The Texas Rangers have begun to play really well of late, pulling themselves into playoff contention from the depths of early season struggles. One boon to the Rangers play this season has been the pitching of starter Nick Martinez. This past Tuesday, Martinez pitched six shutout innings against the Oakland Athletics, allowing one hit while walking three and striking out just as many. Overall, Martinez has enjoyed a fair amount of success this year when compared to his rookie campaign, owning an ERA drop of almost two full runs from 2014 to 2015.
Although Martinez has a 4.20 FIP and even more regression-suggestive 4.82 xFIP, its obvious Martinez is doing something better this season, or at least different. It’s clear that Martinez has changed a few things up, and is pitching different than before. But what’s so different? The answer lies in the right-hander’s release point, and some of the changes that have come with it.
In fact it appears Martinez, who was drafted as an infielder by the Rangers in the 18th round of the 2011 draft, has found a release point that works. According to Brooks Baseball—which can only be accurately described as the tool baseball researchers use to part the Red Sea of raw data Moses-style—Martinez has actually shifted his release point around a half inch. And, as these charts show, it’s a shift away from his body for all of his pitches from 2014 to 2015. However, a shift in release point isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
When pitchers drop their release points you will typically see is less velocity, more movement. This is the case with Martinez. In essence, Martinez—or possibly pitching coach Mike Maddux—realized he could be more effective by trading off velocity for movement. And, so far, that has been true.
But it’s not as if Martinez is trading of 5-10 mph of velocity. The reasoning behind that is that his new release point isn’t really as much of a drop as it is an attempt to get more outside the ball. On average, each of his pitches—with the exception of his slider—are only down by about 1 mph. And with this decrease in velocity Martinez is now getting better movement on his pitches, specifically vertical movement. This movement has been leading to much more groundballs, typically a good thing for pitchers.
[table caption=”Pitch Movement”]
2014 H-movement (in.),-5.13,-7.64,-10.02,1.12,3.82
2015 H-movement (in.),-6.34,-7.92,-9.58,1.47,5.23
2014 V-movement (in.),10.00,8.06,4.45,0.39,-8.04
2015 V-movement (in.),9.14,7.20,5.24,-2.07,-9.08
[table caption=”Groundball Rate”]
However, there is one pitch in particular that has excelled as a result of Martinez’s new release point—his slider. Let’s first take a look at how his sliders’ usage has changed.
Last season, Martinez pitched almost exclusively with his fourseam fastball—using it 61.93% of the time. Combine that with the fact that the righty’s next most-frequently visited pitches were his slider—coming in at a whopping 14.89%—and his change-up—which was used 10.84% of the time—and you come to one conclusion. Martinez appeared to have really lacked confidence in a secondary pitch last season. He dabbled with a couple, but ultimately he came out of the gate as a fastball pitcher in his rookie campaign.
Which, don’t get me wrong, can work for some. But the amount of guys that last without the use of a solid secondary pitch as starters is probably as close to abysmal as you can get.
And let’s not forget, Martinez’s slider last season wasn’t an awful pitch. Opponents hit .263 off of it with a whiff/swing of around 35%, which is not terrible at all. However, the slider didn’t really get the chance to showcase itself with such a relatively little usage.
Here’s how Martinez’s slider usage—and repertoire in general—looked in 2014 according to Brooks Baseball:
And here’s how it looks thus far in 2015:
As you can see, Martinez uses his slider primarily against right-handed batters. Actually, he’s even begun to use it almost exactly as much as he uses his fastball against righties. As for left-handed batters, we are beginning to see the youngster use it as an out pitch more than any of his other secondary pitches—a sign he is gaining confidence in it.
But what’s the cause for the sudden uptick in usage? Although it’s only around an 8% increase, the higher usage of sliders points to an improvement on the pitch itself—which comes from the lowered release point.
As I just mentioned before, Martinez’s slider was an exception to his overall moderate velocity drop. Actually, it’s not so much that it was an exception. Martinez’s slider excelled at dropping in velocity, leading to more overall movement. Down to an average velocity of 81.99 mph from 85.15 mph, Martinez was able to redirect the lost-velocity into an extra almost 2.50 inches of vertical movement. Basically, Martinez has transformed his slider into a faster curveball in terms of drop.
Here’s 2014 (top) compared to 2015 (bottom):
The change in Martinez’s slider has led to immediate results. Opponents have hit .203 off of the pitch in 2015, combined with a power-less .288 slugging percentage. Not to mention that hitters are whiffing on the pitch more than ever before, as Martinez’s 39.05% whiff/swing percentage ranks 13th out of the 42 pitchers that have thrown the pitch at least 200 times this season.
It’s clear that the 24-year old Martinez, who starts today against the Minnesota Twins, has made some adjustments this season. Adjustments that have been helpful to the overall improvement of his game. Although he’s likely due for some regression—as such a high FIP (4.20), xFIP (4.82), and LOB% (80.0%) suggest—Martinez’s overall performance shouldn’t be a something we would expect to see at extremely high levels yet.
I’ll admit, that sounds kind of strange. While great overall performance is something everyone would love to see, it’s not just going to happen overnight. One small step for Nick Martinez, one giant leap for the Rangers. Take for example Martinez’s strikeout and walk numbers.
From the outside, a 5.43 K/9 (14.0% K%) seem very subpar, right? Now realize that those numbers are an improvement over his 4.94 K/9 (12.6% K%) in 2014. The same thing is true for his walk numbers. A 3.03 BB/9 (7.8% BB%) this season compared to a 3.53 BB/9 (9.0% BB%) last season show a positive outcome from some of the adjustments Martinez has made.
And as long as Martinez continues to trust the adjustments he has made mechanically, those changes should continue to help him put up good numbers. They might even start to result in numbers that look a lot more sustainable, which is certainly something that could help the Rangers moving forward.
–Videos taken from Baseball Savant