The only thing that could’ve stopped this would’ve been a mystery team, and such a team never came out of the woodwork. From day one, the Red Sox were the favorites to sign J.D. Martinez as a free agent. The Sox just struggled to hit home runs in the absence of David Ortiz, and Martinez went deep a career-high 45 times. Boston had the desire, the money, and the roster space. Oh, sure, the Diamondbacks were in there somewhere, having fallen in love with what Martinez brought to them down the stretch, but they just had the desire and the space, and not so much the funds. They couldn’t have been considered a legitimate threat. And so there was no legitimate threat. Martinez and the Red Sox just needed to accept the circumstances.
Martinez wasn’t going to hold out much longer. But some late give by Boston compelled an actual agreement. The terms: five years, and $110 million. It’s more complicated than that, however, because Martinez can opt out after two years and $50 million, or after three years and $72 million. As such, what we’re seeing is a front-loaded deal that essentially has consecutive multi-year player options. This is more valuable than $110 million, in other words. Given the market, it’s a good deal for Martinez and it’s a good deal for Scott Boras. The final few years are like a safety net.
The Red Sox being a Dave Dombrowski operation, the future can figure itself out when it gets here. We can talk about Martinez’s contract deeper down. For now, for right now, the Red Sox have one of the best hitters in baseball. They’re not going to give the division to the Yankees without a fight.
Simply put, this one’s easy to understand. Martinez’s bat is as good as almost anyone else’s. The Red Sox had money to move, and now, instead of playing Mitch Moreland and Hanley Ramirez, on any given day they can choose one or the other. And since you should never ignore a team’s context, consider where the Red Sox have been. Yeah, Martinez will be a DH, and there’s risk in giving a large contract to someone with limited flexibility. But, you’ve heard about the win curve? The Red Sox have been around that position where extra wins are most valuable. They needed to separate themselves from AL wild-card contenders, while trying to keep up with the Yankees. Martinez won’t add wins to a team that doesn’t need them. In theory, at least, this significantly improves Boston’s chances of reaching the first round. The team was good, and now it is better.
Martinez is a 30-year-old righty. Allow me to present one overview of his profile. Here’s Martinez since he became a regular with the Tigers.
Martinez is a little bit like a one-tool player. I think that plot pretty convincingly makes the case. He’s a well below-average baserunner, and he’s a well below-average defender. There’s a reason he’s going to DH. Martinez, also, strikes out pretty often, and he’s not someone known for his patience. Across many categories, you wouldn’t think that J.D. Martinez is all that special. But, that one tool — when Martinez makes contact, he’s almost unparalleled. It’s not that he hits the ball as hard as Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton. Yet Martinez has mastered the ideal ball in the air. You might say he generates optimal trajectories.
Here’s another plot. This one also compares Martinez to his peers, but we’re looking at only the results of contact. We have overall batted-ball wRC+, and then we have wRC+ to the pull side, up the middle, and going the other way.
On contact, Martinez has been almost the best hitter in baseball. To the pull side, he’s been almost the best hitter in baseball. Up the middle, he’s been almost the best hitter in baseball. And going the other way, he has been the best hitter in baseball. For all of Martinez’s shortcomings, his all-fields power is incredible. He’s a threat to go deep to any part of any park, against any strike and many balls. This is a rare profile to achieve.
If there’s concern — and there’s always concern — it’s that all of Martinez’s statistics are backward-looking. The Red Sox are paying for his next few years, and if Martinez were to lose some of his contact quality, he’d become less valuable in a hurry. David Ortiz aged well, and the same has been true of, say, Edwin Encarnacion, but, based on contact rate, Martinez doesn’t possess the same kind of bat control. Still, it’s not hard to look at Martinez and think about him aging like Nelson Cruz, who remains an elite hitter at 37 despite plenty of swings and misses. Martinez has been very good for multiple seasons in a row.
