At a present rate of 26.8%, St. Louis Cardinals ace and 2017 National League All Star Carlos Martinez is striking out hitters more frequently this season than he has in any season since being promoted to the big leagues back in 2013. While Martinez has always a possessed swing and miss repertoire, not until the 2017 campaign has he found his name among the league’s strikeout leaders. Back in 2015, after two years in the bullpen, Martinez became a full-time starting pitcher. As you’d logically expect, starters tend to have a more complex repertoire than relievers. All that being said, here are the pitches Martinez throws (since becoming a starter), along with their respective frequencies and velocities:
As you can see, Martinez (the starter) is comfortable throwing four different pitches against either batter handedness and each one of these pitches grades out, at worst, above average. He can throw the same pitch back-to-back, or he can work off one pitch to make the next pitch even tougher to hit. Individually, all four pitches are capable of inducing swings and misses (with his offspeed pitches predictably leading the way). But it doesn’t stop there, and Zach Gifford, @cardinalsgifs, and I set out to track, analyze, and ultimately visualize the importance of pitch sequencing — a task I promised to tackle last offseason while I was still an editor at Viva El Birdos. Sure, some baseball analysts don’t believe in the existence of pitch sequencing, but in my experience–in which I have talked directly to professional hitters–I have become a firm believer in its effect on matchups between pitchers and hitters.
When it comes to pitch sequencing, not only does velocity matter, but also location. If able, working off the two can lead to even more success. The ageless phrase “changing the eye level of the hitter” directly describes an aspect of pitch sequencing. Pitchers enjoy inducing swings and misses by the hitter, but in the end, called strikes count just the same. And both types of strikes can be attained through effective use of pitch sequencing. For the purpose of this exercise, Zach and I settled on dividing the hitting zone five times–with zone four representing up and in regardless of batter handedness and zone two being down and away regardless of handedness. Zone five–commonly known as “middle-middle”–is an area to avoid if the end goal is to induce swinging or called strikes.
Before introducing the literal trail-blazing artwork created by @cardinalsgifs, I figured it would be best to first familiarize you all with the process Zach and I went through before our ultimate selection of six sequences set aside for further discussion. Using BaseballSavant.com, Zach compiled every single two-pitch sequence that either led to a swing and miss or resulted in a called strike, from the beginning of 2015 through Martinez’s second-to-last start against the Nationals. Using the zones above, along with any differences in velocity, Zach created a “scoreboard” to help evaluate each two-pitch sequence, and it was this scoreboard that proved instrumental in determining the six sequences.
Versus Aaron Hicks (BrooksBaseball At Bat)
Pitch number one (red trail) is a 97.8 MPH fourseamer up, in, and out of the zone, and based on Hicks’ body language, it’s clear Martinez got his attention with the set-up pitch. And despite Martinez mouthing the exact pitch (“slider, slider!”) he wanted to throw next (see the GIF below), Hicks still stood no chance on strike three, flailing at the down and away, 87.3 MPH slider (yellow trail).
This sequence, using the zone charts embedded above, represents a 4-2, fourseamer-slider sequence, and upon review of the aggregate data (2015-2017), Martinez frequents this approach when looking to induce both swings and misses (23.7%) and called strikes (13.2%). By itself, the whiff rate for Martinez’s slider is 16.43%, so an increase to 23.7% is an obvious improvement. Think this style of sequence is limited to left-handed hitters only? Don’t worry, it’s not, as you’ll see next:
Versus Ian Desmond (BrooksBaseball At Bat)
Martinez starts the sequence with a riding 95.8 MPH fourseamer (red trail), close enough to the zone to induce a swing, but placed high enough to lead to nothing more than a foul tip. After throwing three straight fourseamers — with the last one being the fastest — it’s not surprising to see such a helpless swing by Desmond on the 87.6 MPH slider (even with such a disparity in release point). As I stated above, regardless of batter handedness, fastball up and in, followed by slider down and away has been an extremely effective sequence for Martinez in his career as a starter.
