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Fear the Attack of the Rooster: Carlos Martinez Can Be a Formidable Closer

The Cardinals bullpen is out of whack, having been strafed for a 5.79 ERA in the early days of September, and a 4.53 ERA over the last 16 games. But if you’ve listened to my radio show on 101ESPN, you’ll know I’ve been emphasizing the root cause of the bullpen’s problem … and it’s a big one.

Too many walks.

Not enough strikeouts.

Living (and sputtering) on batted-ball luck.

Since renovating the bullpen on July 27, at the start of a three-game home series vs. the Cubs, Cardinals’ relievers were a happily lucky group for the next two or three weeks. But eventually the luck turned. It will always turn when your bullpen has a weak 19 percent strikeout rate, the second smallest in the majors since July 27. And a dangerously  inflated 12.3% walk rate, the second highest in MLB since July 27. And is yielding the third-lowest batting average (.264) on balls in play by a bullpen since July 27.

If you draw the line at Aug. 19 — that’s 16 games ago — the Cards’ bullpen has a terrible strikeout rate of 17.9% (28th among 30 teams), a ballooning walk rate of 15.4% (worst in the majors.) And the luck began to go the other way; the STL relievers rank 15th in the majors with a .297 against them on balls in play. Not surprisingly, the bullpen has a fielding independent (FIP) 4.98 ERA over the last 16 games, seventh worst in the majors over that time.

For whatever it’s worth, the Cardinals’ bullpen has a 5.42 FIP in the first five games of September. That’s because of the usual combination (puny strikeout total, blown-up walk rate, and changing fortunes in batted ball luck — with opponents batting .313 on balls in play.

Enter the one … the only … the legend…

El  Gallo. 

With Bud Norris worn down …

And Jordan Hicks, 21, having been pushed hard during his rookie season …

And Dakota Hudson walking more batters than he’s struck out …

El Gallo has come the rescue.

If manager Mike Shildt and pitching coach Mike Maddux believe they must appoint a designated closer (or two),  Carlos Martinez has to be the most prominent presence in that pressure role. And the one thing we know about El Gallo is his desire to go after hitters, and hold nothing back. He can’t do that as a starter. As a closer he can attack, attack, and attack. As a reliever, Martinez has the right mindset. An aggressive mindset. A big spot doesn’t rattle him. A big stage doesn’t frighten him. Martinez loves the big-stage setting.

Since being shifted to the Cardinals bullpen on Aug. 21, after being reinstated from the DL, Martinez has impressed as a reliever. And he was in his finest form Wednesday night in Washington, taking a fire hose to the Nats’ comeback. After the Cardinals seemed on the verge of squandering yet another huge lead — they led this game 7-1 — Martinez preserved his team’s 7-6 victory and series win. After losing three straight games, the Cardinals won Tuesday and Wednesday and took the series by winning two of three in D.C.

Martinez pitched the eighth and ninth innings, and got the six outs the Cardinals needed to secure an important win. He faced nine hitters — giving up two hits and walking no one. Martinez struck out four of the nine hitters faced ,  including called third strikes on Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman, and the game-ending whiff of Michael Taylor. Needing a run to tie, the Nationals put two guys on to start the ninth inning (soft single, and and error) but Martinez fought his way out of the jam to get the save.

Striking out four of nine? Now THAT’S a positive strikeout rate. And that’s why Martinez needs to be utilized extensively in those late-game high leverage jams. He possesses a rare combination:  A moving 98 mph fastball for a potent strikeout punch, and the ability to drop sinkers at the right time for a high groundball rate to induce double plays.

In his 8.1 innings of relief since transferring to the bullpen — small sample, I know — Martinez has been scratched for only one earned run. He has a 1.08 ERA, has allowed nothing but singles, and opponents are batting .154 against him. And while four walks in 8.1 innings is too many, keep in mind that his first two walks came in his first game back from the DL. He’s walked only two, and struck out seven, in his last six relief appearances.

In his short time as a reliever (this season) Martinez has pitched effectively with runners on base, runners in scoring position. He’s pitched with authority in high leverage situations, and save situations.

In five save situations Martinez has been dinged for three singles in 21 at-bats and has struck out 28 percent of his 25 batters faced. Opponents have batted .143 with a .423 OPS against Martinez when he’s going after a save.

Hitters must fear the Rooster.

There are two potential concerns with using Martinez as a closer:

1. Wildness. Can’t have opponents walking in the park.

2. Will his right arm object? Martinez has been on the DL three times this season. All three injuries happened on his right side: Lat strain, oblique strain,  shoulder inflammation.) There’s the frequent routine for any reliever — warm up, sit down, warm up, sit down, warm up . And there’s the physical challenge of having to pitch on consecutive days when you’ve been a starter accustomed to pitching every fifth day.

If Martinez stays healthy and strong, he has what it takes to be a formidable closer. He’s got the right stuff.  El Gallo es duro.  

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More – A Tale of Two First Basemen: Matt Adams, Luke Voit and Reverse ‘Devil Magic’