I know that these posts are usually dedicated to team and player analysis. I’d just like to take a quick break here, though, to acknowledge just how far Martinez has come. He was always expected to sign some contract like this, once he hit free agency. Very little about this outcome is surprising. But, in the bigger picture, everything about this outcome is surprising, because, if you’ll remember, in spring training of 2014, J.D. Martinez was released by the Astros. He was a 26-year-old outfielder with a negative major-league WAR. The Astros shopped Martinez and couldn’t find a trading partner. No one thought very much of him.
Martinez had been outrighted the fall before, as well, and by that point he was in the earlier stages of his total swing overhaul. Martinez took his new swing to winter ball, where he mashed. Then, in spring, the Astros just didn’t give him much of a shot, pre-release. When Martinez subsequently joined the Tigers, he put up a 154 wRC+. Astros left fielders, meanwhile, posted the lowest combined wRC+ in the American League. This is old news by now, and every team makes mistakes, but Martinez was a swing-changer before swing-changing caught on. Maybe he was always going to find his level, I don’t know. But Martinez was just barely clinging to a career, and then he turned his entire life around. Just under four years after being dumped, Martinez has signed for a nine-figure guarantee. Just because there’s also Josh Donaldson and Justin Turner doesn’t make the J.D. Martinez story any less inspiring. He’s one of the reasons why more players are willing to change their swings now in the first place.
Okay, so, back to the deal. The Red Sox are really good now. They have control of Chris Sale and Xander Bogaerts through 2019, and they have control of Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. through 2020. Baseball America just ranked the Sox 24th in their organizational rankings. It’s not that I think the Sox are necessarily headed for a cliff, but they aren’t getting a whole lot younger. This is a team that wants to win now, because it might not be able to compete with the Yankees’ youth. In those same organizational rankings, the Yankees are in second place. They are, you might say, a daunting rival.
Martinez might be around for two years, or he might be around for three, or he might be around for all five. Do not let yourself get tripped up by opt-out clauses again. The Red Sox didn’t sign J.D. Martinez for two years and $50 million. They signed him for two years and $50 million if he’s really good, but if he’s bad or injured or both, then he sticks around. An opt-out clause is player-friendly. Martinez is getting two of them. They provide extra value to the player, while reducing the team’s chance of getting a strong return on investment.
Where it gets tricky is not knowing what it would’ve taken to sign Martinez without any opt-out clauses. It would’ve cost more money, but we don’t know how much. You can say the Red Sox might not want the last three years of the contract anyway, but they would want those years if Martinez were good through 2019. If he’s not so good, well, the Red Sox are stuck. The Mets gave Yoenis Cespedes a three-year contract with an opt-out after year one. Cespedes was very good, and he opted out and re-signed, for an extra two years and $62.5 million. The Tigers gave Justin Upton a six-year contract with an opt-out after year two. Upton was very good, and he just about opted out and then re-signed — with the Angels — for an extra year and $17.5 million. Johnny Cueto’s a guy who didn’t opt out of his contract, last November. So the Giants are on the hook for another four years and $89 million. Everything that comes after an opt-out clause is basically a future salary minimum, assuming a given player doesn’t misread the market too badly.
The opt-out clause is still so widely misunderstood. It’s just a way of including more value in a contract without including more money. Of course, even for a team, there are better and worse potential outcomes, but the best outcomes are just a little less great. It’s almost impossible for the Red Sox to come away from this contract with a steal. That upside isn’t there.
At the end of the day, though, that’s wonk stuff. That’s important wonk stuff, that every club needs to understand, but if the Red Sox just want to spend money, well, they have the money to spend, and Martinez is an elite-level hitter. This is one team that didn’t try to avoid going beyond the competitive-balance-tax threshold, because last year they remained just under. No, Martinez won’t determine the fate of the Red Sox’ season. That’s at least as much up to guys like Betts and Sale and David Price. But Martinez is something the Red Sox didn’t have before. That is, not since Ortiz’s retirement. It hasn’t been all that long since Ortiz stepped away. For Boston, it felt like it’d been forever.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.