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Jose Martinez’s selectivity is paying dividends

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Jose appears to have a strategy at the plate that is working.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Baseball sure is weird. Oh, did you think the Cardinals would be competing with the Giants and Mets for the Wild Card this year? Nope, instead the Cards are looking up in the standing to the Rockies and Diamondbacks and are dead even with the Brewers. Going into the season, if you knew the Cards would be in that type of position in September, you would have assumed the Cubs had all but clinched the division. Still, the Cards are hanging around in both the Central and the Wild Card.

The odds aren’t exactly great, but hey, is that worth complaining about? It’s September, and the Cards are still playing meaningful games. This still could be a year we all end up remembering fondly. We the fans still have a real reason to watch.

There’s been disappointments, but there’s also been some really good surprises. Tommy Pham avoiding the disabled list all year is a surprise in itself. The fact that he’s performed at an MVP contender level on a rate basis has been just incredible. Of course, there was always a feeling that Pham could be this type of player. Scouts have long considered him a tool shed, and he always had impressive numbers in the minors, but most players don’t reach their full potential. We’re watching that happen right now with Pham.

Then there’s Paul DeJong. He entered the season as a prospect, but certainly not a celebrated one. He made no top 100 lists going into the year. The only Top MLB prospects list he did make was John Sickel’s Top 200, in which he ranked 192nd. He was on the map, but it was tough to imagine him making any impact with the big league team in 2017. Baseball had different plans.

When looking at Cardinals with more than 200 plate appearances this year, Pham ranks first in wRC+. DeJong ranks third. Sandwiched in-between is perhaps the biggest surprise: Jose Martinez.

OK, you probably already know that Jose has been hitting the crap out the ball. The Red Baron just talked about it earlier in the week. Here’s the Baron summarizing himself, though I recommend reading it in full yourself:

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.

And after all, I already wrote about Martinez recently myself, making the case that he may be a lot better than the quad-A player I assumed he was going into the season. Essentially, a strong walk rate and less than average strikeout rate made him a better bet than someone who was only doing well because of his results on-contact.

Not that the results on-contact haven’t been great, what with a .248 ISO and a .347 BABIP. BABIP’s that high are bound to regress, but there is this: Martinez isn’t getting lucky. In my article three weeks ago, I also cited Martinez’s xwOBA.

For those unfamiliar, xwOBA is a Statcast based stat. By measuring the Exit Velocity (speed of the ball off the bat) and the Launch Angle (the vertical angle the ball leaves the bat) of each batted ball, MLB can figure out the average production of each combination of the two. xwOBA replaces the on-contact portion of wOBA with the average performance of those batted balls.

Anyway, when I wrote the article Martinez’s wOBA was a full .025 points lower than his xwOBA. Martinez wasn’t just earning his results, there was a very good case to be made that his results should have been better.

On the heels of his hot streak, Martinez has narrowed the difference to just .007 points. Still though, we can say he’s completely earned the great numbers he’s put up so far. This isn’t a case of everything just falling his way. In fact, try this on for size: Among hitters with 150 at bats this year, he has the team’s best xwOBA. According to Statcast, Jose Martinez has been the Cardinals’ best hitter in 2017. That is incredible.

Getting back to the The Baron’s piece, patience certainly seems to be one of the reasons Martinez is performing well. However, it’s a peculiar type of patience. It isn’t that he’s other-worldly at avoiding pitches out of the zone. Of 329 players with over 200 plate appearances this year, Jose’s O-Swing% of 27% ranks 107th.

Being inside the top third is good of course, and it’s one of the reasons that Jose belongs in the majors. It’s just not that special, relative to his peers. Matt Carpenter, Greg Garcia, Pham, Dexter Fowler, and Kolten Wong all have lower rates, in that order. Carpenter has the 4th lowest O-Swing% in the majors. That’s special.

It’s Martinez’s lack of swings in the zone that I find interesting. His 57.4% in-zone swing rate ranks 18th among those 329 players. Of the 17 players who swing at less in-zone pitches, only four of them had higher O-Swing rates than Martinez. Of the five Cardinals with lower O-Swing rates than Martinez, only Carpenter swings at less in-zone pitches.

