(Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire)
If you’re looking for an undrafted player who could end up providing elite production, look no further. A decent amount has been said on Jose Martinez already, but not enough, as his ADP still sits at 253, 28th among 1B, and 60th among OFs. But Dave, why should I get excited about a 29-year-old career minor leaguer? I’ll tell you why.
First, let’s take a look at his baseline stats from last season:
Before you start, I get that the PAs, and counting stats leave something to be desired. He spent all of 2017 as a part-time player. As a result, the HRs, runs, and RBI aren’t pretty. But let’s move past that for right now. I’ll address it later. Let’s take a second to admire that triple slash. In a time when batting average is dying in baseball in favor of power, Martinez posted a pristine average and OBP to go along with a very respectable slugging percentage. But let’s look beyond the surface. First, I’m going to break down his 2017 performance to assess how legitimate it really was. Second, I’m going to assess how this breakout happened. Third, we’ll look at his playing time in 2018, as it is definitely a concern.
To the first point and the primary point of this article, how legitimate is his breakout? In short, very. It’s easy to doubt a 28-year-old rookie’s stellar numbers, but let’s look at his breakout in depth, starting with his plate discipline.
|Rank (min 300 PAs)||77th||33rd||74th||87th||124th|
None of these numbers are elite, but I think it’s worth noting that he ranked in the top 100 in nearly all plate discipline stats, demonstrating a strong ability to get on base. It’s nothing too special, but a 10+ BB% from a rookie is always helpful, as is the sub 20% K rate in a time when more and more guys are striking out over a quarter of the time.
He’s also a balanced hitter with no major weaknesses to any pitch. Take a look at this chart from Brooks Baseball.
First of all, he absolutely punished fastballs and sliders. Looking at more secondary offerings, it appears he struggled against curveballs relative to other pitches, but he actually ranked 41st in xAVG vs curveballs (.268) among hitters with at least 30 PAs against the pitch. Additionally, if you had any concern about his power vs changeups, he ranked 31st in xSLG (.551) among hitters with at least 20 PAs against the pitch, both according to baseball savant. So it doesn’t seem he has any real pitch weaknesses, making him a very difficult out.
These numbers are all well and good, but his strong plate discipline goes well beyond these charts. To truly emphasize it, I have to introduce a concept called “pitch tunneling”. You can read more about it here. The basic idea is that if a pitcher throws two consecutive pitches down the same “tunnel” or path for 80% of the flight of the ball, the hitter will not be able to distinguish the pitches. This excellent article by Joe Schwarz of The Athletic takes a look at pitch tunneling with respect to Martinez and concludes that “he possesses traits that should make him effective versus pitch tunneling. These same traits should go a long way in keeping him out of prolonged slumps as well.” Joe Schwarz is about as bias as they come towards his Cardinals, but it doesn’t make him entirely wrong. The gifs in the article show that Martinez is excellent at reading pitches and this skill will help him maintain consistent performance throughout a full season.
But what do the statcast numbers have to say? Anyone who reads my articles knows I’m a huge proponent of xStats to verify performance and I’ve recently begun dabbling in Baseball Savant as well. The results speak for themselves.
You’re reading those numbers right. In his 307 (Fangraphs vs 306 on xStats somehow), he had the highest xAVG in baseball- a near 20 points higher than his actual and incredibly impressive .309 AVG. In fact, VH% is the only major xStat in which he did not finish among the top 20. However, the rank is among players with 75+ PAs. If we readjust to a minimum of 300 PAs, he ranks 55th in VH%, above the likes of Jose Ramirez, Kris Bryant, and Jose Altuve. These numbers rank among the elite in baseball. Only 5 other hitters recorded a .300 xAVG, .550 xSLG, 8.0 VH%, and -.100 OUTs. They are Joey Votto, Charlie Blackmon, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, and Freddie Freeman, which is special company. Some people are concerned about his .350 BABIP (which was well below his .370 xBABIP), but he hits the ball hard enough that I’m not concerned about it. How do I know he hits the ball hard? Let’s look at baseball savant (min 150 batted ball events):
|Baseball Savant||Avg Exit Vel.||95+ MPH EV%||Barrels/PA|
|Martinez (‘17)||90.1 MPH||41.9%||7.5|
For those who don’t know, barrels are “batted-ball events whose comparable hit types (in terms of exit velocity and launch angle) have led to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage since Statcast was implemented Major League wide in 2015.” You can read more about the stat here. In a sense, it can be compared to xStats’ VH%, as it attempts to capture those hits with the highest percentage of being an extra-base hit, except Martinez fares even better in this stat.
These statistics show Martinez’s elite batted ball ability. His barrels/PA beats out guys like George Springer, Anthony Rizzo, and Carlos Correa, sitting one spot behind reigning NL Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger. This isn’t particularly surprising from someone of Martinez’s stature- he stands 6’6 and weighs 215 lbs- but it definitely feels a bit out of nowhere.
That brings us to the second section, how did this happen? This Fangraphs article from Dave Cameron explains much of it. To summarize, he came up as a high contact, low power guy. Through the minors, he was consistently a 50+% GB hitter and a heavy pull hitter. Coming into 2016, he had 1 minor league seasons with a GB% below 50%- 49.5% in 2014- and consistently sat in the mid to high 40s in pull rate. Note the difference between his 2015 AAA season in the Kansas City system and his 2017 MLB season with St. Louis.
|Martinez (‘15) AAA||396||52.3||20.7||27.0||44.1|
|Martinez (’17) MLB||307||42.1||26.6||31.3||34.9|
Martinez joined the “fly ball revolution” as we say, but the table doesn’t do justice to how he changed his hit profile. Take a look at the spray chart below and you’ll see just how well he spread the ball around in 2017.
Martinez’s spray chart represents an advanced approach at the plate and a threat to push the ball to any area of the field at any moment. Most hitters are not able to hit nearly as many Home Runs to the opposite field as they pull, but Martinez is not most hitters. He pulled 7, drove 6, and sent one to dead center, a fine example of his ability to hit to all fields.
This was all accomplished while Martinez was a part-time player in 2017. Now for the bad news: I can’t tell you that he won’t be a part-time player in 2018. He’s currently the 4th OF and backup 1B. What’s stopping him? Mainly the fact that he’s a terrible fielder. He’s limited to 1B or a corner OF spot and he’s somewhat of a liability when he’s out there.
However, there’s reason for optimism. First of all, he’s done nothing but mash in Spring Training to the tune of a .310/.383/.643 line in 16 games as of writing this. Additionally, he has only 3 strikeouts in 47 PAs, good for a 6.4% K rate, and it’s safe to say the club is taking notice.
“We’re going to have to be creative with everybody. If he keeps hitting, he’s going to play.”Manager Mike Matheny told MLB.com about Martinez. Matt Carpenter, the starting 1B, even said in that same article that he would be willing to move around to 2B and 3B if it meant getting Martinez in the lineup 5 out of 7 games. I’m not sure if Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko agree, but Matheny may not care. Martinez’s bat is forcing its way into the lineup.
In shallow leagues, I understand the hesitation to pick him up because he doesn’t have a starting job right now. However, in deeper leagues, I think he’s a must own until someone else takes his at-bats away from him. Regardless, I’m sure you can get him for next to nothing in your league. Dave Cameron wondered in his article if the Cardinals have found the next J.D. Martinez. It’s certainly possible.