JUPITER, Fl. (KMOV.com) -- The opening scene in Marvel’s "X-Men: Days of Future Past" reached into the storylines of comic history to bring one of the most terrifying villains to the screen.
Sentinels, created to hunt and destroy mutants, were so formidable because of their ability to adapt. They studied as they fought, absorbing the powers of their opponents and becoming whatever they needed to be to win. How could the X-Men, the most supremely gifted forms of humanity alive, possibly defeat an enemy who was never the same thing twice?
Carlos Martinez seems to have landed on the same strategy.
The 25-year-old righty already has a deeper assortment of pitches than most pitchers 10 years his senior. With two different fastballs, a changeup and a slider, all able to appear in any count to any hitter, his ability to change his attack was what made him so exciting in the early years of his career.
Last season, he changed again.
“This is a guy that will throw three innings at 91 (mph) because he just wants to and it’s fun,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “Then he gets to a point where he feels like, ‘Why not show them 98?’ and he does that too.”
Martinez weaponized variant velocity in 2016, taking speed off to increase pitch movement or pouring it on to overpower his opponent. He could finesse like Adam Wainwright or muscle up like Noah Syndergaard. It varied from start to start; sometimes from hitter to hitter.
In 2017, his evolution continues.
“I’m really working on my breaking ball. That’s going to make the innings go faster,” Martinez said. “That’s what I think my strongest pitch is and that’s what I’m going to work on.”
His slider, already dominant at high velocity, is providing the seed for a new pitch. By slowing it down, he’s able to create a breaking ball closer to a true curve. It arrives later, featuring a deeper break than anything hitters have seen from him before.
According to Brooks Baseball, Martinez had never thrown any pitch tracked by the PITCHf/x tool as a curveball before 2016. He threw 24 last season, an indication of his intrigue but lack of comfort with the new pitch. This spring he’s investing in it.
The idea is to coax bad contact, he says. That in turn will make innings move faster, limiting his pitch count and keeping fielders sharp behind him.
“You have to mentally stay in there [when he’s pitching],” said Randal Grichuk after Martinez’s three inning spring debut in which he faced the minimum amount of batters. “Because when you have him at his best it’s unbelievable. It looks like a video game out there.”
It’s an apt description. As video games evolved, the artificial intelligence has better learned to adapt to players as they play. Martinez came into the league with the ability to strike out just about anyone. But that means more pitches and shorter outings. So he learned something new.
“Getting them out on ground balls is what we work on over here when we’re doing our workouts,” he said Wednesday. “I think that’s what has the best results and that’s what I’m going to stick to.”
Most pitchers have a specialty they stick to to survive in the majors. Some finesse their way to ugly contact. Some target strikeouts to best suppress opposing lineups. Some only jab with their fastball, choosing to throw a knockout with their signature secondary pitch.
Martinez is something different. He’s all of those pitchers at any time he chooses; the Christian Bale of the bump.
“It just depends on if he wants to pitch late in the game. If he wants to go out there and strike everybody out, I think he’s got a good chance of doing that. But he’s going to be at 100 pitches by the time he gets to the middle of the sixth inning,” Matheny said. “I think he’s a guy who realizes there’s a time where you gotta have a punchout and that’s part of the maturity. He has the stuff and he knows when he needs to pull that out. There’s other times he knows he can get a quick out or a double play or an early-in-the-count swing and just get a ground ball.”
Hitters may face Martinez three times a game and stand in against three different pitchers. How they respond to one approach teaches him who to be for the next encounter. Very few pitchers have the luxury of such adaptation; to be able to choose between 20 strikeouts or a 90-pitch complete game. Even fewer are 25 and have a range of velocity that spans 30 miles per hour.
In Martinez, the Cardinals have the mutant killer; a dominant force not dependent on one power, but the ability to have any power he chooses.