The most high-profile competition for a roster spot in Spring Training for the 2017 St. Louis Cardinals was one between two career (mostly) minor league outfielders who were seemingly competing for their last real chance at a Major League job—Tommy Pham and Jose Martinez.
Tommy Pham was the best player on the Cardinals in 2017, despite losing out on the final spot to Martinez. He finished 11th in National League Most Valuable Player voting and cemented his role in the future of the Cardinals—when the Cardinals acquired Marcell Ozuna, who plays Pham’s 2017 position in left field, it was announced that the Cardinals would move 2017 center fielder Dexter Fowler to right field in order to accommodate Tommy Pham in center. The Cardinals may not be expecting Pham to be 2017-level Pham going forward, but their moves suggest they expect him to be an important part of the team’s short-term future.
Jose Martinez wasn’t quite Tommy Pham in 2017, but few are. By the standards of just about any other player, Martinez was an extraordinarily pleasant surprise for the Cardinals. Despite only 307 plate appearances, not an immaterial number but one which is indicative of his lack of regular starting role, Martinez was among the team’s best hitters. By the all-encompassing offensive metric wRC+, Jose Martinez finished behind only Pham among players with multiple plate appearances.
The natural first instinct with a player like Martinez, who will turn 30 this July and spent most of 2016 in AAA, is to assume that he will take a fairly significant step back. Generally, it makes more sense to look at the totality of a player’s track record than to look just at the previous year—yes, 2017 is part of that track record, but it does not tell the entire story.
But Jose Martinez isn’t just a career minor leaguer who stumbled into the big leagues and got lucky. Martinez wasn’t Bo Hart, who had a famously hot start to his MLB career in 2003 as a 26 year-old but was exposed when his wildly unsustainable batting average on balls in play (at the All-Star break, after 116 plate appearances, it stood at .437) turned out to be wildly unsustainable. Martinez wasn’t Magneuris Sierra, whose .317 batting average last season was so transparently a byproduct of luck (his 2017 BABIP was .413 and he displayed so little power that he led all MLB position players with 64 plate appearances without a single extra-base hit) that the Cardinals seemingly had no qualms including him in a trade with the Miami Marlins for Marcell Ozuna.
Even before 2017 started, Jose Martinez’s minor league track record suggested some tangible improvement. His home run power and walk rates increased (incrementally, but increased nonetheless) and in 2015, with the AAA Omaha Storm Chasers, Martinez posted a 177 wRC+.
In 2017, Martinez’s .379 wOBA ranked 29th in baseball among players with at least 300 plate appearances, sandwiched between established great hitters Anthony Rizzo and Justin Upton. But by xwOBA, Martinez deserved, based on batted ball data, a .411 wOBA. Instead of being in the vicinity of Rizzo and Upton (already an accomplishment), this puts Martinez a point ahead of Giancarlo Stanton’s 2017 results. Comparing each player’s xwOBA, Martinez had a 13 point lead.
Is “Jose Martinez is better than Giancarlo Stanton” a fair conclusion? Of course not. Giancarlo Stanton has been one of the most feared hitters in the sport for nearly a decade and Jose Martinez has 325 career plate appearances. And xwOBA, while an interesting statistic which has enough credibility to be compelling, is not fool-proof.
But what if Jose Martinez can keep this up? Again, it is improbable, but it is not impossible. And since Martinez under-performed his “deserved” wOBA in 2017, who is to say he couldn’t over-perform that mark in a future season?
491 players have had at least as many plate appearances with the St. Louis Cardinals as Jose Martinez, and by OPS+, he is tied for 27th with Hall of Famer Jim Bottomley. In the Live Ball Era (since 1920), Martinez ranks tied for 18th. Martinez has a higher Cardinals OPS+ than Ted Simmons, Enos Slaughter, Scott Rolen, Ray Lankford, and scores of others. And OPS+ measures what he did rather than what batted ball data suggests he should have done. Martinez’s ceiling goes even higher from here.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that Martinez maintains his 2017 xwOBA for an entire career, and thus his wOBA stands at .411. Among players with at least 5000 career plate appearances, Martinez would be tied for 30th all-time in the metric, on par with Jesse Burkett, Bob Johnson, and Chuck Klein. In case these names do not resonate, here are a few that might: Willie Mays (.409), Honus Wagner (.408), Frank Robinson (.404), and Hank Aaron (.403).
But this is misleading, as it would require Martinez to surpass his 2017 xwOBA going forward since he’s working from a .382 mark. If Martinez were to wOBA (I’m not sure what the verb form of this is—I’m going with this) .411 from now until he hits 5000 plate appearances, his career wOBA would stand at .409.
So what I’m saying is that Jose Martinez isn’t actually better than Willie Mays—he is actually exactly as good as Willie Mays. At least at the plate—Willie Mays is an all-timer defensively in center field and was a better base runner. Martinez, based on what we’ve seen so far, probably is never going to be much of a fielder.
But let’s say he becomes an adequate defensive first baseman—even after Friday’s trade of Randal Grichuk to the Toronto Blue Jays, this is the most likely spot where Martinez would become a full-time starter (with Matt Carpenter moving to third base), as the team would not likely want to bench its marquee 2017-18 trade acquisition nor its marquee 2016-17 free agent signing, and benching Tommy Pham means reshuffling the outfield alignment in addition to the whole “benching a guy who got MVP votes” thing. And despite coming up primarily as an outfielder, Martinez was above-average in 259 innings at first base in 2017 (one should not put too much credence into 259 innings, but since he appeared to be a non-incompetent first baseman, adequacy feels like a reasonable expectation).
Here is a look at qualified first basemen with a .411 or better wOBA this decade.
- 2017: Joey Votto (.428)
- 2016: Joey Votto (.413)
- 2015: Joey Votto (.427), Paul Goldschmidt (.418), Miguel Cabrera (.413)
- 2014: Jose Abreu (.411)
- 2013: Chris Davis (.421)
- 2012: None
- 2011: Miguel Cabrera (.437)
- 2010: Joey Votto (.438), Miguel Cabrera (.431), Albert Pujols (.419), Paul Konerko (.417)
Obligatory internet snark and Cardinals-tinted glasses aside, the odds that Jose Martinez is actually a true-talent .411 wOBA hitter are low. It’s entirely possible that Matt Carpenter remains at first base, Jedd Gyorko continues to be a fine third baseman, and Jose Martinez turns back into a pumpkin. But that a player like Martinez could have what would normally be brushed off as an impossibly fortuitous start and for there to be a compelling argument that he is actually better than that start is going to be one of the most interesting stories to follow for the 2018 Cardinals.