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System Sundays: Jeremy Martinez and a Swing Remake

Examining the evolving swing of the Cardinals’ fourth-round selection in this year’s draft.

St. Louis Cardinals v Philadelphia Phillies
Okay, different Martinez. Cool picture, though.
Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

One of the more exciting developments in the Cards’ minor league system this year has been the step forward taken by Carson Kelly, the club’s top catching prospect. For a long time, it’s been unclear what the Redbirds were going to do when Yadier Molina started to seriously decline, and whether through a lack of emphasis on the position in the system, a failure on the part of the coaching staff, or simple bad coin flips, the organisation has had absolutely no luck developing a catching prospect of note since the time Yadi made his way to the majors. (Tony Cruz is the most successful catching development story of the past dozen years.)

A couple years ago, though, the organisation approached Carson Kelly, a former first-round selection and at the time a third baseman, about converting to catcher. A strong throwing arm, intelligent approach, and plus short-range athleticism and quickness but a lack of footspeed and range all seem to have factored into the decision. Kelly made the move, and almost immediately began to excel behind the plate, showing off far better defensive skills than anyone really had a right to expect in such short order. His hitting, however, always a bit of a question mark (coming out of an Oregon high school, the power potential was what stood out, but the approach was very raw, in the way you might expect from a non-baseball-hotbed player), took a further step back. The commitment to learning a new position played a part, as did the pure physical toll of catching.

This year, the bat started to come around a bit more for Kelly. He began the season at Double A, and posted a 115 wRC+ for Springfield. He moved up to Memphis midseason, and put up a near-league average line there, as well. Now he’s up with the big club, mostly just soaking up the scenery in that very old-school way of promoting a prospect the September before you think he’s ready, but has also collected his first big league hit and gotten into one blowout. All in all, it’s been a banner year for Carson Kelly. (Not a huge banner, but a banner all the same.)

I say all that to give context for this: the Cardinals appear, for the first time in over a decade, to have a real, live, catching prospect coming along toward the major leagues. Perhaps even more interestingly, though, is the fact they have another player at the same position, drafted just this year, who is, at least to me, at least as exciting as Carson Kelly, and if I’m being honest, even more so.

I speak of Jeremy Martinez, the former USC Trojan the Redbirds selected this past June in the fourth round, who since entering professional baseball has looked like the catching prospect equivalent of Matt Carpenter or Greg Garcia: Jeremy Martinez does nothing but get. On. Base.


Okay, so I’m writing this (or at least started it; currently finishing it up Sunday morning), while watching the game Saturday night. And if I’m not very much mistaken, Rick Horton just spent about a minute or so telling a story about how Chase Anderson, the Brewers’ starter for the night, wears a complete outfit that belonged to his now-deceased father before every home start. Did I really hear that right?

Ricky also followed the story up by praising how special that is, then tossing in something about how Anderson is very ‘mission-focused’, I believe was the phrase, so I assume Anderson is a hyper-religious Christian and thus can do no wrong in the eyes of Horton, but I believe I also heard that Anderson’s father died in 2012.

I have to say, I try not to judge the way people live their lives, but dressing up as a dead relative four years after they died as a ritual is not ‘special’. That’s creepy. And crazy. If one of your parents had a piece of jewelry or a cowboy hat or something that you like to wear to kind of have a piece of them with you, hey, that seems alright. Dressing up as one of your parents, in a complete outfit? That seems....less alright. If it was immediately after the death, I would think, “Oh, that person is clearly trying to work through some things. Maybe someone should suggest he/she get some help.” Four years later?

I hate our fucking broadcasters so much.

Anyhow, Jeremy Martinez. Sorry for the brief detour into crazy town, everybody; I was completely derailed by one of our broadcasters praising a potential serial killer. (Seriously, would Horton be super psyched if it was Anderson’s mother? Or if it was someone who didn’t show up at all the Christian-focused ballpark bullshit?) Sorry, enough of that.

I actually scouted Martinez a bit when he was coming out of Mater Dei High School in California a few years back, but never got around to writing him up. Good catch and throw skills, solid contact abilities, moderate power, not enough athleticism to really profile at any non-catching premium defensive positions. A guy I thought should probably stay behind the plate, but it’s really, really, really hard to project catcher defense at the high school level. He was potentially an edge case for a Persons of Interest post going into the draft, but I ended up not going with him.

Coming into the 2016 season at USC, the overall scouting report for Martinez hadn’t changed all that much, with the exception he had shown fairly remarkable on-base skills for the Trojans. He was very hard to strike out, drew a lot of walks, but had essentially zero power on contact. His catching skills had developed to the point is much more a sure thing he could stay behind the plate, but there were still questions about whether he would ever have enough pop in the bat to be anything more than an ultra-selective college hitter.

As the spring went on, however, it became apparent something had changed for Martinez. His approach had subtly altered, for one thing; after drawing 32 bases on balls in 279 plate appearances his sophomore season (11.5%), that number dropped to just 19 walks in 256 plate appearances in 2016 (7.4%). Ordinarily, a big drop in walk rate like that would represent a red flag for me, but in this case there were other numbers that pointed toward the newfound aggression being a positive.

