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  • Carlos Martinez was already one of the most versatile and dangerous pitchers in baseball. Now, he has a new pitch.
By Michael Beller
April 05, 2018

There’s a lot of baseball on every day. When I’m looking for story ideas, I like to check box scores from the previous day, and see if there was anything interesting I didn’t see with my own eyes. If there is, I’ll cue up the video on MLB.TV to see how the numbers in the box score translated on the field.

For example, I didn’t have time to catch any of Wednesday’s Cardinals-Brewers game, a 6–0 win for the Redbirds. I did see, however, that Carlos Martinez spun a gem of a game, tossing 8 1/3 innings of shutout ball, striking out 10 while surrendering four hits and two walks. That’s the sort of box score that forces me to go to the video the following day.

Many times, this sleuthing won’t uncover anything interesting. But, story ideas have to come from somewhere, and finding them over baseball’s six-month regular season can be a slog, even right at the start of the year. You cannot afford to leave any stone unturned.

It took all of three pitches for Martinez to reveal the gem of a story hiding underneath this particular stone. Take a look at his 1–1 offering to Eric Thames in the bottom of the first.

Was … was that a cutter?

Take a look at the GIF once more, and you will see that it was. Martinez has long featured a wipeout slider, but that’s a loopier pitch that sits in the mid-80s. This had similar break, but was much tighter and clocked in at 90 mph. That, my friends, is a cutter. I was so surprised that I went to Statcast to verify what my eyes saw, and the invaluable tracking service confirmed that I wasn’t out of my mind. The pitch to Thames was the first of eight cutters Martinez would throw against the Brewers. As our own Tom Verducci said during the broadcast, if you hang out around Adam Wainwright long enough, you’re going to pick up a cutter “by osmosis.” It seems that process finally took hold with Martinez.

Martinez threw 10,868 pitches in his career before this season. Exactly zero of those were cutters. This isn’t a case of him not getting around to the pitch or never having an opportunity to use it. This is a new pitch added to an already impressive arsenal.

Four of the eight cutters Martinez threw against the Brewers produced whiffs, including one foul tip. Two of those whiffs went for strike three. Thames fouled off one of the cutters he saw, and the other three were balls. The Brewers did, quite literally, nothing against Martinez’s new pitch.

First, let’s take a look at a clean whiff. Martinez’s second cutter of the game came in a 0–1 count against Christian Yelich. Going into Wednesday’s game, Yelich was 4-for-11 with four strikeouts and a walk against Martinez in their respective careers. He saw two pitches, both two-seam fastballs, in his first plate appearance of the game. He grounded into a double play on a ball with an exit velocity of 94.4 mph. In Yelich’s second trip to the plate, Martinez started him off with a slider, which he took for strike one. Martinez then went back to the cutter. Make sure you pay attention to the radar reading in the bottom-right corner.

It may not look like anything special, but when hitters have to worry about a four-seamer in the high-90s and a biting slider like the one Yelich just saw, a low-90s cutter will often throw them for a loop. Yelich took a changeup to run the count to 1–2, and then grounded out to short on a four-seamer. It was a four-pitch at-bat, and each pitch was different. It should be easy to see how the cutter can open new doors for Martinez.

Martinez’s best cutter of the day, taking everything into account, was a 1–2 offering to Jonathan Villar that produced strike three. It was the bottom of the seventh, and both Martinez and the Cardinals were cruising. Martinez had Villar in a hole and goes to a pitch that, at that point of the game, Villar had yet to see.

That’s 90 mph, spotted expertly to both induce a swing and guarantee either no or weak contact. What’s nearly as troubling for hitters, though, is the pitch that came before it.

At first blush, that looks like nothing more than a good 0–2 slider, a pitcher’s pitch in a situation where he has the hitter at his mercy. Sliders and cutters, though, work perfectly in tandem with one another. They have similar break, and both spin the seams on the ball into the red dot that hitters look for to identify a breaking pitch. The difference, however, is that one comes in at 90-92 mph with sharp break, while the other is down at 83–85 mph with a bigger, loopier break. If Martinez is regularly backing up one with the other as well as he did here against Villar, he’s going to be even more of a nightmare for opposing hitters.

If Martinez entered the 2018 season with one identifiable weakness, it was his righty/lefty splits. Martinez holds same-siders to a .221/.287/.311 slash line, but lefties manage to hit .264/.346/.415 against him. Notice anything about the three Brewers in the GIFs in this column? Thames and Yelich are lefties, and Villar is a switch-hitter. Seven of the eight cutters Martinez threw against the Brewers were to lefties.

Martinez has a new weapon, one that appears to be particularly effective in the lone area where he struggled. He may never throw more than a sprinkling of cutters in any start, but he doesn’t need to. Its mere presence elevates his entire game, and gives him a pitch he can go to in spots where he previously got into trouble. Martinez is even better than he used to be, and considering his ceiling already reached up to NL Cy Young, hitters across the league should be scared.

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