Joe Kelly vs. Carlos Martinez

Leading up to Spring Training for the St. Louis Cardinals, there were plenty of articles written about the incredible starting pitching depth of the Cardinals. They had seven legitimate options for the rotation, and it wasn’t a stretch to say eight. While there was always going to be competition in the rotation, Jaime Garcia’s injury opens up a much more focused competition for the Cardinals’ 5th rotation spot. The four locks for the rotation are Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha. While another pitcher could join the discussion, the battle for the final spot is essentially between Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez. There really is no clear favorite, as Kelly is the incumbent, but Martinez carries much greater upside. The pitcher that fails to capture the 5th slot in the rotation will likely serve as a late-inning reliever for the Cardinals, which may influence the Cardinals’ decision.

Based off Joe Kelly’s impressive performance last season it would be easy to assume he is the favorite to be the 5th starter; however, his advanced metrics do not support his traditional statistics. While Kelly pitched to a 10-5 record with a 2.69 ERA, he had an FIP of 4.01 and an unsustainable 82.4 Left on Base % (LOB%). Joe Kelly also possesses a power sinker in the mid-90s, a plus change-up and solid-average curveball. Despite this power repertoire, Kelly has never struck out many batters, as he has a career K/9 of just 6.00. This is not overly concerning, but does leave Kelly vulnerable to high variability in performance, since he is so heavily dependent upon his defense.

I have, to this point, only pointed out Kelly’s weaknesses in order tamper expectations, but in reality, Kelly is a very talented starter. Kelly is a very strong groundball pitcher (career 51.4%), which has helped him limit his Hr/9 (career .78). To this point in his career, Kelly has done a great job of limiting runs, which is all that is really important. In 2013, Kelly allowed just 3.05 runs per 9 innings. The Cardinals certainly know the concerns with Kelly, but they are also aware of his upside. While Kelly is likely to serve as a late-inning option for the Cardinals if he is not named their 5th starter, he has not been as effective as a reliever. In an admittedly small sample of just 37 innings in 2013, Kelly carried a 3.65 ERA and an opponent’s slash line of .284/.342/.435 as a reliever.

Now looking at Carlos Martinez, it is clear that Martinez is the starter with much more upside, as he can consistently reach triple digits and strike out nearly 9 batters per 9 innings. In a tiny sample of 28 1/3 innings at the Big League level last year, Martinez pitched to a 5.08 ERA, but a much better 3.08 FIP. Most of those innings came in relief, as he made just one start in the Majors, but he was still very impressive. While Martinez’s ERA was high, he was hurt by a high BABIP of .345 and a low LOB% of just 64.9%. Despite carrying substantial upside, Martinez has never thrown more than 108 IP in a professional season, which raises concerns about his ability to handle a starter’s workload for a full season. Also, unlike Kelly, Martinez is likely to thrive in a late-inning relief role, as he carried a 2.33 FIP in 23 2/3 IP as a reliever. If the two pitchers have similar evaluations at the end of spring training, then I believe Martinez will be relegated to the bullpen where he can thrive and further develop as an MLB pitcher.

While it may seem that Kelly is the front-runner to be the Cardinals’ 5th starter, it is clear that each starter has plenty of positives and negatives. Kelly’s negative traits largely revolve around regression to the mean in many areas, such as LOB% and ERA. Whereas Martinez’s positives are very similar to his negatives, as there are many questions about how well he will do as a starter full time. It is always nice to dream on a player’s potential and stuff, he must also prove he can be effective in his role and Martinez has not yet done that. This will be a fun competition to watch in spring training. I believe Kelly will come out of spring training as the Cardinals’ 5th starter because he has proven he can perform as a starter, but also because he is not as strong a fit for the bullpen. If Martinez is not named the 5th starter, he can still be a lights out reliever, whereas, Kelly may not be as effective in such a role.

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I am a Senior in High School and have my own baseball blog at Follow on Twitter @nthonyCacchione.

6 Responses to “Joe Kelly vs. Carlos Martinez”

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  1. jim says:

    A little bit disingenuous to only mention CarMart’s FIP. His xFIP vs LHP: 4.37. Vs RHP: 3.47. Some say this platoon split is due to his lack of a pitch that can get LHPs out. His K% vs LHPs was also quite bad. He got lucky on a low HR/FB% which will regress.

    Joe Kelly also has his problems. Im personally rooting for Carm to work on a pitch to get LHPs out…else he’s slated for the bullpen.

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    • robertobeers says:

      That’s called sample size.