First, Martinez’s strikeout rate actually fell; in 2015 he struck out in just over 6% of his trips to the plate, which is already elite, but in 2016 that number dropped even further to just 4.7%. So there appeared to be no erosion whatsoever in his contact abilities in spite of a more aggressive approach.

Second, and even more notably, was the power spike that accompanied his new approach at the plate. In 2015, in those 279 plate appearances, Martinez hit a single home run and knocked thirteen doubles. His slugging percentage was an anemic .367 (.071 ISO). In 2016, however, with the new ruthless aggression Jeremy Martinez in full effect (sorry; I was watching a Kurt Angle match earlier today), he slugged six homers, eighteen doubles, and added two triples for good measure, all in 23 fewer plate appearances. His isolated slugging percentage as a junior jumped to .188, helping push his overall OPS from .762 to 1.023.

In other words, Jeremy Martinez basically made the Matt Carpenter 2015 jump. He traded in passivity for selective aggression, and swapped pure on-base skills for an ability to drive the ball in a way he really never had before. I knew Martinez was having a good season even early on, and meant to follow up on him (he was definitely a Persons of Interest candidate at that point), but he sort of got lost in the churn of trying to write up various other players, and slipped through the cracks. It always frustrates me when that happens with players, but I simply can’t keep track of everyone. As we approached the draft, I realised just how good a season Martinez had, and he jumped up several notches in my estimation from where he was back in, say, April. The fact the Cardinals snagged him in the middle rounds of the draft in June made me borderline ecstatic.

Also, Chase Anderson is making the Cardinals look like complete shit hitting tonight. So perhaps the Glorious Becoming he’s scribbled about in his hundreds of notebooks is coming along better than I expected.

Since entering pro ball, Martinez has shown the exceptional plate approach he’s possessed since high school, and perhaps even taken it to a new extreme. In 235 plate appearances (so nearly as many as one of his college seasons), this summer, playing for the State College Spikes (the Spikes are the higher level of the two short-season clubs the Cardinals field, not including complex-based teams), Martinez put together a .325/.419/.433 line, good for a 157 wRC+. He struck out just 6.8% of the time, while compiling a 13.6% walk rate. He hit just one home run, but did show solid extra-base power with fourteen doubles and a pair of triples. Facing professional competition for the first time in his life, Jeremy Martinez more than held his own, leaning on his discipline as he worked to adjust to a new level of ability around him.

An interesting thing happened as I was scouting Martinez after the draft in order to write him up for the VEB prospect list this upcoming offseason: in watching video of him, I realised the changes he had made to his game were not solely in the realm of approach at the plate. When we saw Matt Carpenter make the adjustment to try and hit for more power, it was almost entirely in the form of plate approach changes, as Carp altered both the pitches he was attacking, as well as his philosophy on how to attack. Nearly all mental and philosophical, in other words.

In the case of Martinez, however, he didn’t only change his approach at the plate in terms of his mentality. He also made physical changes to his swing, which appear almost entirely geared toward allowing him better chance to drive the ball. I actually didn’t realise that, having not watched any USC baseball this spring whatsoever in spite of my affection for their catcher. But watching video after the fact, I immediately was struck by the swing remake Martinez had apparently undergone.

First, some video of Martinez in high school, back when I first got a look at him. This is actually the 2011 Under Armour game, when Martinez was still an underclassman.

via Baseball Factory:

First off, yes. He does, in fact, look like he’s doing an Albert Pujols impression up there. And seeing a kid who was just sixteen at the time this clip was shot swing the bat that way, with such remarkable balance, and still able to generate a solid amount of power (though, admittedly, in batting practice), is kind of amazing. In this clip particularly, though, I want to point out how even with such a widespread stance, he utilises his hips in a dynamic, powerful way. It’s not a huge weight transfer — it really can’t be, with a stance this spread out — but he loads his hips, fires them, and then uses that energy to power the rest of his swing. It’s a fantastic sequence. Also notice how his hands are relatively active. He loads them down and back, getting his bat onto a very good plane right out of the box, with that slight upward arc that you want in order to match the angle of descent from the majority of pitches. Martinez’s high school swing maybe was never going to produce more than slightly above-average power, particularly considering he’s not the biggest guy in the world, but it had tons of other things going for it.

Now, let’s move ahead to 2014, when Martinez was a freshman at USC. He hit for a very similar level of power production in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, for what it’s worth.

via Moore Baseball:

Okay, so lots going on here. The stance and setup are basically the same, but what I want you to pay attention to here is the loading of the hips. As in, there is virtually no loading of the hips, and almost no separation between the hips and body. In the high school swing, Martinez fired his hips to generate the torque and power he needed; here his body and hips are all coming through at almost exactly the same time.

Also notice how much higher he’s keeping his hands here. He’s loading his hands nearly up at his ear, never getting them down or back deeper into his body. Again, the lack of load in the hands is limiting the power potential. Between the less dynamic chain of movement and torque in the body and a hand load that’s leading much more to a downward chopping sort of action, this is a swing that has very little chance of producing much of anything in the way of pop. This is the swing of a singles hitter, who is probably going to put the ball on the ground far too often.

