 25 innings pitched; sample: 45):
1. Patrick Corbin – 39.3 K%; 53.7 GB% (33.1 IP)
2. Carlos Martínez – 25.3 K%; 57.8 GB% (37.2 IP)
We haven’t reached May yet and that’s not even a crowd. Syndergaard was in this group until his start yesterday, which dipped his ground ball rate below 50 percent.
Some quick caveats: There is no scientific reasoning behind this 25/50 stat. It’s a figure that I essentially made up because both numbers are typically well above league average and numbers ending in 5 and 0 just conveniently feel like good measuring sticks. (I do not expect anyone to be intimately familiar with my writing, but on the off-chance you are, you might remember that I wrote a very similar column about Martínez in early June last year at Viva El Birdos. At the time, he was the only starting pitcher in the NL to eclipse this 25/50 mark and he would maintain that pace throughout the season, finishing with a 25.3 percent strikeout rate and a 51.3 percent rate for ground balls.)
Second, great pitchers like Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, et al, who have never been that ground ball heavy, are omitted from the short list above, and they seem to do just fine. Syndergaard pitched a good game yesterday (67 Game Score on Baseball Reference’s model) and it knocked him out of the list. Bill James is on record as being anti-ground ball pitchers. So ground balls do not automatically correlate with success.
Lastly, I am not a pitching guru. I am not Joe Schwarz, who I am lucky to call a colleague at Birds on the Black. I can spot a four-seamer or a sinker pretty well, but Martínez could throw his new cutter and I might not recognize it until told. Ask me to talk about pitch sequencing and you will not learn much.
In short, there are plenty of ways to pitch successfully in 2018, and I am nothing more than a mere layman on the entire subject. Yet, I feel comfortable believing that pitchers who can maintain a high strikeout and ground ball rate in this current batted ball, run scoring environment have some sort of secret sauce for the simple fact that balls hit in the air are leaving the park like never before.
Carlos Martínez still needs to walk fewer batters. After hitting three Mets yesterday, he could stand to plunk fewer batters, too. Those are potential runners on base for when he isn’t lucky enough to get a strikeout or a ball on the ground, which so far have allowed him to escape starts while stranding 88 percent of runners. That aside, even though he’s been a very good pitcher in his young career – certainly one of the better starters in MLB since 2015 – his accelerated start in 2018, aided by his ability to keep balls out of the air, might be the making of the “next step” that we so often hear when his name comes up.
Credit to FanGraphs Splits Leaderboards for research assistance.