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J.D. Martinez as Giancarlo Stanton lite

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A look at a tempting middle-of-the-order bat available this winter.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Arizona Diamondbacks Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

I think most of us are aware that J.D. Martinez is a very good hitter. However, I never really think of him as one of the best hitters in the league, even though he has been. If you feel the same way, here’s something that may dissuade you. From 2014 to 2017, here are the top 10 hitters in terms of wRC+ (among 289 qualified players):

Top ten hitters 2014-2017 leaderboard

Name Team PA BB% K% ISO BABIP wRC+ BsR Def WAR
Name Team PA BB% K% ISO BABIP wRC+ BsR Def WAR
Mike Trout Angels 2575 15.0 % 22.1 % 0.278 0.348 171 23.1 -9.1 32.9
Joey Votto Reds 2351 18.4 % 16.5 % 0.227 0.345 161 -17.3 -36.9 20.2
Giancarlo Stanton Marlins 2118 12.4 % 26.8 % 0.301 0.309 149 -1 -6.8 19
Bryce Harper Nationals 2168 15.6 % 20.8 % 0.242 0.331 148 4.3 -13.6 19.1
J.D. Martinez - - - 2143 8.6 % 26.1 % 0.274 0.358 148 -11.4 -42.8 14.6
Paul Goldschmidt Diamondbacks 2544 15.2 % 21.9 % 0.236 0.363 148 15.2 -32.2 21.7
Josh Donaldson - - - 2602 12.8 % 18.9 % 0.254 0.296 147 5.1 31.6 28
Nelson Cruz - - - 2645 9.3 % 22.8 % 0.262 0.317 147 -14.7 -61.2 16.5
David Ortiz Red Sox 1842 12.6 % 15.0 % 0.28 0.278 146 -22.1 -44.6 9.7
Freddie Freeman Braves 2396 12.5 % 21.2 % 0.227 0.347 144 0.5 -29.3 18.1

J.D is squarely in the mix in 5th place, with Giancarlo Stanton, Bryce Harper, Paul Goldschmidt, and Josh Donaldson surrounding him. This is elite hitter territory, no question about it. Fans often supported trading for two of those players - Donaldson and Stanton - and many are dreaming of signing Harper in the 2018-2019 free agent market. Goldschmidt was commonly a suggested trade target when the Diamondbacks were bad, but his name hasn’t come up much this year with them in playoffs.

The team column shows the difficulty in acquiring such a player. Seven of the ten played for the same team all four years. Martinez was only traded because it was the final year of his contract. The Donaldson trade has been panned as one of the most lopsided in the last few years, both in terms of hindsight and regular sight. The other player to change hands - Nelson Cruz - was probably only not locked up for longer because of his age.

A lot of attention has gone to Stanton this year, and for good reason. He’s one of the most valuable position players in the league, and although he’s owed $295M over the next 10 years, he’s probably worth it, even factoring in the fact that he gets an opt-out too. Of course, some look at the opt-out as a positive for the team, but that’s a fallacy: he would only exercise the opt-out if he’s doing well enough to get a better deal than what he would have remaining. For Stanton, that’ll be $208M over seven years, a decision he’ll make after the 2020 season.

Around the trade deadline, word in baseball was that the Marlins wouldn’t be able to get a team to trade legitimate prospects and take on the entirety of the contract. Stanton had a strong second half though, (175 wRC+ vs. a still great 140 in the first half) and the price of wins continues to climb. At this point, Stanton’s complete deal looks like one with surplus value to spare. What that means in the market is yet to be seen.

To be clear, I would like trading for Stanton overall, assuming the prospect price isn’t too steep. This is a team with few holes, and Stanton would be filling the position currently closest to being a hole: right field.

We can’t talk about Stanton all offseason though, can we? Acquiring any one specific player isn’t very likely. The Marlins and the Cardinals may just not see eye-to-eye in terms of valuing players. You have to have backup plans.