So why the change? Well, without having any idea what the coaching staff at USC might have counseled from Martinez, I would postulate a relatively simple answer in two parts. One, it’s the sort of swing a kid playing for a major college program as a freshman and facing better competition than he ever previously had might very well go to in trying to simply make contact and avoid looking bad striking out. And two, metal bats (even the relatively nerfed modern ones with the limited C.O.R. ratings), can create some bad habits in hitters. A more forgiving bat can lead a hitter toward a swing that may very well work when taking advantage of that forgiveness, but which doesn’t create much power and energy on its own.

Now for the interesting part. At some point in 2015 — and I suspect it may have had something to do with using wood bats in the Cape Cod League, because that’s the earliest I’ve seen him swinging differently, but I don’t know for sure — Martinez made a dramatic change to his swing. I believe he was swinging in spring 2015 the way he was in that video above, but by the time August rolled around he had made some changes.

So let’s now come to something very close to present time, as in his junior season at USC, barely half a year ago at this point.

via rkyosh007, who I feel like I should really send a fruit basket or something to, considering how much of his awesome footage I’ve used over the years:

Well that’s different, now isn’t it?

The best look here, I think, is from about 1:30-5:00 in the video; that’s what is called the open side look in scouting parlance, and that’s what you really want when watching a hitter swing. Simply put, that’s how you can actually see what a guy’s swing is doing. It’s also the angle we have for the other swings, so again, that’s the most helpful.

The first thing to notice, of course, is the now significantly narrower stance, leading into a leg kick that initiates the swing. It’s not a little lift of the foot, either; it’s a full-fledged leg kick, nearly of the Matt Holliday variety.

More important than the leg kick itself, however, is the result. Getting his lower half moving allows Martinez to generate a much more powerful weight transfer than he had before; even the high school swing didn’t have as much torque as this new swing. Watch specifically as the foot comes down and the hips fire; Martinez is back to clearing his hips and creating torque, rather than passively rotating all at once in that choppy way he was early in college.

Another point in the favour of the leg kick, though, and one that I think often seems counterintuitive to people: it helps keep Martinez balanced and prevents him from getting out on his front foot. Players with a simple step drive into hip rotation can often overshift their weight out onto the front foot too much, too early, and end up off-balance and way out in front of pitches. A leg kick generally, I believe, helps to avoid that, though, due to the simple fact you don’t physically lift your leg up in the air and then shift all your weight onto it as it’s coming down. Stand up and try to do that right now.

Hopefully you didn’t fall over and hurt yourself, and I’m fairly confident none of you did. Why? Because when you put one foot up in the air, you have to reshift your balance to not fall over. Even if you’re trying to move your weight to that foot as you put it down, though, your body is going to fight very hard not to allow you to shift over completely and essentially throw yourself off balance. You can shift your weight onto the foot you’re putting down, but it’s exceedingly difficult to shift your weight there before your body is actually ready to do so. The same mechanism helps to keep a player from overshifting onto that front foot early in his swing, or ever really getting out over that front foot period. Rather, the leg kick helps to self-regulate the weight transfer, creating a more balanced, potentially powerful swing.

Also, look at the hands. Martinez is back to a more active hand load, bringing them lower and deeper than in his freshman-year swing. In fact, his hand load now doesn’t look all that different from that of Aledmys Diaz, and I mean that as an exceedingly high compliment. I would break out the still images and yellow dots to illustrate, but I would feel awkward doing so. Maybe if I do more of this sort of analysis I’ll get over that particular bit of self-consciousness. Suffice to say, his current hand load is much better, in terms of getting the bat onto a plane that can create loft and some real damage. He’s not chopping down into the ball any longer due to keeping the bat up near his ear. Which isn’t to say you can’t load the bat high and then get it onto a good plane; it’s just that Martinez wasn’t doing that earlier in his college career. Now he is.

The end result of all these changes? A swing that I feel will serve Martinez much, much better as he attempts to develop into a major-league caliber hitter. Of the three swings I’ve seen from him, I have to say I like the current one the best; I can see the attraction of the high school version, with its ultra-simple mechanics and outstanding balance, but I think a more fluid lower body action will serve Martinez better in the long run. If I’m being honest, I still don’t think this is a player who will ever have more than, say, 55 grade raw power and probably 50 (average), game power, simply because his approach is still very contact-oriented and he seems more interested in being a very good hitter, rather than pushing the envelope in terms of his pop, but with the rest of the offensive package he offers, that is more than enough. He has the balance and swing path to use all fields, he shouldn’t be overly vulnerable to offspeed pitches, and there’s enough loft in the bat path now I could see a large number of doubles in his future.

I don’t know how aggressively I’m going to be able to justify ranking Martinez this offseason when doing my prospect list; he’s competing with a large number of other very promising prospects. But I’m going to say this right now: Jeremy Martinez is one of my three or four favourite prospects in the whole of the Cardinals’ farm system at this moment. And the adjustments he’s made, both in terms of mental approach and the physical execution of that approach, are a big part of the reason why I feel so strongly about him.