So I have a piece I was working on this past weekend, writing it Saturday afternoon, and I decided at some point Sunday morning while trying to finish it up that you know what?, don’t put up a big, meaningful piece on a holiday, unless it’s holiday related. You just never get the traffic, nor the responses, on holidays, especially those three-day weekend sorts of summer holidays.
And so I decided to put said piece off until this morning. And I sat down to finish it up, again, and as I was getting started I had to mention Jose Martinez, and it suddenly hit me that I should really be writing about Martinez specifically this morning. Not only because he had a huge game last night, pretty much bashing the San Diego Padres into the ground single-handedly, but because said huge night of Padre-bashing really serves to highlight something about Jose Martinez.
Namely, Jose Martinez is trying very, very hard to make himself into a very, very interesting player.
Actually, before we get into the Martinez stuff, I have to take a moment to acknowledge something, because the leaderboard I’m looking at right now forces me to.
Tommy Pham currently sits at #16 in all baseball in Fangraphs’ WAR, essentially tied with Nolan Arenado at 4.6 wins above replacement. The extra fun thing is that when you look at said WAR leaderboard, you notice that every single player, save one, who is above Tommy on the leaderboard has more plate appearances than he does. In other words, there is only on player in baseball with more accumulated WAR at this moment in less time than Tommy Pham. And that is, of course, Mike Trout.
Anyhow, I just had to stop and highlight that fact. The Cardinals have a top 20 player in all baseball, and he didn’t even join the big league club until May.
But let’s talk about Martinez. If one were to go to the Fangraphs leaderboards, set the plate appearance minimum to, say, 100 plate appearances, just to weed out the complete small-sample flukes but allow the Rhys Hoskins of the world to still show up for future comedic effect, and then click on the wRC+ header, we find that Jose Martinez, with his 144 wRC+, is tied for 21st in all of baseball with Lonnie Chisenhall of the Cleveland Indians. Martinez is one point of wRC+ behind Kris Bryant, and one point ahead of Cody Bellinger. Now, admittedly, both of those players have significantly more plate appearances than Martinez, but still. That’s the kind of company we’re talking about currently for the guy who is very tough to see as anything more than a fourth outfielder in terms of the Cardinals’ current situation.
Holy shit, did anyone else realise that Adrian Beltre has still, at age 38, been worth 3.1 wins in just under 350 plate appearances? Good god. He’s closing in on 40 and still playing at a 5+ win pace this year. Remember the uproar when, after the 2004 season, Beltre got that big contract from the Mariners and basically everyone thought baseball had gone completely crazy with the size of contracts? I know the Cardinals had Scott Rolen at the time, but goddamn do I ever wish they had gotten Beltre somehow.
But back to Jose Martinez, who is being overshadowed in this column much the same way he’s being overshadowed in the Cardinal lineup, and equally unjustly as well.
If we bump the plate appearance minimum up to 200, Martinez and his 144 wRC+ move up to 19th, five spots behind Tommy Pham and his 146. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen; at this specific moment in time, the St. Louis Cardinals, desperate for a big bat and struggling offensively in the minds of many (I include myself in this to a certain extent, so don’t think I’m trying to act immune to the in-season frustrations and false narratives), could fill out a lineup card tonight with two players who rank fourteenth and nineteenth respectively in offensive production in major league baseball. (So long as we set the plate appearance minimum a little lower than ‘qualified’, that is....)
Of course, the big question we have to ask ourselves is: how likely is it Jose Martinez is actually this kind of hitter? And the answer, which we can very quickly come to, is: approaching zero likelihood. And really, it’s probably unfair to look at a player’s numbers the morning after a career game the night before, particularly when his overall body of work is still small enough for the needle to move a fair bit with one big game. But here we are all the same.
Players capable of putting up 140+ wRC+ figures over basically any time at all do not, as a general rule, get overlooked. Certainly they do not toil in anonymity in multiple organisational farm systems, eventually getting buried on the Kansas City Royals’ depth chart. That is exactly where Jose Martinez was when the Cardinals picked him up in a deal for cash considerations in 2016, though.
