Author’s note: I’ve been publishing here (occasionally) for a bit now under a pseudonym, and will now begin doing so (more regularly) under my real name. So, this isn’t really a hello, but hello. Close to no sleuthing will be required to figure out the handle I was previously publishing under, if you wish to calibrate your judgments about my work to your existing opinion of me, or if you are simply curious.
Entering the 2017-18 offseason, the Cardinals’ shopping list seemed pretty clear: a bunch of help in the bullpen, some rotation depth, and a middle of the order bat (or two). Whether or not you agreed that they needed these things, it was generally understood that these things were what they were after. There were going to be some new relievers, a new starting pitcher, and a new slugger (or two).
Opening Day was Thursday. Et voilà — the majority of the bullpen is new (with even more newness on the way), there’s a new guy in the rotation (with more new-ish youngsters in the wings), and Marcell Ozuna is the cleanup hitter. Overhauled bullpen, check. Rotation addition — even if it’s not what we’d have preferred specifically — check. New slugger, check.
New slugger or two, though? The Cardinals entered 2018 with just Ozuna as an offensive addition, along with what they already had. Their shopping list was completed, unless you were really focused on that “or two” part, in which case it wasn’t.
Alright, that’s a sufficiently buried lede. You already know where I’m going here. There is a chance — not a 100% chance, probably not even a 50% chance, but a real, live, legitimately exciting chance — that the Cardinals already had a truly great hitter on their roster. Like, a great hitter, one of the best in the league. One who, if he’s for real, makes it feel as if they were folding their laundry and found Nelson Cruz or Anthony Rizzo stuffed down in a jeans pocket.
Which is to say, it’s time to seriously entertain the possibility (if you hadn’t already, which you should have!) that Jose Martinez is great. A guy the Cardinals got for cash considerations after the Royals designated him for assignment in 2016, because he was too old to be a prospect and didn’t seem to be much good. A guy I remember squinting at when he came into a clutch spot against the Cubs late that year, in a game I happened to be at, and thinking this guy, who is this, this won’t work (it didn’t, but that’s not the point). A guy many of us, myself included, scoffed at when he made the roster after a strong 2017 spring.
There’s a real chance that this guy has become the best hitter the Cardinals have, and even one of the better ones in MLB.
This probably isn’t news to you if you’ve been following along closely over the past year. It isn’t like Jose Martinez has completely flown under the radar. VEB’s John Fleming, in particular, has been banging the drum for Martinez with some frequency this offseason. A national baseball nerd-blog writer who has since been hired to help run a team in real life asked if Jose Martinez was the new J.D. Martinez is September. I’m not covering new ground here, and I have little big-picture information to add to those pieces. If you want lots of detail supporting the idea that Jose Martinez might be awesome now, read those. For our purposes today, I’ll just play the hits:
- The fancy cameras in MLB stadiums that track batted-ball velocity and angle off the bat let us calculate average results for each batted ball given its characteristics off the bat. By that metric (xwOBA) Martinez was the 5th-best hitter in all of baseball last year (minimum 200 PAs).
- That elite result was driven by the 15th-best xwOBA on balls hit in the air (minimum 100 such events), combined with a better-than-average 19.5% strikeout rate. Lots of contact + good quality contact on balls in the air = great overall production.
- Martinez was comically good against lefties in 2017: best xwOBA in the league by 38 points.
- For good measure, he was the 7th-best hitter in the league when going the other way in 2017 (minimum 40 events).
Jose Martinez creamed the ball all of 2017. He creamed it during Spring Training this year. He creamed it in the opening series against the Mets. He appears to be a guy who creams the ball. There are many compelling pieces of evidence pointing that way.
There are, to be fair, some cautionary flags to be raised against the conclusion that Jose Martinez is a man who will continue to cream the ball. For one, he’s only done so for what amounts to about 3⁄4 of a MLB season. That inherently suggests unreliability — we are pretty sure Freddie Freeman is awesome at hitting because he has been for five years running, but we should not be nearly so sure about Jose Martinez. For two, his exposure to right-handed pitchers was limited last year, so maybe there’s a platoon problem looming if he gets full time play. The only thing to do about either of these concerns is wait and see.
And we have practically no new information since the things above were published, so we are still waiting and seeing. There’s not much fodder for a “hey, look at this guy” article on April 2. There’s one thing I’ll mention, though — one thing worth drawing your attention to because it was a singular event, and those are noteworthy in baseball. Maybe important, maybe not, but certainly noteworthy. Here’s the location of a pitch Jose Martinez hit for a home run off Mets’ ace Noah Syndergaard on Opening Day:
Remember that’s from the catcher’s perspective, so the home run pitch was on the low, inside corner to Martinez. Here’s the singular thing about that Martinez home run:
No right-handed MLB hitter had ever done that to a Noah Syndergaard fastball down and in.
It’s not like Syndergaard has been around forever. He debuted in 2015 and has been hurt a fair amount since; he only has 370 MLB innings so far, plus some playoffs. But in that time, he’s never given up a home run to a righty on a fastball down and in. Not once. What’s more, that ball straddles two of the zones (one down and off the plate, one down and over the plate) that Brooks Baseball breaks results into, and between those two zones Syndergaard had only given up four extra base hits. They were all doubles. None of them — not one — was a fly ball. Three were line drives, one was a sharp grounder. A righty getting under a Syndergaard fastball down and in and (a) hitting it hard enough and (b) elevating it enough to put it over the fence had never happened before in Major League Baseball.
Jose Martinez did it, four days ago:
So, look, this Jose Martinez stuff is all small-sample theater, so far. The guy enters today with exactly 333 MLB plate appearances, and that demands caution before drawing big conclusions. And one home run, however unprecedented, against a power righty does basically nothing to dispel that caution.
But, still: the guy keeps killing the ball. On literally Opening Day, he killed the ball in a specific way — off one of the best RHP in the league, in a location no other righty has managed to ever do that — that demands at least a tip of the cap, and maybe an interested raise of an eyebrow, because it cuts directly against the idea that Jose Martinez can only do this against lefties. Now, it remains entirely possible that Jose Martinez is merely a good hitter, at this point, rather than a great one. But it’s also entered the realm of possibility that he’s actually one of the best hitters in the world.
Watch him take a basically perfect pitch from an elite same-handed starter up and over the left-center wall, and tell me you’re sure he’s not. I don’t think you can say that. Nor do I think you should.