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José Martínez has changed his approach

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In the era of strikeouts and launch angle, Cafecito is patiently aiming for the gap

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at San Diego Padres Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

José Martínez is a man comprised of many captivating stories. His ten-year journey through the minors has often been given the spotlight, winning a minor league batting title and still not earning a call-up to the show. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold recently gave insight to Martínez’s personal life in an excellent piece detailing his love of his late father and his struggle to get his young son a visa to see Martínez play. To say his defense has been rough would be a bit of an understatement, with his -5 DRS at first base ranking dead last in the majors. For a moment, though, let’s ignore the times we’ve winced as Cafecito failed to make the play at first and instead focus on the fact that the man can flat-out hit baseballs.

Martínez has been a sensation since his 2016 MLB debut for the Cardinals, who plucked him away from the Royals for just cash. He was good for 1.6 fWAR in 2017 across only 307 plate appearances and has shown that he possesses an elite set of skills at the plate. He’s one of those players who can consistently hit — of all batters with at least 300 PAs in 2017, his 135 wRC+ fell just outside the top 30, sandwiched between Daniel Murphy and Eric Hosmer. What’s most impressive is that, though the results may not yet show it, José Martínez’s 2018 approach has developed a hitter capable of being even more productive. This new plan of attack is one that seems counterproductive in today’s homer-laden, strikeout-ridden, launch-angle-focused game, but Martínez’s reduced launch angle and increasingly selective approach at the plate has allowed him to drive the ball more consistently, even if he’s sacrificed some power in the process.

I’m a very visual person — so much so that I have to carry a steno pad with me at all times to have a chance of making it through the day — and, as a result, this piece is chart- and graph-intensive. They all tell an important piece of the story, and we’ll be walking through it, bit by bit. Ultimately it’s divided into three sections: launch angle/quality of contact, batted ball direction, and plate discipline.

Launch Angle/Quality of Contact

We’ll start with a comparison of his 2017 and 2018 launch angle, courtesy of Baseball Savant:

José Martínez’s launch angle, 2017 to 2018
baseballsavant.mlb.com

In 2017 Most of Martínez’s hits came between the 10-20% range, which makes sense, but his batted balls as a whole were focused around the 10% mark. Statcast has his average LA in 2017 at 10.8% In 2018, there’s a clear wealth of balls hit around the 15% mark, with most of his hits coming on balls around 10% and even right at 0%, and an average LA of 5.9%. It doesn’t take a lot of interpretation here to see that he’s clearly dropped his launch angle and is driving the ball on a line much more than he had previously. Is this change translating into results? We’ll dive into that with Martínez's year-over-year quality of contact, also from Baseball Savant:

José Martínez’s quality of contact, 2017 to 2018
baseballsavant.mlb.com

Right off the bat (no pun intended) you see a clear representation of the launch angle change we just found, which is the point. This year’s José’s batted balls are concentrated in the lower angles, which comes as no surprise given that we just saw the same data in a different representation. The cool thing to note is that, even with that against-the-grain change, his expected results have improved.

The 2018 version of Martínez is barreling the ball at an even better rate than he did in 2017, with 8.1 Brls/PA this season compared to last year’s 7.5. Even though the homer power has fallen off (14 HRs in 307 PAs to 4 HRs in 160 PAs), his gap power has shot up (13 in 2017 to 10 in 2018). Moving further down the chart is where you start to notice the big differences. There are noticeable changes in three of the categories:

  • He’s produced much more solid contact, nearly a 50% increase over 2017
  • Flares/burners have decreased by nearly 25% in 2018
  • Topped balls have shot up in 2018, roughly a 60% increase