Not only is J.D. Martinez just 1 point of wRC+ worse than Stanton in the last four years, he out-hit him this year:

2017 stats Martinez vs Stanton

Martinez 489 10.8 % 26.2 % .387 .327 166 -5.7 -13.1 3.8
Stanton 692 12.3 % 23.6 % .350 .288 156 -2.4 -0.5 6.9

It wasn’t only a difference in results either. Using xwOBA - a Statcast metric which replaces the on-contact portion of wOBA with how the player’s specific assortment of batted balls have performed on average in the statcast era - J.D. was .025 points better than Stanton. That matters because xwOBA is more predictive of future wOBA than wOBA itself.

As you can see though, Stanton was still the overall better player, and not just because he had more plate appearances. Martinez played at a 4.7 WAR/600 PA pace, while Stanton was right at 6. That’s because Martinez was a very poor fielder and poor base-runner, whereas Stanton was close to average in both categories.

This isn’t just a one year fluke either. Despite virtually the same wRC+ and a difference of just 25 plate appearances over the last four years, Stanton has been worth 4.4 more WAR, a little more than a win a year. He’s been the 5th best hitter in the last four years, but falls to 36th in terms of position player WAR.

To add-on to this, the projections also don’t see Martinez being just as good of a hitter as Stanton going forward. Using Fangraphs’ depth chart projections, which average the two best public projection systems Steamer and Zips, here are both player’s current projections:

Martinez vs. Stanton current projection

Player BB% K% ISO BABIP wRC+ BsR Def WAR
Player BB% K% ISO BABIP wRC+ BsR Def WAR
J.D. Martinez 9.1 % 27.2 % .290 .339 131 -1.7 -16.2 3
Giancarlo Stanton 12.5 % 26.0 % .327 .305 149 -0.3 -3 5.4

Martinez is given 70 more plate appearance here, but Stanton still projects to be nearly a win and a half better. Stanton’s also a couple of years younger. I would say the projections are a little low on J.D., but it’s pretty clear Stanton is the better player.

The projections mostly expect regression in terms of results on-contact, seeing a 4-year average BABIP of .358 but seeing a .339 going forward. They also see a .016 point drop in ISO over his last four years, those it’s easier to see that as just age-related decline. Whatever the reason, it’s not the actual contact quality. In the Statcast Era (2015 on), Martinez’s xwOBA is actually a few points higher than his wOBA. He’s a slow runner and that does hamper things, but only to the tune of a few points. In other words, J.D. has largely earned his results on contact.

Martinez should also cost significantly less than Stanton. In their most recent power rankings, MLB Trade Rumors believes a 6-year deal may be in play for Martinez, and that’s a long commitment. But it’ll also end four years earlier than Stanton’s deal, should he not opt-out.

What could J.D. Martinez cost in free agency? It’s hard to say. I decided to look at the deals that outfielders have received recently, using MLB Trade Rumor’s transaction tracker. I was a little liberal with how I defined an outfielder, as J.D. isn’t exactly an elite defender. Here’s 13 deals from the last two years, along with the players age and their production prior to free agency:

Recent outfield free agent signings

free agent years guarantee (M) team data age wRC+ 4 prior years WAR/600 prior four years
free agent years guarantee (M) team data age wRC+ 4 prior years WAR/600 prior four years
Jason Heyward 8 $184.0 CHC 12/11/2015 26 118 5.4
Alex Gordon 4 $72.0 KAN 01/06/2016 32 117 4.4
Ben Zobrist 4 $56.0 CHC 12/08/2015 35 122 4.3
J.D. Martinez ? ??? ??? ??? 30 148 4.1
Chris Davis 7 $161.0 BAL 01/16/2016 30 136 3.9
Yoenis Cespedes 4 $110.0 NYM 11/29/2016 31 120 3.8
Yoenis Cespedes 3 $75.0 NYM 01/22/2016 30 121 3.8
Ian Desmond 5 $70.0 COL 12/07/2016 31 103 3.2
Dexter Fowler 5 $82.5 STL 12/09/2016 31 116 3.1
Josh Reddick 4 $52.0 HOU 11/17/2016 30 108 3.0
Justin Upton 6 $132.8 DET 01/18/2016 28 123 3.0
Mark Trumbo 3 $37.0 BAL 01/19/2017 31 109 1.2
Kendrys Morales 3 $33.0 TOR 11/11/2016 34 112 0.6