Versus Mac Williamson (BrooksBaseball At Bat)
Switching things up a bit, Martinez, too, likes to start hitters down and away with the slider and finish them off with a fourseamer up and in — in this case, a 2-4 sequence. Pitch number one is 88.1 MPH slider (yellow trail) down and off the outside corner, but tempting enough to get a slight knee buckle out of Williamson, setting up the put-away 99.1 MPH fourseamer (red trail) perfectly. Since 2015, the 2-4, slider-fourseamer sequence has led to whiffs 21.1% of the time — considerably higher than his usual rate on the fourseamer (7.14%). With this in mind, you can score one point for the effect of pitch sequencing considering, overall, the fourseamer isn’t usually turned to as a swing-and-miss pitch.
Versus Ryan Braun (BrooksBaseball At Bat)
Executing a 2-4, slider-fourseamer sequence versus a hitter like Mac Williamson (career 77 wRC+) is one thing, but succeeding with it against a hitter of Ryan Braun’s caliber is a much more challenging feat. Despite allowing a home run in the at bat immediately prior, Martinez went to work on Braun — setting him up with a down and away, 86.4 MPH slider and putting him away with an up and in, 98.2 MPH fourseamer — the fastest pitch of the at bat. And for good measure, let’s take one more look at a 2-4, slider-fourseamer sequence — this time against the defending National League Most Valuable Player:
Versus Kris Bryant (BrooksBaseball At Bat)
There has been an influx of pitch tunneling articles published this year (including some of my own), and here, Martinez does a tremendous job matching up his release point on what ends up being two very different pitches. Pitch one is an 86.0 MPH slider (yellow trail) at the very bottom of the zone, and pitch two is a 98.2 MPH fourseamer (red trail) at the very top of the zone. Vertically, it’s nearly impossible to throw two pitches, with both in the strike zone, that are further away from each other than these two pitches. When you toss in the horizontal difference, along with opposite pitch movements, and a nearly identical release point, it’s not surprising Martinez was able to strike out Bryant so effortlessly.
Versus Jonathan Villar (BrooksBaseball At Bat)
Up to this point, I have focused exclusively on two-pitch sequences, but upon reviewing Martinez’s strikeout of Villar, I felt compelled to include a third pitch. Pitch one is a 97.9 MPH fourseamer (red trail) that paints the corner perfectly. Villar does a good job fighting the pitch off, but he’s been put on notice that Martinez isn’t afraid to climb the ladder with his fourseamer. With the count 2-2, Martinez just barely misses the outside corner for a called strike three with an 86.6 MPH slider (yellow trail). At 3-2, Villar was probably looking for a fastball, believing that this was the pitch Martinez felt comfortable to throw in order to avoid issuing a walk. As stated in my opening paragraphs, though, Martinez throws four of his pitches fairly evenly and somehow threw an even better slider the second time around — leading to a harmless, over-the-top swing by the Brewers leadoff man. Here you see a same-zone, same-pitch attack by Martinez which is made effective by, first, the pitch being nasty in itself and second, the mere threat of Martinez turning to a wholly different offering.
Bottom line, Martinez has undeniably limped into the All-Star break with two consecutive bad starts. But no, his poor performance has absolutely nothing to do with his hair style. Rather, here’s to hoping he can capitalize on his inherent ability to sequence pitches in the second half. Other than the sequences detailed above, Martinez has experienced swing-and-miss success by going down and away (zone 2) with a sinker-slider combination (41.6% whiff rate) to righties as well as starting up and away (zone 1) with a fourseamer and then down and away (zone 2) with a changeup to lefties (25% whiff rate).
Speaking of changeups, are you wondering where all of the changeup sequences are? If you have read me before, you know my infatuation with the changeup. Because of this, I am saving an entire post to be centered on the changeup, and its role in Marinez’s success as a two-time All-Star pitcher. In the meantime, consider the 2-2 (down and away, down and away), changeup-slider sequence to left-handed hitters. This sequence has led to a called strike 43.8% of the time. Why is that, you wonder? Well, Martinez exhibits a propensity to attack zones back-to-back, frequently with his offspeed pitches. If he paints a zone with the changeup as the set-up and follows it up with a slider — but the hitter sees changeup out of the hand — he’s going to give up on the pitch very quickly only to watch it break back over the outside corner as a backdoor slider (a pitch I’ve openly drooled about in the past).
If at all interested — yes, I am talking to you, Derek Lilliquist — you can access Zach’s data collection here.
Credit to Zach Gifford (@zjgifford) and @cardinalsgifs for their tireless work on this post. I cannot thank them enough for the time and effort they put in to make writing this so enjoyable. Follow both of them on Twitter as we have quite a few fun collaborations still to come.