On May 25th, 2016, the Cardinals acquired Jose Martinez from the Royals for an undisclosed amount of “cash consideration”. In other words, they bought his contract. These deals typically involve small sums, at least relative to the baseball world. Considering the Royals had already designated him for assignment, we can assume it was an inconsequential amount of money. They were willing to lose him for zero dollars, and I can’t imagine there was very high demand. The Cardinals essentially acquired him for nothing. It wasn’t particularly surprising that Martinez was basically freely available. The then-27 year-old was a career minor leaguer that point, and the Cards were the 5th organization he had been a part of.
The most notable cost was a spot on the 40-man roster, so you could try to say it eventually cost them Allen Cordoba, who was lost in the Rule 5 draft since he was not added to the 40-man roster last off-season. However, others could have been removed from 40-man to save Cordoba, so you can’t entirely blame that on losing Cordoba. Besides, being that Cordoba is in his age 21 season and hadn’t played at rookie ball prior to this season, the Cards may have opted to protect someone else rather than Cordoba anyway had they had an extra spot.
At least by the stat line, Martinez didn’t appear to be anything special in his partial first season with in the Cards’ organization. In 329 plate appearances, Martinez recorded a 95 wRC+ with the Memphis Redbirds, sporting just a .146 ISO and 7.6% walk rate. He did strike out at a low 15.2% rate, but for a player limited to the corner outfield, he looked a lot like a quad-A player that was only around in case a lot of guys got injured. He took his first 16 MLB at-bats in September of 2016, but there’s just not a lot that can be understood from that.
Then he had a hot Spring Training, and managed to break camp with the big league club. At the time, many saw this as a very temporary situation. It was easy to liken Martinez to Jeremy Hazelbaker. Hazelbaker was also a late-20’s career minor league outfielder acquired by the Cards for essentially nothing. Jeremy Hazelbaker also had a hot spring and broke camp with the big league team. 2016 was his rookie year and he had an amazing April that went partially overlooked thanks to Aledmys Diaz’s even more incredible April.
It ended up just being a hot month though. After posting a 167 wRC+ in April, he had just a 71 wRC+ in 152 plate appearances after the first month of the season. Of course, every hitter looks bad when you eliminate his best month, but feeling began to grow that Hazelbaker’s March and April were the outliers, not the last five months. The Cards evidently felt similarly, as they attempted to send him through waivers and lost him to the Diamondbacks last November. In a way, the Cards chose Martinez over Hazelbaker. Still, it was hard to see Martinez as much more than the next Hazelbaker.
Hazelbaker took a total of 224 plate appearances in 2016, and tallied a 101 wRC+. Martinez has so far accumulated 196 plate appearances, and amassed a 119 wRC+. Considering Hazelbaker was the better defender and base-runner, on the surface Martinez looks like a similar value to Hazelbaker, though a little better.
However, Martinez has got there in a more sustainable way. For one, Jose has ran a double-digit walk rate (10.2%) and slightly below-average strikeout rate (20.9%). Compare that to Hazelbaker, who in 2016 had a 28.6% strikeout rate and 8.6% walk rate. That walk rate was slightly above-average, but was dragged down by the high strikeout rate.
Hazelbaker needed strong results on-contact to make up for his weak strikeout and walk profile. He managed that in 2016, with a .245 ISO making up not only for his non-contact game but also a .276 BABIP. However, Statcast reveals that he was lucky to do so. Using xwOBA, which replaces the on-contact version of wOBA with the average performance of Hazelbaker’s batted balls in the statcast era, we see he only should have managed a .284 wOBA, a far cry from the .324 he recorded. He’s again over-performed on the Diamondbacks, with a .392 wOBA vs. a .304 xwOBA in 2017.
Martinez is a different story. He’s had above average marks in ISO (.209) and BABIP (.315) this year, and if anything he’s been unlucky they’re only that high. His xwOBA currently sits .025 points lower than his actual wOBA. Sure, the below average speed would knock his expectation down, but he’s no Yadier Molina in the (lack of) speed department.
Does that mean I expect Martinez to be a ~125 wRC+ hitter in the majors going forward, in-line with his xwOBA? No, not really. xwOBA isn’t stable over ~200 plate appearances, it just offers more predictive value than actual wOBA. It’s just a good sign that his strong results on-contact haven’t been of the fluky variety. He’s getting good results because he’s hitting the ball well, not because he’s finding holes. Add-on the walks and an ability to rate above average in terms of making contact, and we have some encouraging signs that Martinez makes a nice bat off the bench.
We are only talking about 200 major league plate appearances. Weird stuff often happens over a sample that small and baseball is a game of adjustments. We’ll see how pitchers adjust to Martinez’s success, and we’ll see if he can appropriately adjust back.
And after all, Martinez is 29. Even if you do think he’s about an average player, he might not be one for long. According to my average aging curve, players on average lose about a half of a win a year over the next five years. That’s OK though, it’s not like I’m saying the Cardinals should rush to extend him. Just that right now, he looks more useful than the quad-A player I saw him as going into the season.
Hazelbaker always looked like a mirage, and his results in Arizona doesn’t change that for me. I’m not trying to insult him or anything, being a fringe MLB talent still puts one above about 99.9% of those who would prefer to play baseball for a living. It’s nothing to be ashamed of by any means.
Martinez seems to be a step above that though. While the Cardinals have a ton of outfield depth right now, there’s no reason to push him out. On a rate basis, the best two public projection systems actually rate him very similarly to Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk. Two players that - even with their struggles - are players that MLB teams would gladly take for nothing more than “cash considerations” and a 40-man roster spot. I can’t say whether or not the Cards saw this coming, but they were the high bidder for his services, and they deserve kudos for acquiring Jose Martinez.