In terms of just hitting, Martinez is better than any outfielder that reached free agency the previous two years. In terms of overall rate production over the last four years, there are three recent free agents who were better: Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and Alex Gordon. Heyward got a huge deal, but was also only 26. Zobrist got a small deal relative to his production, but he was also 35.

Chris Davis was slightly less productive overall relative to Martinez, and was the best hitter that was at least marketed as an outfielder to reach free agency in this sample. His price tag might have you worrying about what J.D. might cost, but with the deferred money involved, it’s closer in present value to a more typical deal at $127.5M. Even so, it was still seen as an overpay with the Orioles bidding against themselves, so it has limited application in terms of setting the market going forward.

Justin Upton’s last deal is probably a better comparison. While Upton wasn’t quite as good as Martinez in the four years prior to free agency, he was two years younger. He and Heyward were the only players to secure 6 year deals. His $133M deal is probably about the high end of what you could expect in Martinez’s deal.

On the other end, Yoenis Cespedes was a better overall player than Upton, but was 30 in his first crack at free agency. He only secured $75M over three years the first time, had a strong 2016, opted out of his deal and scored $110M over four years. Alex Gordon took home only $72M, but also derives more value from base-running and defense, two things still not quite valued in the marketplace as highly as production at the plate. Cespedes’ second deal is probably a realistic low-end of what you could expect from Martinez.

So for a rough guess here, we’re talking somewhere in the $100M-$140M range. It’s hard to get more specific than that at this point. How much any individual player signs for is dependent on so many things we don’t yet know.

According to the projections, that range is higher than what he ought to get paid. Using the best estimate for the cost of a win in the 2017-2018 offseason along with a projected 5.9% increase going forward and an average aging curve, here’s an expected value for Martinez’s next six years:

J.D. Martinez contract value calculation

J.D. Martinez 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 Total
J.D. Martinez 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 Total
Cost of WAR $11.1 $11.8 $12.4 $13.2 $14.0 $14.8 $12.2
Projected WAR 3.0 2.3 1.8 1.2 0.7 0.4 9.3
Projected value $33.3 $26.7 $22.5 $15.3 $9.4 $6.5 $113.5

As you might imagine, a 30-year-old 3 WAR player doesn’t have long before it’s more likely he’s a below average player. I can’t agree with the projections here though. It wouldn’t be completely unreasonable to say he’s more like a 3.5 WAR player, though I wouldn’t go quite that high. That would put a six year deal for him at $152M.

If signing Martinez was paired with another move, it could make more sense. Like I argued regarding Upton, signing J.D. would make the team’s many outfield prospects in the upper minors more expendable. Let’s say the Cards take a couple outfield prospects and a couple pitching prospects and turn them into a great starting pitcher. Then Martinez is providing an upgrade in the outfield as well as giving the team an opportunity to upgrade elsewhere.

Martinez’s total deal will also probably be something like $160M less than what Stanton is owed at the moment. That itself could bring in a great starting pitcher, without trading prospects.

Again, I think I’d still prefer Stanton. He’s the single biggest upgrade you can make, and the only one that would seriously change the team’s current outlook. Outside of fixing that bullpen, the Cards really wouldn’t need to do anything else.

You can’t plan on only one option though, and J.D. Martinez isn’t a bad one. Depending on what you think of the players involved, he could easily be a 1.5-2 win upgrade over the next best options. If you thought this team needs a Giancarlo Stanton-sized upgrade, then J.D. isn’t it. You’d still have a lot of resources left over though, and that could go to upgrades elsewhere. I wouldn’t rule this potential Cardinal slugger out.