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Does Jose Martinez’s defense make him bench-worthy?

We know Jose Martinez is good at hitting, but his defense might negate most of the benefit of his hitting.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at St. Louis Cardinals Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

“It’s not that hard, Scott. Tell him, Wash”

“It’s incredibly hard.”

- Moneyball

I’ve always thought this line was kind of bull. It’s a funny line, no doubt. But there’s kind of a reason that first base is the last line of defense. At least specifically for that movie - and though they take different skillsets - if you can play catcher, you can most certainly play first base. Watching Jose Martinez has thrown me for a loop though.

Few disclaimers necessary before I utter a possibly controversial take. I have only been paying attention to baseball this century and I’ve only been analytically looking at baseball for less than 10 years. I also pretty much just watch the Cardinals, and it’s only expanded past that whenever I’ve watched the playoffs. But Jose Martinez is the worst defender I have ever seen in my life. I am frankly at a loss as to how somebody could be worse. Do I think people have been equally bad as Martinez in baseball? Sure. But I don’t know if it is possible to actually be worse. (Another disclaimer: I’m factoring in the fact that it’s first base here. There have been worse fielders relative to their peers at, say, shortstop, but I’m factoring in level of difficulty)

That got me to thinking: what if his defense makes him not worth starting? There are tradeoffs in baseball when you’re dealing with either a great hitter/ bad fielder or great fielder/ bad hitter. You have to be at a certain level of badness in your weak spot in order to make your strong spot matter. It’s the difference between Billy Hamilton and Kevin Pillar. Pillar is not a good hitter, but he’s worthy of a starting spot because he’s a good enough hitter with his defense. Billy Hamilton is so bad at hitting, he’s a below average starter despite being an elite defender at a premium position. To use a Cardinal example, Ozzie Smith is kind of underrated on offense. He wouldn’t have gotten in the Hall if his bat was bad enough, I don’t care how good his defense was.

Now figuring out if Jose Martinez is worth starting with his defense is difficult because: 1) we don’t know how bad he is on defense and worse 2) we don’t actually know good he is on offense yet either. The projections haven’t caught up - 109 wRC+ rest of season ZiPS which if true would make this question very easy to answer. So you have to guess the baseline of how good his offense is (or take his projection at face value, which again means he’s definitely got to go on the bench) and guess how good his defense is.

For the first time in history, his defense is easier to guess in my opinion. I looked at the worst defenders in the history of UZR. To be fair, UZR 1B is a lot more questionable than UZR at outfield or the rest of the infield, but I chose to reference this because I think it gives a good sense of how low the bar can go - and I’m not relying on UZR to judge Martinez. I’m using my eyes, because as I said, worst defender I’ve ever seen. Plus, there’s no way UZR would capture his full badness anyway - he frequently drops catchable balls that end up giving errors to the infielders and not him. He so bad he makes other people’s numbers look worse.

(Side note: I’m sure this is already a thing, but is there any stat judging 1B on the number of throwing errors his teammates make when he’s at 1B? I don’t even know how you could possibly track that though given that sometimes infielders do actually throw uncatchable balls.)

Unsurprisingly, the bar is Adam Dunn’s defense at 1B. Now I can’t say whether he was as bad as the numbers say, because he spent only one full season at 1B and the rest of his career was part-time there, but in over 4,000 innings, he was worth -12.1 UZR/150 at 1B. I didn’t find anybody lower in an adequate sample.

So let’s play around with a few numbers here. Since the bar is -12 UZR/150, let’s see what his WAR over 600 plate appearances would be with varying degrees of badness. I’m giving him his current wRC+ and I can’t go higher than that because I’m not really seeing anything in his numbers to suggest it should be higher. But I’ll explore him with differing hitting lines later.

-5 UZR/150: 2.4 WAR

-10 UZR/150: 1.9 WAR

-12 UZR/150: 1.5 WAR

There’s no way he’s only a -5 fielder, but I was just curious on the absolute best case rose-colored view I could imagine. This is a little alarming to me. I’m taking Carp/Wong/DeJong/Gyorko over this EASILY. Now, while Paul DeJong is on the shelf, I got no problem with Martinez taking playing time away from Yairo Munoz (though if for nothing else, I’m cool with playing him to see what we got) or Greg Garcia, the presumable replacements to Martinez sitting. But seeing as Gyorko isn’t going to play SS very often, inevitably he’s taking playing time away from one of Carp/Wong/Gyorko, and if you assume he’s a 126 wRC+ hitter, that’s... not ideal to me.

I think a safe estimate of his defense is -10, because he at least tries and if my memory is correct, Adam Dunn did not. So with the defense set at -10, I want to see what differing batting lines look on Martinez.

109 wRC+ (projected): 0.5 WAR

126 wRC+ (current): 1.9 WAR

135 wRC+ (his wRC+ on May 27): 2.6 WAR

150 wRC+: 3.6 WAR

So some possible good news here is that his wRC+ is as low as 126 because he’s had a couple hitless games. If I wrote this a couple days ago, this would certainly have a much more optimistic tone. But dear god let that projection be wrong. I’m actually very afraid it’s closer to right than we think and here’s why: his power has basically evaporated. He has a .112 isolated power in May. He has a .147 ISO on the year and his RoS projected ISO is .154 (probably lower by the time this posts actually).

His power is the only place where he could improve his hitting. He’s not going to improve his K/BB numbers: walking at a 9.7% clip and striking out at a 14.3% clip is about as good you can get. Plus he’s not going to walk more if he stops hitting for power. Those go hand in hand usually. I’d like to believe his K rate, which is lower than last year, is the result of less power, but he has a higher K rate in May than he did in April. His BABIP is .329 and relying on him to post anything higher than that is a fool’s errand. So it’s pretty much all up to his true talent power.

Once again though, there’s an interesting fact about his numbers. He eats left-handed pitchers breakfasts and then makes them pay him for the right to eat their breakfast. You noticed that Craig Counsell took Josh Hader out yesterday when Jose Martinez came to the plate. Well he had good reason (besides the high pitch count). Martinez has a 195 wRC+ - and this doesn’t include the walk he got from Hader yesterday - in his career against lefties. Now, we’re dealing with 121 plate appearances here so don’t put too much stock in it, but I’m confident that he’s a pretty great hitter against lefties at the least.

He’s been a 117 wRC+ hitter against righties so he’s no slouch in that department either, but with his defense at 1B, that’s not really a starting caliber player (on this team). So I thought I’d end my article complicating things further, because you not only have to make educated guesses on his offense overall, now you get to guess on his splits too, because the samples are much too small.

So my conclusion is that - at this very moment and things can change - when Paul DeJong returns from the disabled list, I think I would probably sit Jose Martinez most games against righties. He can start when he’s in AL parks (and I think we’ve only played in Minnesota so far so he’s got some guaranteed starts there) and against lefties, but I got to think the other four infield options - when DeJong is healthy - are better plays against righties.