Anatomy of a player: Pedro Martinez

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Mets fans have sure seen enough of Pedro Martinez talking with the trainer the last few years. (Icon/SMI)

Pedro Martinez is the greatest pitcher of his generation, but is now 36 years old and has had a lot of trouble staying on the pitching mound the past few years. The Mets are locked in a heated race for the NL East crown with the team that edged them in the waning days of the season last year; you would think that having Martinez pitching would be a real benefit for them but he has been very un Pedro-esque this year. Assuming he can stay healthy, how much does Pedro have left and can he help push the Mets over the top and into the playoffs?

Normally, this is where I give a quick career recap of the player I am profiling, but I am pretty sure you are already familiar with Martinez so I am just going to link to John Beamer’s excellent comparison between Martinez and now teammate, Johan Santana. I do want to touch on Pedro’s two injuries this year, the first coming at the beginning of the year when he hurt his left hamstring and the other shortly after the All-Star break, when Martinez needed a pain-killing injection because of a balky groin.

In previous years, even if Martinez went down due to injury, when he was on the mound he always seemed to pitch well. With the Mets, he always has had a strikeout rate above nine per game and a walk rate that hovered above two per game. These are fantastic numbers for a pitcher, especially a starter. While he tended to wear down relatively early in games, when he was out there he was still lights out.

This year, not so much: Martinez has a K/G rate of 6.3 with a BB/G rate of 3.3. These numbers are similar to a league average pitcher, and when you tack on the extra hits and home runs he has given up, his ERA has soared to just under five. His FIP is actually worse at 5.55, though his very high home run rate is largely to blame here and his xFIP drops to a more league average 4.78. Now, Mets fans are likely pointing out that Martinez has pitched a lot better recently, with his ERA dropping every month; he has pitched to a cool 3.16 here in August. Could this be a sign that the old Pedro is back and ready to be a major contributor down the stretch for the Mets? Let’s take a closer look.

Martinez’s stuff

With Martinez having thrown more than a thousand pitches tracked by PITCHf/x this year, we can get a good idea of what he is throwing by looking at his PITCHf/x movement chart.

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Martinez is still throwing five pitches: a fastball, sinker, slider and curveball, and his patented change-up. Let’s break them down starting with the fastball.

Martinez’s four-seamer is the pitch he has thrown the most this year—35 percent overall. It has only seven inches of vertical rise on average, but six inches of horizontal movement boring in to a right-handed batter. The fact that his fastball has more horizontal movement than average but less vertical movement should come to no surprise to anyone who has seen him pitch with his lowered arm angle. Martinez used to get this pitch up in the mid 90s, but it has slowed in the past few years. Reports now put him in the mid- to upper-80s but PITCHf/x has his average fastball at almost exactly 90 mph. While this is a tick below MLB average, many pitchers can get by throwing 90. Add in the nice movement he is getting with the pitch and it still is a difficult pitch for right-handed hitters to hit hard. In fact, he is throwing his four-seamer 42 percent of the time to right-handed batters and 28 percent of the time to left-handed batters.

Martinez’s sinker is even more extreme, with less than four inches of vertical rise and nearly nine inches of horizontal movement. That is right in line with some of the best sinkerballers in the game, and throwing it at 89 mph as he does this still is a very nice pitch. Many sinkerballers throw their sinkers nearly 70 percent of the time even though they have have more “rise” and less velocity. Martinez prefers to throw his sinker more to left-handed batters (26 percent) than to right-handed batters (16 percent) and the tailing-away action to left-handed batters almost certainly is the reason.

The other reason is likely how well that pitch meshes with his change-up. Of course, this always has been Martinez’s bread and butter off-speed pitch and you can see how well his change-up is hidden in his sinker. Because change-ups tend to be more effective to opposite-handed batters, Martinez wants to throw his sinker more to lefties so that when the change-up comes they are completely off balance. His change still has nearly 10 mph difference from his sinker, so this still is a huge weapon for him against left-handed batters and occasionally to right-handed batters if he can keep it down in the zone.

Martinez’s other two off-speed pitches are his slider and his curve. His slider is very hard, coming in at 84 mph with little vertical break compared to his fastball. This is close to being a cut fastball and I have read this pitch described as a cutter. Whatever you want to call it, Martinez generates little horizontal movement with this pitch (less than one inch).

Recently, I profiled Gavin Floyd, who also has a hard slider that doesn’t break much horizontally. I mentioned there that I didn’t really like that pitch as you can’t start a pitch like that on the outside corner only to have it fall down and away out of the strike zone to a right-handed batter. This also applies to Martinez, who isn’t generating the movement needed to make this an effective strikeout pitch. Floyd realizes this and uses his slider early in the count and then throws strikes with it. Martinez generally is not using his slider early in the count and not throwing it for strikes.

So Martinez should concentrate on his curveball as his strikeout pitch to right-handed batters. It still is a very strong pitch which he can throw either mostly 12 to 6 or a sweeping 11 to 5, depending on how much spin he imparts. This lets him throw it as a more of a “get me over” pitch or as the nasty, “drop off the table” type.

Martinez is throwing his curve a little more than his slider, 14 to 11 percent, and a little more in strikeout situations, but I’d like to see that ratio go up even more, to say 20 to 25 percent, and make the slider the pitch he throws early in the count as a surprise pitch and the curve as the main strikeout pitch to right-handed batters. (Although, really, this is Pedro we are talking about and who am I to be giving advice to him?)

Pedro’s wear pattern

A while ago, I introduced something I call a wear pattern which is simply the speed and movement of a certain pitch for a pitcher and how that pitch changes over the season. Martinez shows an interesting wear pattern for his fastball.

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You can see Martinez’s first start of the season and then the DL trip and then the second blip after the All-Star break. His last start against the Braves is not listed on this plot, so the last points are the start against Pittsburgh. The thing that jumps out was that in his last start, before needing the pain-killer against Colorado, he had a big drop in his velocity. In his start against the Pirates on Aug. 16 he experienced another drop in velocity, although this was was less severe. Other than that, he has been averaging more than 90 mph with his fastball. If he can keep that up, he likely can emulate the Pedro of old. That said, it looks like every time he throws for a while he has loss of velocity issues. If that is the case, what is more likely is Martinez will show only flashes of his former self.

Conclusions

Even without his best fastball, Martinez does have some weapons. His change-up and his curve still look like they are effective major league pitches. If he gets on the mound and finds he is topping out at only 87 mph, I think Martinez could still gut things out throwing his sinker more often and trying to get more ground balls.

The Mets really need him to stay in the rotation even if he is only a six-inning pitcher these days. So when he comes out, pay close attention to his fastball. If he is throwing more than half above 90 mph early, expect a good start. If he is struggling to reach that plateau, then see if he adjusts and uses his sinker and off-speed pitches more. If he is throwing in the mid-80s or below. then look out: The trainer is likely to come out for a visit.

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