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Pumping the brakes on Jose Martinez

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He’s having a great spring, but let’s slow things down a bit

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at New York Mets Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

In watching baseball and observing stat lines, we are most likely to remember what just happened as opposed to everything that happened before that. It’s called recency bias, and it is likely to inform poor opinions if we don’t make ourselves aware of this bias and account for it. A good spring combined with recency bias has made many believe that Jose Martinez is a better player than the mountain of evidence before this spring would indicate.

Through yesterday’s game, Martinez has come to the plate 38 times this spring. He’s hitting .424/.500/.848, which is really good. It’s probably even better than .406/.432/.844. That’s what Jeremy Hazelbaker did in his first 38 plate appearances last year once the regular season started. Hazelbaker hit .202/.268/.411 the rest of the season.

While Jose Martinez isn’t Jeremy Hazelbaker, the purpose of the comparison is to show that just about anything can happen in 38 plate appearances, and all of Hazelbaker’s plate appearances came against MLB pitchers while the quality of opponents and the opponent’s aims in those appearances can differ greatly. Like Hazelbaker, Martinez is 28 years old and trying to earn a spot on the roster. Based on the current talent on the Cardinals, Martinez seems unlikely to earn that spot.

Based on the roster construction of the Cardinals, they have seven clear starters everywhere but third base, Jedd Gyorko and Jhonny Peralta at third base, and Eric Fryer in line to be backup catcher. That leaves three spots for the bench—assuming 13 position players—with Tommy Pham, Greg Garcia, Matt Adams, and Jose Martinez the most likely candidates for that spot.

Of the four, Greg Garcia is the only one that can play shortstop, third base, or second base. He’s also out of options which means that if the Cardinals tried to send him to the minor leagues some other team could grab him, and somebody would. That leaves Martinez, Pham, and Adams.

While those touting Martinez as a potential option, keep in mind a few things

1. Martinez cannot play center field

If the Cardinals take Martinez, it likely means they aren’t taking Pham. While there might be some debate about how good Pham is defensivley, he can at least play center field while the 6’6” 200+ pound Martinez cannot. Martinez isn’t likely to be an asset in the field at all, although he does have a strong arm.

2. Martinez does not have as much power as you think he does

Last season, Martinez got 507 plate appearances, mostly in Triple-A. He hit 11 home runs. In 2015, he got 413 plate appearances. He hit 10 home runs. In 763 plate appearances between 2013 and 2014, he hit 10 home runs.

3. Martinez did not have a great year last season

When he was still with the Royals, Martinez was fine in a small amount of playing time, hitting about 10% better than the average Triple-A player. At Memphis, he got 396 plate appearances and didn’t hit all that well with a .269/.326/.415 line, which was about 5% worse than the average Triple-A player (not park adjusted).

4. Projections do not like Martinez

Over at Fangraphs, you can see the projections from Steamer and ZiPS. Steamer thinks Martinez is a below-average hitter in the majors with a projected 93 wRC+. Along with a below-average defensive value, that makes Martinez a replacement-level player, which, given he has been made available multiple times over the years at little-to-no cost, makes a lot of sense. ZiPS says the same, with a 90 wRC+.

So what advantages does Martinez have over Pham? Hard to say. When factoring in performance over the majors and minors over the last few years, projections say that Pham is a better hitter than Martinez, with a hitting line closer to average. Given Pham is likely a better defender than Martinez, it is hard to see how Martinez would offer more to the Cardinals than a healthy Pham—for however long Pham stays healthy.

What about Martinez over Adams? If Martinez can play first base in addition to corner outfield, that would make him more versatile than Adams. He would also be a right-handed complement to the left-handed Matt Carpenter. So as a fifth outfielder/first baseman, Martinez might make some sense, except Matt Adams is a better hitter, perfectly league average with more power than Martinez. For the last spot on the bench, choosing the better hitter, and an opposite-handed hitter to your other bench option (Pham) makes more sense. Without Adams, the Cardinals would have no left-handed hitter with any pop on the bench.

Martinez has had 38 good plate appearances. They might mean something. But that something compared to the years of data we have means virtually nothing. Spring stats really don’t matter. If Martinez hits well for a few months in Triple-A and Pham gets injured, then bring Martinez up, but we shouldn’t let 10 games of at bats inform roster decisions.