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    • Jay says:

      You’re talking about 11 IP vs LHP…

      I don’t think we should be drawing any conclusions at all from CMart’s 28 ML innings in 2013 but we certainly shouldn’t be further breaking down the tiny sample size and using it to argue in favor of a platoon split.

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  2. semperty says:

    I think, like you said, the issue is upside vs. current talent – which I think the Cardinals have to give to Kelly. They’ve shown time and time again, when they’re ready to win (and win now) they’re not afraid to choose floor over ceiling and stick the player with higher upside in the pen. There are a few things I see as a tad flawed (nothing major, just minor nitpicks).

    First of all, if Kelly doesn’t win the 5th spot in the rotation, it’s hard to envision him anywhere but as a long reliever. As you mentioned, he doesn’t strike guys out, which is what the Cardinals aim for in late innings. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Rosenthal work multiple innings until Motte gets back if CarMar makes the rotation, but they’re not just going to stick Kelly there because he lost out. Kelly’s value, at present, comes from a lot of slightly below average innings – sticking him in the late innings just limits that value he brings.

    Second of all, I think Kelly is exactly what teams need in a 5 spot. You make him sound pretty awful, but most teams would kill for a guy that’s going to give you slightly worse than average production for a ton of innings. Kelly may not strike guys out, and he may be erratic, but his arm seems like its made out of rubber (albeit, he’s young and only had a few opportunities to start).

    My preferred strategy (though it’s likely that no one cares) is to give Kelly the 5 spot while using CarMar in the set-up role until the All Star Break. Let Motte get adjusted to major league pitching again for May, June, and most of July while keeping the stress on the young pitcher’s arm to a minimum. From there, swap Lynn and Martinez. Lynn’s shown a history of getting substantially worse at the 100+ innings, and he gets almost exactly 100 innings in the first half of the season. Let him rest and work in the platoon role that he’s suited for in the second half while getting Martinez ramped up for October. Its possible that Garcia is back by then (I doubt it, but it’s possible), which might force their hand with Martinez or Kelly, but I think the best route for both pitchers (and the team) is to split Martinez and Lynn’s innings.

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    • Jay says:

      This comment was making pretty good sense until you suggested taking Lynn out of the rotation. Lynn is so much better than Kelly and is the only Cardinal pitcher outside of Wainwright who seems like a good bet to top 200 innings. Why on earth would the Cardinals consider taking him out of the rotation? It’s true that Lynn’s FIP has been worse in the second half, but even in the second half it’s half a run better than Kelly has ever managed in the majors. In fact Lynn’s 2nd half FIP bump has been due entirely to struggles in August (his July and Sept/Oct numbers are right in line with his first half numbers) but even in his worst month of August he’s STILL Kelly’s equal. I will never understand how Lynn became so unpopular. Last year his FIP- was right in line with Zack Greinke, Ubaldo Jimenez and Gio Gonzalez and he topped 200 innings. By fWAR he was better than any of those guys. And yet people want him out of the rotation. I don’t understand it.

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      • John says:

        Lynn is unpopular for a few reasons: He comes into camp every year at a different weight (regardless of the training regimine advised by the organization) and repeatedly gains weight every season due to poor eating and training habits. His declines in the 2nd half are not stastical outliers, but are to be expected with a guy with the attitude and mental issues that Lynn has displayed. He is constantly being talked to by Matheny, Lilliquist, and the organization about his attitude problems and the way he shows his displeasure with his performances. More often than not, he is outwardly angry (with himself? with Matheny? To fans it doesn’t matter) when he is pulled from a game, despite it being entirely necessary because of his consistent implosions. Nearly every game he implodes in one of the 4th, 5th or 6th inning and ruins his start because he is unable to control his emotions when things go wrong. As soon as a batter or two goes wrong, he starts screaming on the mound, losing focus, and inadvertantly letting the other team have the edge through his poor body language. Lynn had an ERA+ of 100 in 2012, and 91 in 2013. Those are not good. For comparison, Jake Westbrook has a career 96 ERA+ compared to Lynn’s career 97. Now I’m not saying Lynn should be replaced, but it’s abundantly clear why Lynn is unpopular with the fans.

        Your options are an incredibly lovable personality in Joe Kelly, a guy with electric stuff and 1 or 2 potential in Carlos Martinez, or a guy with mental problems, training problems, and emotional problems who is consistently clashing with coaches. The Cardinals are very concerned with player attitudes(see Colby Rasmus trade) and Lynn has been on thin ice for a while, although he is improving.

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