Six weeks ago, Carlos Martínez took the mound at Yankee Stadium and just didn’t have it. In the first inning, thanks in large part to a sinker that was going all over the place, he threw 36 pitches, walking four and allowing a run on a wild pitch. Then he dug in and battled, overcoming his lack of command to put up four scoreless innings while walking a total of eight batters and striking out eleven. He worked around a costly Jose Martínez error at first base in the third and escaped a bases-loaded jam to end the fifth. The offense gave him no run support at all, managing just two hits through the first six innings, and then Mike Matheny inexplicably sent him back out for the bottom of the sixth on 106 pitches; gassed, he recorded only one out and allowed two more runs before Matheny finally gave him the hook.
It was an exasperating, heroic, absurd solo performance from one of the team’s best players, who seemed to put a struggling ballclub on his back and carry it as far as he possibly could. Broadcasters have a whole set of trusty clichés to describe an outing like this. You’re not always going to have your best stuff, they’ll say. It’s about grinding it out, and knowing how to adapt, and doing your best to give the team a chance to win. That’s what separates good pitchers from great ones.
But those aren’t the clichés that the Fox Sports Midwest broadcast team reached for that day. “Sometimes you watch Martínez,” said longtime play-by-play announcer Dan McLaughlin, “and he’s very animated on the mound. You’re not seeing that at all here today.”
“It’s an interesting point,” said his partner, Tim McCarver. “When he’s animated, he’s more effective. He’s happier. That’s his…feeling.”
At 25 years old, Carlos Martínez is the ace of the Cardinals’ staff. Since he became a permanent member of the starting rotation at the beginning of the 2015 season, only Matt Carpenter has provided more value to the club, according to fWAR. He has been a consistent and reliable presence at the top of the rotation, posting a FIP over 4.00 in only two of the fourteen regular-season months he’s pitched in (one of which was the very first). He has overcome the tragic death of his close friend Oscar Taveras and done extensive work to help those living in poverty in his native Dominican Republic. Over the offseason, he and the Cardinals agreed to a $51 million extension that cemented him as a core component of the organization’s future and will likely keep him in the Birds on the Bat through the 2023 season.
Despite all this, Martínez has never managed to escape a particular frame that the team’s broadcasters, most notably those at FSM, are determined to impose on him: constant evaluation of his temperament, his emotional state, his mannerisms and behavior. Halfway through 2015, Bernie Miklasz criticized this tendency to treat Martínez like “some sort of hyperactive, temperamental, overgrown toddler,” and nearly two years later, nothing has changed. Carlos is a grown-ass adult and the team’s best pitcher, and yet when he’s on the mound, talk of mechanics and pitch selection and opponents’ talent and simple bad luck all take a backseat to reductive, paternalistic attempts at amateur psychoanalysis.
McLaughlin, later in the Yankees game: “You don’t know what’s going [on] inside the head of Carlos Martínez, but we’ve seen him throw a lot, seen him pitch with the animated way that he goes about it. You hate to say a guy is disinterested, because you don’t know.”
McCarver: “I think pensive is the word that could be used. You don’t want to see Martínez lethargic in any way.”
In his next start, on the road in Milwaukee, Martínez had another rough first inning, allowing a one-out, three-run homer to Travis Shaw, then issuing two walks before finally retiring the Brewers’ eighth-place hitter. On the call was FSM analyst Al Hrabosky, who has spent years critiquing Martínez’s displays of emotion despite his own well-documented history of embarrassing on-field lunacy. Faced with a player who was now doing the opposite, Hrabosky was eager to jump on the new narrative.
“One thing I noticed in that [Yankees] start,” he told McLaughlin before Martínez had thrown his first pitch, “is, you know, we’ve always tried to say he’s got to calm down a little bit, not be so animated—I thought he was too calm.” After the first-inning home run, he continued: “I think what you said, ‘disinterested,’ is a pretty accurate description of what we’re seeing from Martínez. And that’s disturbing.”
Then, once again, Martínez put his early struggles behind him. As he retired his tenth batter in a row to end the fourth inning, McLaughlin sounded mildly impressed: “He’s starting to get locked in.”
It was a highly revealing sequence of events and commentary. Here are some images of a “disturbingly” “disinterested” Carlos Martínez:
And here are some images of a “locked-in” Carlos Martínez:
Having trouble noticing a difference? That’s okay, here, maybe putting them side-by-side will help:
Two innings in the same game, from the same pitcher, with the same demeanor. The only difference is that he had good results in one and bad results in the other, and the crew at Fox Sports Midwest—and consequently many Cardinals fans—is seemingly incapable of ascribing bad results by Martínez to anything other than a lack of mental fortitude.
So deeply ingrained is this tendency that even a relatively new broadcaster like Jim Edmonds has quickly fallen into the pattern. In Martínez’s most recent start, another strong performance at Coors Field, he allowed a run on a Charlie Blackmon triple in the third inning. It was the first run of the game, on a quintessential Coors extra-base hit by one of the hottest hitters in the majors, but Edmonds didn’t hesitate about where to place the blame. “The concentration level,” he said. “[Martínez is] cruising along, and all of a sudden loses a little bit of concentration out on the mound, and you look up and it’s one-nothing. … I think when he starts cruising, he gets a little lazy, a little lackadaisical, and then all of a sudden, bam, he’s down by a run.”
Let’s face it: there is an unavoidable racial dimension to how we evaluate and discuss different players. Empirical studies have repeatedly proven that subconscious racial bias affects the way broadcasters and sportswriters characterize athletes; white players are disproportionately described as having positive mental attributes (intelligence, hustle, etc.) that allow them to overachieve and outperform their physical shortcomings, while nonwhite players are disproportionately described as having mental deficiencies (poor temperament, lack of focus, etc.) that get in the way of their natural athletic ability. As I’ve tried to make clear when writing about these issues in the past, to acknowledge this undeniable pattern in the way players of different races are talked about is not to slander any particular broadcaster as racist—but that shouldn’t be where the conversation ends.
In the case of Carlos Martínez, it’s possible that the constant talk of his supposed mental shortcomings has less to do with received cultural stereotypes about hot-blooded or lazy Latinos than a simple communication issue. Martínez wouldn’t have gotten to where he is today if he didn’t have the baseball IQ and work ethic to rival any other Cardinals starter, but while broadcasters and reporters can talk at length and in great detail with Adam Wainwright about his curveball grip or with Michael Wacha about the kinetic chain, the language barrier makes such conversations with Martínez much more difficult. Color commentary abhors a vacuum, so in place of a nuanced look at strategy or mechanics, fans are treated to simplistic judgments about emotions and temperament.
Regardless of why it’s the case, Danny Mac and his various partners in the booth—every single one of whom, let’s note briefly, is white—need to find some better ways of talking about Martínez. He’s not a kid anymore, not even by baseball standards, and it’s well past time for broadcasters to stop treating him like one, and start treating him like what he is: the team’s best, toughest, most dependable starting pitcher.