J.D. Martinez Debunks Conventional Wisdom, Thinks a Tipping Point Is Near

Editor’s Note: the following post contains spicy language.

J.D. Martinez had just concluded a chat with a Tigers beat reporter when I approached him Monday afternoon. I sensed him preparing to escape my forthcoming interview request in the Joker Marchant Stadium clubhouse as I walked in his direction. He’d just risen from the cushioned chair in front of his locker and picked up a cardboard box of personal effects as I introduced myself. His body language wasn’t suggestive of much interest in engaging in conversation with me and, to be fair, I was a stranger. We had never spoken. He had just finished playing six innings of an exhibition game and was presumably was looking forward to the rest of the day.

But then I explained why I was interested in speaking with him. He rested the box on a laundry cart, freed his hands, seemed to warm to the idea (or possibly not), and opened up.

I wanted to ask Martinez whether baseball is on the cusp of a fly-ball revolution, whether we’re about to see the sort of approach already adopted by Martinez, Josh Donaldson and Justin Turner — all of whom have experienced great personal success — become more widely adopted and accepted in the majors. Jeff Sullivan and I have written quite a bit about the potential fly-ball revolution in recent weeks as you can read here, here, here and here. But Monday offered a chance to get a key perspective from an early adopter and perhaps a significant influencer.

Martinez said that, around the batting cages in Lakeland, Florida, this spring, more teammates have been approached him to talk about the philosophy that changed him from a slap-hitting, .387 slugging, 88 wRC+-ing Astros outfielder to a .540 slugging, 145 wRC+-ing star with the Tigers from 2014 to -16.

First, an example of Bad Martinez (2011-13):

And also Good Martinez (2014-16):

Martinez isn’t proselytizing his ideas on Twitter or Instagram like some of his fellow converts…

… but he is open about his philosophy when approached by teammates.

“People talk to me and I tell them straight up. I don’t bullshit,” Martinez said. “In the cage, I talk about it all the time. I’m not trying to hit a fucking line drive or a freaking ground ball. I’m trying to hit the ball in the air. I feel like the ball in the air is my strength and has a chance to go anywhere in the park. So why am I trying to hit a ground ball? That’s what I believe in.”

With his hands now free, Martinez demonstrates how he’s in search of a bat plane angle that will produce more balls in flight. He notes that statistics prove the value of a fly ball over a ground ball. In 2016, batters hit .241 with a .715 slugging mark and a wRC+ of 139 on fly balls versus a .238 average, .258 slugging mark and of wRC+ of 27 on ground balls.

He suspects there will be many more players buying into his beliefs. But he’s frustrated that it took him so long to discover a hitting philosophy that’s effective but also runs contrary to conventional teaching philosophy. He’s frustrated he still hears so much conventional wisdom.

“I always thought the perfect swing was a line drive [back to] the pitcher,” Martinez said. “I’d go out there and hit the ball perfectly, and it’s [a] single. Why is my perfect swing a single?

“You still talk to coaches ‘Oh, you want a line drive right up the middle. Right off the back of the [L-screen in batting practice].’ OK, well that’s a fucking single. To me, the numbers don’t lie. The balls in the air play more.”

Martinez found the philosophy in serendipitous fashion. When he was on disabled list in 2013 in Houston, a campaign he would finish with a .250/.272/.378 slash line, he became curious in some of the swing changes then-teammate Jason Castro had made in a career year. He began spending more time in the club’s video room analyzing Castro’s swing. And that June, while in the clubhouse, his attention turned to coverage of a story on cable news.

“I walk out of the and I saw Ryan Braun got [suspended] with PEDs,” Martinez said. “They kept showing his swing on replay. I thought ‘That’s the same fucking swing that Jason has been doing.’ I went up to Jason after the game and I said ‘I know what you did. You changed your whole path.’ In 2013, he was destroying the league. He was doing all these weird gadgets. I told him to give me the number to his hitting coach.

“I started looking at Trout, Braun, Pujols… Why does their swing look like that and my swing look like this? I’m doing everything the coaches tell me. I’m swinging down on the ball. In BP, I’m hitting low line drives everywhere. In games, it doesn’t play.”

After the season, Martinez traveled to California to work with a private hitting instructor, Craig Wallenbrock, who had worked with Castro. “We changed the whole foundation,” Martinez.

As with Turner, after one offseason of rebuilding, a star bat was created. Martinez’s story has been well documented — including here at FanGraphs, where Eno detailed Martinez’s swing changes in 2015. And more and more in the media and industry have since become curious. What’s perhaps changing is that the sport is reaching a critical mass. The Pirates have talked about OPS being in the air. More and more hitters are approaching Martinez and reading about the philosophies of Doug Latta and Chad Longworth and others.

Does Martinez believe the philosophy is reaching a sort of tipping point?

“Oh, definitely,” Martinez said. “Hitting takes a while to catch up because of your old-school coaching, old-school mentality. Trying to hit down on the ball. Stuff like that. Once all that starts to go, I feel like the philosophies on hitting will trend forward. But everyone is so caught up on ‘I have to hire someone who has played in the big leagues because he knows what he’s talking about.’ But, to me, that’s not what it is about. It’s more about knowing your shit. You can tell when you talk to someone and they sit down there and they break it down and they show you every little move that the great hitters make and then the moves you make.”

While Martinez believes there is being progress made league wide, he already sees pitchers trying to combat his hitting philosophy.

“Pitchers are countering it right now. The pitchers are always ahead,” Martinez said.

What exactly are the adjustments being made to his swing path? Martinez and I had not, apparently, reached that level of trust.

“That’s one of things you don’t want to tell anyone,” Martinez said.

While Martinez would not reveal what he believes to be counter measures to his swing path, it appears pitchers are trying to elevate their fastballs against Martinez.

Fastballs thrown against Martinez in 2012:

Fastballs thrown against Martinez in 2016:

Martinez is seeing fewer two-seam fastballs, pitches against which a Martinez-like bat path typically has more success, according to The Book. Martinez is seeing fewer sliders and more curveballs. Martinez saw a career-high rate of curves last season (13.5%), which marked a 43% jump from what he saw in 2014 and 2015.

Of course not everyone is buying in. Max Kepler said the philosophy is “Completely bogus.”

“Whenever I’m in doubt, I try to hit long ground balls to level my swing back out. I’m the complete opposite of what I hear people saying now days,” Kepler said.

But if Martinez is right — and judging by the talk around Detroit’s batting cages, he is — then conventional hitting wisdom could perhaps soon be replaced, and if that should happen, there will be fascinating consequences for the sport.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Brad Wesley
7 years ago

No groundbreaking/analytical comment to share, just thought this was a really cool read and interesting perspective. Thanks for sharing. As always great work!

7 years ago
Reply to  Brad Wesley

+1. This – and the whole series this subject has turned into – is so fascinating.