Now let’s put those numbers together. If José is trying to hit the ball on a line more than he had previously, dropping his launch angle, it makes sense that he’d be topping the ball more than he had previously. In doing so, he seems to have cut down on the number of flares/burners he’s produced, where he was sacrificing speed for loft, and also increased his solid contact. Though a marginal change, he’s slightly decreased the number of balls he’s skied, which also lines up with the data. The benefit of these changes is an improved xwOBA for 2018, currently .428 to 2017’s mark of .420. That’s a small change now, but Martínez is just over the halfway mark in terms of PAs compared to his 2017 season — and any increase is a good increase. (If you’ve never looked at it, Tangotiger has a great explanation of the anticipated wOBA from each batted ball outcome and why Martínez’s current profile is more promising.) The disconnect comes on his performance across both seasons. Martínez finished with a .379 wOBA in 2017, with a wOBA-xwOBA differential of -.041. As was highlighted here at VEB earlier this week by John LaRue, his 2018 differential is even higher. His 2018 wOBA of .347 produces a differential of -.081. Part of that has to do with some very loud outs.

He’s had some trouble on those barreled balls this year. Eight have gone for outs to this point in the season, tied for second-most in Major League Baseball. Lots of loud outs. We saw one of them in Minnesota when Max Kepler snagged a ball at the right field wall. He had just three outs on barreled balls in all of 2017, across nearly double the plate appearances. Here’s a spray chart of those eight outs:

José Martínez’s barreled-ball outs, 2018
baseballsavant.mlb.com

Not much to say here, really. All of the play descriptions have Martínez “sharply lining out,” like he did to Kepler on Tuesday. He hit the ball hard, into outs. But it helps to show a portion of why he’s underperforming, even if he’s hitting well. The concentration of these batted balls also leads pretty well into our next section.

Batted Ball Direction

Martínez’s Pull%/Cent%/Oppo% is 33.3%/33.3%/33.3%. It genuinely doesn’t get more balanced than that, equaling out from his 34.9%/35.8%/29.3% line in 2017. But it doesn’t tell the full story. It’s clear he’s trying to hit to the opposite field more, but he’s going even further:

José Martínez’s batted ball hangtime, 2017 to 2018
fangraphs.com

I chose the hangtime spray chart to illustrate two things: 1) Martínez has virtually stopped hitting balls out of the infield on the left side, and 2) he’s done the exact opposite on the right side. First, you see the reduced hangtime on nearly every pitch, which again corroborates the launch angle change. But what’s more is that the groundballs are concentrated to the left side of the infield and the long balls almost stop entirely when you move left of straightaway center. Truly, I’m not sure what kind of implications this type of change has for Martínez longterm, but his hits are pretty evenly spread across the field to this point (though I’m sure some of those barreled-ball outs going for hits would’ve changed that). It’s promising to see a hitter start using the other side of the field — especially when he hasn’t sacrificed exit velocity.

Plate Discipline

This section is probably the most eye-opening of all three. Martínez has had pretty respectable plate discipline for his time throughout his career, never reaching a K rate of 20% or above in any of his 12 professional seasons. His walk rate since reaching the majors has been consistently between 10-11%. While that has held constant in 2018, he’s lowered his strikeout rate from 2017’s 19.5% to 11.9%. His BB/K of 0.89 is 19th among all qualified batters in 2018. But that isn’t the only plate discipline category in which he’s inside the top 20. As of this article’s writing, here’s a list of players in the top 20 in contact% (highest), swing% (lowest), swinging-strike% (lowest), and BB/K (highest):

  • Mike Trout
  • Mookie Betts
  • Alex Bregman
  • Denard Span
  • José Martínez

That’s not bad company at all. If you add zone% to that, the list goes down to just one name: José Martínez.

Martínez sees the ninth-fewest pitches inside the zone in all of baseball, sitting between Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper on the leaderboard. The difference between his 2017 numbers and this year is the second-largest decrease among batters with at least 300 PAs in 2017. Yet, even though he’s seeing fewer “hittable” pitches, he’s managed the fourth-largest increase in contact percentage and the tenth-largest decrease in swinging-strike%. He’s being pitched like an elite hitter and yet still managing some of the best plate discipline numbers in the league and ranking 21st in xwOBA.

Though it isn’t one focused on dingers, it seems like José Martínez’s new approach is delivering a hitter of the same value — or possibly more — with elite patience and contact skills. If his BABIP climbs a bit closer to his career mark of .338 and those barreled balls start falling for hits, we may see solid results start to resemble the excellent expectations.