At no stop in the minors did Jose Martinez ever post an isolated slugging percentage over .200. His highest ISO came in 2010, when a six-game stretch for the White Sox’s rookie ball yielded a .182. The highest actual, useful number he ever posted was in 2015, when over almost 400 plate appearances with the Royals’ Triple A affiliate he put up a .179. That was also the season he hit .384 with a 177 wRC+, walking and striking out in close to equal measure. So, you know, it’s not as if he’s never shown intriguing hitting ability.
Still, this is a career minor leaguer. And when career minor leaguers come up to the big leagues and put up big numbers over a limited period of time, nine times out of ten we can ask ourselves the question: random hot streak or something more?, and comfortably answer immediately random hot streak. We have Jeremy Hazelbaker to demonstrate the point. We have Johnny Rodriguez and about a month of Scott Seabol, too. We have Super Joe McEwing and two weeks of John Gall and one awesome swing from a knee by Nick Stavinoha. We have, of course, Bo Hart, the grandaddy of all devil magic players.
So it’s tempting to write Martinez off as just another in a long line of minor league studs without the talent to make it at the big leagues once the competition figures them out, but who can come up and, absent a scouting report, do some damage for a little while.
Here’s the thing, though: that may be selling Jose Martinez short. And maybe a whole lot short, in fact.
So what, really, is behind this sudden breakout for Martinez? Well, the answer is relatively simple: Jose Martinez has changed his approach this year, in a fairly stark fashion. Throughout the minors, Martinez was a high-contact, low-power hitter. He regularly posted ISOs in the low .100s, occasionally even below .100, but also kept his strikeout rates mostly below 15%. He never hit like a guy who’s 6’6” and actually pretty strongly built; he hit like a middle infielder built along waterbug lines.
He also hit the ball on the ground a huge percentage of the time. Taking into account we’re talking about minor league stringers, so a small dose of salt as to the accuracy of the exact numbers must be included, Jose posted groundball rates of 50% and above at virtually every place he played. In 2014, playing in the Braves’ system, he hit 49.5% of his batted balls on the ground. In early 2016, playing at Triple A for Kansas City before the Cardinals traded for him, he was at 49.6% grounders. At literally every other minor league stop in his very long career, Martinez was at or above 50%.
An interesting thing happened when Jose came to the Cardinals, though. At Triple A Memphis in 2016, he posted the lowest groundball rate of his career, at 42.1%. In 2015, he hit just 27% of his batted balls in the air. At Memphis, that figure jumped to 35.6%. (It was 33.5% at Triple A for the Royals.)
This season, Martinez has put 43.7% of his batted balls on the ground. A little higher than his Memphis rate last season, but still a significant change from the 50%+ figures from his earlier minor career. His flyball rate is 31%, with the remainder of the batted balls being of the line drive variety, at 25.3%. That line drive rate indicates he’s squaring the ball up well this season, but LD% is also the most volatile batted ball type year to year. So worry more about the overall percentage of balls in the air — 56.3% — versus those on the ground.
So does this mean Martinez should be considered one of those players who has embraced the flyball approach? In a word, probably.
There are other markings that suggest a change in approach for Martinez this year. His strikeout rate is up. His walk rate is similar to where it’s been the last couple years, but far higher than it was early in his career. This season he’s striking out 20.6% of the time, which is right around league average, believe it or not. He’s walking 9.6% of the time, which is a little more than league average.
If we dig a little deeper, though, we see more indications of an increasingly patient approach. In his extremely brief big league audition late last season, Martinez swung at balls outside the strike zone 34.2% of the time. He swung at 65.7% of the strikes he saw. Overall, he swung at just under 50% of all pitches thrown his way. This year, he’s cut his swing percentage as a whole to just 40.6%. Out of zone he’s swinging 29% of the time; inside the zone he pulls the trigger 55.8% of the time. Now, admittedly we’re dealing with tiny samples from last season, but that looks like a player making a conscious effort to be more selective.
Interestingly, we also have a marked drop in Martinez’s contact rates, both in and outside the strike zone. Last year Jose made contact on 95.5% of the pitches inside the zone he swung at; this year that’s down to 85.8%. In 2016, he made contact on a remarkable 85.7% of the pitches outside the zone he chose to chase; this season that’s dropped all the way to 68.7%.
