J.D. Martinez: Right-Handed Lefty Power Hitter

If you’ve been paying attention to baseball during the past month, you probably know that J.D. Martinez has been on a pretty good run. That might be an understatement: he’s hit 15 home runs in the past 31 days, four more than the next-best mark (Albert Pujols). If home runs aren’t your thing, he’s also first in wRC+, wOBA, and ISO over that span. Martinez has been out of his mind recently, and he’s been out of his mind in an even more extreme way than we’re used to seeing from him.

Let’s start with a few names. Below is the complete list of right-handed hitters who have hit a home run to either center field or right field at Comerica Park this season:

It’s not an extensive list, because hitting home runs to those areas of Comerica Park is difficult if you’re right handed: the right-field fence is 11 feet tall once you get toward right center, and center field is, quite simply, where fly balls go to die. The names on this list have to possess a lot of raw power, obviously. Exhibit A, Martinez’ first hit of the season:

If we take out the players on the list who have only hit one such home run, we’re unsurprisingly left with only players on the Tigers: Castellanos has two such homers, Cabrera has four, and Martinez? He has ten. Nine of those Martinez home runs have gone to right field. In other terms, he’s accounted for over 55% of the opposite-field homers by righties at Comerica.

This confirms what we’ve been witnessing for just over the past calendar year: J.D. Martinez has huge power to the opposite field. That’s impressive because it’s rare, and also because it’s usually not a fluke. Just for fun, let’s look at the leaders in ISO to the opposite field this season:

 Player Oppo ISO
J.D. Martinez .644
Bryce Harper .548
Joey Votto .436
Ryan Braun .403
Russell Martin .400
David Freese .393
Mitch Moreland .378
Paul Goldschmidt .371
Luis Valbuena .367
Adam Lind .353

Lots of great names on this list. At number two, we have Bryce Harper, who is having a ridiculous year when going to the opposite field, and then we have Martinez almost 100 points above him. To put this in perspective, Stephen Vogt leads all left-handed hitters with an ISO of .554 to the pull side in 2015. Martinez, a righty, has been 90 points better than the most powerful pull lefty when hitting to that area of the park.

As Jeff laid out last September, the really unique thing about Martinez is not just that he has extreme power to right field, but that he couples it with extreme power to the pull side. Not many hitters exhibit that sort of tendency, and no one did it to the extent that Martinez did last year. How are his pull/opposite splits looking compared to last year? Take a look:

Pull wRC+ Center wRC+ Oppo wRC+
2014 260 183 291
2015 252 189 283

Last year, we marveled at the adjustments Martinez made to facilitate a true breakout, one that pushed him from a Rule 5 pick to a ceiling as one of the better power hitters in the majors. Like any single-season breakout, we wanted to see his new skills carry to the next season, and so far, they have. The Tigers’ right fielder has now done something absurd for almost a season and a half, which is post opposite-field production greater than an already wildly productive pull side. The reality seems to be that Martinez, despite being very dangerous to the pull side, could be more dangerous to the opposite field.

Eno spoke to Martinez almost exactly a month ago, right as the slugger was beginning on his latest power binge. You should read the entire piece, but one of his quotes was this:

“Now my swing is built to try and get the ball in the air.”

Right on cue, that’s exactly what Martinez has been doing, and in an extreme way. For the past month, 55.6% of the balls he’s hit have been flies, second behind only Chris Carter. If we’re talking the opposite field, that rate jumps to 62.5%. The latter figure is actually lower than his season total, as 80% of the total balls he’s put in play to the opposite field have been flies.

For most hitters, that would be a death wish. For Martinez, who has increased his average fly-ball distance by almost ten feet this season (to 307 feet, 11th-best in the majors), it’s his standard way of operating. You simply don’t see many right-handed hitters with spray charts that look like this:

Source: FanGraphs

In 2015, Martinez has hit most of his grounders to the left side, liners to left and center, and flies to right. It’s a strangely tidy distribution. Fly-ball and power-wise, he’s been the equivalent of a great left-handed power bat. On top of these patterns, his 54.2% hard-hit rate leads over the past month leads all qualified hitters by over seven percentage points. Hit the ball really hard with extreme fly-ball tendencies, and good things generally follow.

Another interesting aspect to this past month — part of the reason why we’re here, in fact — is to talk about the way pitchers are approaching Martinez. How do you pitch to someone who can do this:

But can also do this just as often?

The answer to that seems to be “very carefully.” We know Martinez is prone to swing and miss, and he’s going to account for his share of strikeouts. The place pitchers have gotten him most often this season has been the fastball high and fastball away. Though he has the potential to take pitches on the outer fringes of the plate out of the ballpark, most of his power is actually limited to the inside and central parts of the zone. Take a look at his strikeout map, courtesy of Baseball Savant:


That red blob on the outside corner is mostly fastballs, and he’s also been victimized (as most are) by the slider down and away. It’s easy to assume that a player who can hit to the opposite field with incredible power might also own the outer part of the strike zone, but that’s not always the case, as we can see with Martinez.

At some point, probably soon, this ridiculous power glut from Martinez will end. His general approach isn’t likely to, however: hit the ball hard, hit the ball in the air, and trust in his strength to produce to the opposite field. That carried him to a breakout last year, and it’s continued to carry him through half of this season. Even though he has contact issues at times, a player who is about average with the glove and can hit to all fields with this sort of power rarely comes along. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that Detroit signed him for almost nothing just a year and a half ago. He’s done nothing but hit ever since.

Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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7 years ago

“That’s impressive because it’s rare, and also because it’s usually not a fluke. Just for fun, let’s look at the leaders in ISO to the opposite field this season”

This, and the two following tables have to be on fly-balls only, right? I’ve read it over a couple of times and I can’t see you ever actually mentioning that.