Maddux’s priority: Help Martinez reach top tier of MLB starters

JUPITER, Fla. — Sixty times last season as Washington’s pitching coach, Mike Maddux enjoyed a front-row seat for two of the best pitchers in baseball, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.

Now, in his first spring as the Cardinals’ pitching coach, Maddux sees a young pitcher ready to join the upper echelon of starters.

It’s his job to get Carlos Martinez there.

“Stuff-wise, he’s right on that level,” Maddux said. “His ball moves more than I thought. A lot of movement. A ton of movement. And it comes out easy. Good, short stroke. I didn’t even really realize that.”

Martinez’s expected ascension to ace level stumbled amid mixed results last season. His 12 wins tied Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright for the Cardinals’ team high. Among St. Louis starters, only the now-departed Lance Lynn held an ERA lower than Martinez’s 3.64 mark.

Those 12 wins were his lowest in three years — four fewer than the year prior — and the 11 losses were the most in his career.

Martinez, 26, eclipsed the 200-inning mark for the first time in his career and started at least 29 games for the third consecutive year, earning his second All-Star nod.

“Last year was a good year for me,” Martinez said. “I want to be better this year. We’ve got a better team this year. We need more concentration this year. I think we can make the playoffs.”

Concentration, preparation and even emotional stability — that’s where Maddux becomes part of the solution.

“That’s probably the thing I’m most excited about with Mike Maddux here is just kind of helping him understand,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “To me, it’s the preparation and it’s the consistency. The fact that Mike’s had some of these high-level, front-line-in-the-league kind of starters and a brother in the Hall of Fame, I know Carlos’ antennae is up.”

Sporting a triple-digit fastball complemented by a devastating slider when he arrived in the majors as a 21-year-old in 2013, Martinez’s raw ability has never been in question.

A lack of control and too much of a reliance on strikeouts kept him from pitching deep into games.

“All of the sudden he’s at 100 pitches and can hardly get through five innings,” Matheny said. “He put some movement on the ball. He still had high velocity, but he was figuring out how to pitch and how to be efficient, and how to use movement plus use that velocity, and it took him to completely another level.”

Martinez tossed two complete-game shutouts last season, tying him with three other pitchers — including Scherzer — for the most complete games in the National League.

He struck out three batters for every one he walked.

“I’m going to continue to say he needs to be one of the best pitchers in the league with what he has,” Matheny said. “That’s not pressure; that’s just analyzing what he has. It’s very unique. How can we help him get to that next level?”

The jump to another level takes its next step Saturday when Martinez takes the mound against the New York Mets for his first spring start.

That appearance puts Martinez on a track to make his second consecutive Cardinals Opening Day start.

“I can’t really put a limit on him,” Maddux said. “I would put a floor on him, that he should be better every game because he’s smarter because he learned something in his last game. So we’ll just keep building — take a step every time. He’s got to take a pretty good stairway to heaven there.”

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