*Last night's loss to the Pirates was the type of "avoid-any-highlights-at-all-costs" loss that I prefer to discuss almost anything else. So here we are.
The Cardinals franchise has been around for a very long time. Dozens of teams established their footing in Major League Baseball at different times while the league was still shaping itself into what it is today. Some a few years before the Cardinals, some after. By almost any measure of modern baseball, however, the Cardinals are considered an inaugural franchise.
And it is within those parameters that it always surprised me that the Cardinals do not have a larger historical pedigree when it comes to starting pitchers. There's Bob Gibson, obviously. There's Dizzy Dean if you stretch all the way back to the '30s and the days of the Gashouse Gang. Bob Forsch. Carpenter and Wainwright, of course. But if sorting by all-time strikeouts for Cardinals, you don't have to go too far until you run into a José DeLeón, a solid pitcher to be sure, but one who only spent just over four seasons with the club. To date, Gibson remains the only Cardinal with at least 2,000 strikeouts (and for good measure, he struck out 3,117).
Thing is, I have always been wrong. The Cardinals are not outliers and their pitching history stacks up just fine when compared to their historical peers, at least when it comes to individual pitchers compiling strikeouts. The Pirates, Reds, White Sox, and Athletics have not had a single pitcher with at least 2,000 strikeouts while wearing their uniform. The Cubs, Phillies, Orioles, and Yankees have only had one.
The lesson here is that 2,000 strikeouts is a lot. And pitchers are fragile. They get hurt. Also, like any other position on the diamond, sometimes pitchers leave and join another team. If a team can get five healthy seasons from one starting pitcher then they're doing pretty well.
That brings us to Carlos Martínez, the current ace of the staff, who is off to his best start since he became a regular starter in 2015. In over 37 innings pitched this season, Martínez has an ERA under 1.50. Take a look at his peripheral stats and he has likely been a bit lucky. Wipe his first underwhelming start from the books and Martínez has stranded 98.3 percent of runners on base. That's a number that's going to regress, not to mention for the staff as a whole.
But that's not what this post is about. Rather, this a quick look at where Martínez could fit in with this franchise for strikeouts when his days as a Cardinal are over. Similar to the DeLeón example, in a rather short period of time Martínez has already snuck into the top-20 in franchise history for fanning batters. Take a look (via Baseball Reference's Play Index).
If both team options are exercised on his current contract, Martínez will be a Cardinal through 2023. By any conservative estimate, although also assuming he will avoid injury (which is not being conservative at all when it comes to starting pitchers but whatever), Martínez should only look up to Gibson in total strikeouts for the franchise by the time this contract ends, when Martínez will barely be on the other side of 30. By the end of the 2019 season he could conceivable rank in the top five or be very close.
Taking it another direction, if Martínez equals his minimum strikeout total for a season since he became a starter (174 in 2015) this year, he will join Gibson and Dean as the only starting pitchers in Cardinals history to have struck out at least 174 batters in four consecutive seasons. Gibson, Dizzy...Martínez. That is exclusive company. (And, again, for good measure, Gibson struck out at least 174 batters ten times over eleven seasons from 1962 to 1972.)
From that standpoint, I'm not sure Martínez has received enough credit for his stability, thus far. Aside from a few quick DL trips here or there, he's basically taken the mound every five days going on his fourth straight season. Something that should not be taken for granted with starting pitchers. And Martínez is still learning, still adding to his deep repertoire. He's still one of the few starting pitchers in this fly ball revolution of a league who excels at striking out batters and inducing ground balls.
And as a result, Martínez is on a fast track to being one of the most prolific strikeout pitchers in Cardinals franchise history. Possibly one of the best, too.
Photo credit: Jeff Neihaus