So what does that mean? In general, lower contact rates are worse, right? Well, yes and no. A low contact rate generally is worse than a high contact rate, but what if the contact a player is making is bad contact? What if he’s swinging at pitches he can’t really do much with, still making contact, but it’s weak contact? A swing and miss is better in most cases than a weak groundball, with the exception of strike three. Swing and miss on a 1-1 count and you get another chance for the pitcher to throw something hittable. Hit a slow roller to second on a 1-1 count and you’re making a right turn at first base.
The combination of a much lower swing rate in general, and a lower contact rate on all pitches swung at suggests to me this is a hitter who is choosing his pitches more carefully, and swinging much more aggressively at the pitches he does choose to attack. This is not a slap the ball in play to the opposite field hitter any longer. This is a player airing it out when he chooses to swing the bat. You get more strikeouts, yes, but you also get far, far better power production.
So who does this new version of Jose Martinez resemble? Well, he’s not all that dissimilar from another Martinez. Specifically, the 2016 version of J.D. Martinez is a pretty good comp to look at here. The one big difference is J.D. swung at far more balls inside the strike zone, and struck out more often, but the power production is similar, the batted ball profile is similar, and the contact rates are fairly similar. Jose is more patient, and swings and misses a little less overall, but that’s roughly the shape of production he’s giving the Cardinals right now.
The final question we have to ask ourselves, of course, is whether or not this is a sustainable performance we’re watching. And to answer that, we have to decide which meaning of ‘sustainable’ we’re going for. There are two definitions of sustainable in baseball; the first is literally whether or not the thing you’re seeing is likely to continue. The second, more technical definition is whether something is inherently possible over a long period, or if it is likely to regress in a statistical sense toward some specific mean value. A guy hitting .300 may or may not be likely to continue; there are lots of factors that go into that. A guy posting a .380 batting average on balls in play is almost certainly going to regress toward the mean.
We’ll tackle the second question first, because it’s probably the easier one to answer. Jose Martinez currently sports a .345 BABIP, and that’s likely to come down. He’s posted high BABIPs in the past at various minor league levels, but he’s also a right-handed hitter, not especially fast, and while he hits the ball hard, he isn’t a Joey Votto-level freak of nature at squaring balls up. The BABIP and batting average are both likely to drop, as is his 26.5% HR/FB rate. Then again, considering every home run he’s hit this season has been over 100 mph coming off the bat, maybe we’re not in for quite as much regression on that number as one might think. You hit the ball in the air at 100+, it’s going to go out a pretty decent chunk of the time. There are a couple small statistical things that look likely to regress, but this isn’t Randal Grichuk running a .365 BABIP and everyone knowing it’s going to come crashing down at some point.
But as for the larger question of whether Jose Martinez is likely to continue performing like this going forward? That’s an easier answer, and the answer is probably no. It’s extremely hard to imagine him just literally being this good following a swing and approach change to get the ball in the air more, and chances are even without the numbers being hugely out of whack and unsustainable, Jose Martinez is not going to be a 130-140 wRC+ hitter going forward. He’s also probably not going to maintain a 37-homer pace over a full season.
All that being said, back in the offseason I thought Jose Martinez was a potentially intriguing bat because of his contact rate, and he was exactly the kind of player one could imagine trading some contact for increased power, and ending up a more productive hitter overall as a result. And so far, that looks to be exactly the approach he’s decided to take this season. More patient approach, more balls in the air, and more aggressive, purposeful swings in general are the three pillars of Jose Martinez’s offensive reshaping here in 2017, and so far they’re working together like a charm. It helps he’s strong enough not to have to sell out for pull side power, as well, giving him more chance to read and react to pitches.
So in the end, it’s probably safe to conclude that no, Jose Martinez is not a true talent 144 wRC+ hitter. But it’s also looking like a safer bet all the time that he’s something more than just a low-end bench bat. We have the blueprint for a hitter like him to improve; we’ve seen guys make the contact-for-power swap in the past, and Martinez looks to be hitting the ball hard enough, consistently enough, to make that tradeoff extremely productive.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he isn’t still part of a roster crunch looming for the Cardinals in the outfield, nor does it mean he’s going to become a good fielder anytime soon, which is frankly a pretty big black mark. But hey, if Jose Bautista and J.D. Martinez can both become great major league hitters by embracing hard contact in the air, then maybe we can smoosh them together and get a Jose Martinez who does exactly the same thing.
(Or, you know, a realistic version of that same thing, anyway.)