It’s understandable if your first reaction is to think that this is a bad thing. Hitters should be swinging at pitches in the zone, and laying off pitches out of the zone. A hitter with a low Z-Swing rate is presumably giving away too many strikes.

However, it’s not that simple. Not every strike is created equal. Each hitter’s swing and approach is geared towards different types of pitches and locations. There’s also the benefit of sitting on a pitch. If you know how pitchers are pitching you, you can try to guess what pitch and location is coming next. Guess right and you have a much better chance than usual of doing some damage.

That appears to be what Martinez is doing. We’re going to look at three strike zone heat maps. First, here’s all pitches thrown to him in 2017:

This is from the catcher’s perspective. Pitchers try to work the right-handed hitting Jose mostly low and outside, like most hitters. The highest concentration comes in about belt high, but quite a few end up in the bottom of the zone and below or off the plate.

Next up, we’ll look at a heat map of all the swings he’s taken this year:

Similar, but there are some important differences. There’s still that same triangle there in the low-outside quadrant, but the concentration drops off quicker as it gets farther from the highest point of concentration. In other words, Martinez is swinging the most at the those pitches left belt-high. He’s swinging at pitches below that concentration to of course, but he tends to lay it off more often. The inside half of the plate also sees lower swing rates.

Martinez seems to be picking out those belt-high outside-half pitches. Is he sitting on pitches in that location? You’d have to ask him, I don’t know. But that is where he’s getting pitched the most and where he’s swinging the most. It’s also where he’s doing most of his damage. Going back to Statcast, BaseballSavant.com categorizes each batted ball into one of six categories based on their Exit Velocity and Launch Angle. To best visualize this, here is Martinez’s radial chart, courtesy of BaseballSavant.com :

The protractor-shaped image above is used to represent any batted ball by Exit Velocity and Launch Angle. Each dot is one of Martinez’s batted balls in 2017. The six shaded regions are those six categories I was talking about. They’re listed on the side in order of how productive they are, and the colors correspond to the colors in the radial chart.

Barrels are the very best batted ball, they’re hard hit balls in the air that are often homers or doubles. Solid Contact is the second best, and basically forms a border around Barrels. They are often homers and doubles as well, but include a lot more fly outs.

Anyway, we still have one more heat map to go. Here’s one of all pitches Jose has either barreled or made solid contact on:

Again, we have the highest concentration of pitches in the belt-high outside-half of the plate. These three together I think show a very conscious plan from Martinez. Pitchers work him low and outside. Martinez picks out the ones that are left belt-high, and he has a tendency to crush those pitches.

Baseball though, is a game of adjustments. Martinez has won this round, but you can bet pitchers and catchers are already looking for ways to counter him. Will they work him lower in the zone, and perhaps less in the zone? Perhaps, but they’re working him low in the zone already. He’s also showing that he can handle pitches low when they’re inside.

Working low in the zone more often would also probably mean less pitches in the zone overall, and we already went over how he’s inside the top third in terms of laying off out of the zone pitches. More pitches out the zone probably means more walks. He sits just shy of a 10% walk rate already, and that’s with a very average amount of pitches in the zone overall.

So maybe they work him high and inside more? Under the hands? Or maybe they make an adjustment that isn’t location based. Baseball is very fluid, and pitchers are better prepared to exploit weakness than they’ve ever been in the game’s history. Jose probably didn’t go from a career minor leaguer to a major leaguer with no exploitable holes in his game. Still, there’s a lot to be positive about. Martinez’s apparent plan is working at the plate, and I don’t think pitchers have an obvious solution for how to stop it other than “locating better”.

No, I don’t think he’ll maintain a wRC+ in the 140’s. This is a real major league hitter though, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he settles in as an above-average one going forward. Yes, he’s a negative in the field, but we’re also talking about a guy the Cards only need to utilize as a part-time player, and is making the league minimum the next couple of years. Not a bad outcome for a guy acquired essentially for nothing.