So How Good Has J.D. Martinez Become?

People love a breakout, so they’re always on the hunt. You’ll see a bunch of potential breakouts get written up in the first half, as season sample sizes start to grow. Among those potential breakouts, you will find the actual breakouts. But you’ll also find the noisy duds, because it turns out half of a season has a limit on how meaningful it can be. In the first half of this season, Lonnie Chisenhall posted a 163 wRC+. In the second half of this season, he’s posted just about the same wRC+, except without the 1 in it. Chisenhall’s gotten much much worse. Early on, J.D. Martinez was another potential breakout. As I write this his wRC+ is sandwiched between Giancarlo Stanton‘s and Paul Goldschmidt’s. Martinez, to a large extent, has kept things up, and he’s produced like one of the top hitters in baseball.

Because one half of one season can be noisy, two halves of one season can be noisy, particularly when a guy hasn’t been a full-time player from the start. Martinez hasn’t totally established his new baseline yet, but it’s not like this came without warning — Dan Farnsworth was all over it in December. I think we can see J.D. Martinez is better. So the question is: How much better is he?

There’s one thing in particular I want to highlight from Farnsworth’s tremendous breakdown. Regarding Martinez’s adjusted swing:

Quick synopsis? J.D. is showing a tremendously better ability to drive the ball to center and right-center fields due to a change in swing path and lower half stability.

I’ve linked to that post before, but, what the hell, you might as well read it again, even if you’ve already read it three or four times. Farnsworth projected that Martinez would show a better ability to drive the ball up the middle and the other way. Martinez was never lacking for power. It was about consistency and plate coverage. So keep that in mind as you examine the following table.

Everything should be self-explanatory, provided you’ve hung around FanGraphs before:

Year(s) Pull wRC+ Center wRC+ Opposite wRC+ Pull HR/FB Center HR/FB Opposite HR/FB
2011-2013 161 105 125 36% 5% 5%
2014 260 185 308 45% 11% 21%

Those wRC+ numbers are on contact, so, excepting strikeouts and walks and the like. Before, as an Astro, Martinez demonstrated fairly good pull power, but he didn’t have too much power elsewhere. He wasn’t a pile of crap to the other fields, but those weren’t necessarily strengths. This year’s numbers are absurdities. Even more pull power. Better power up the middle. Better power the other way. Martinez has been one of baseball’s best opposite-field hitters to date. He’s been perhaps even better the other way than to the pull side.

From Baseball Savant, here are Martinez’s home runs with Houston:

martinez20112013

And, now, with Detroit:

martinez2014

What Farnsworth saw has come true, with Martinez indeed driving the ball more around right-center. What’s implied is Martinez has taken a step forward with regard to his plate coverage, and as compelling and convincing evidence, here are pitches Martinez has hit out. He’s hit a low pitch out:

martinezdown

He’s hit an outside pitch out:

martinezdownaway

He’s hit a high pitch out:

martinezup

He’s hit whatever the heck this is out, somehow:

martinezupin

About that last one. The ESPN Home Run Tracker says it would’ve left 29 of 30 ballparks. That’s not 30 of 30 ballparks, but that’s all but one of them, and we’re looking at a pitch both in off the plate, and well above the belt. It was a fastball, and a fastball high and tight has the greatest possible perceived-velocity boost, so Martinez didn’t have a lot of time to turn on that pitch. But he turned on it for a dinger. It’s an individually remarkable dinger on its own, and in context it’s impressive that that was hit by a guy who’s also able to control the plate’s outer half.

So we can see Martinez is more consistent with his power. We can see he’s better with his coverage, and he’s been a lot more aggressive this season within the strike zone. I want to take you back to that table. So Martinez this year has a 260 wRC+ to the pull side, and a 308 wRC+ to the opposite field. There aren’t a lot of hitters who are tremendous at both. Allow me to prove that to you: I pulled data going back to 2010, so covering just short of five years. I used FanGraphs’ split leaderboards, with a 200-event minimum. I was left with a pool of 308 players.

Of those players, 43 have a wRC+ of at least 200 to the pull side. Of those players, zero have a wRC+ of at least 200 to the opposite field. Out of the whole pool, just five players meet that threshold, and Chris Davis comes tantalizingly close. Here are the players who come the closest to having a 200 wRC+ to both sides:

  • Chris Davis, 199 pull, 218 opposite
  • Mike Napoli, 185 pull, 216 opposite
  • Matt Kemp, 186 pull, 195 opposite
  • Paul Goldschmidt, 193 pull, 192 opposite
  • Ryan Braun, 194 pull, 185 opposite
  • Miguel Cabrera, 224 pull, 193 opposite

Those are guys at at least 200/200. Martinez this year is at 260/308. He blows the two thresholds away, and while it’s not fair to compare one guy’s single season to other guys’ combined seasons, this gives you a sense of what Martinez has been and what his potential could be now. In the five years, those six players have posted overall wRC+ figures between 121 and 170. Davis brings up the rear, at 21% better than an average hitter. Martinez also might be a half-decent defensive corner outfielder.

Fact: J.D. Martinez has succeeded this year in a big way, after changing the way that he hits.

Sub-fact: Martinez has succeeded by hitting the ball hard to all fields, which is an uncommon skill and a hard thing to fluke.

Theory: Martinez’s ability to spray line drives and dingers could mean he’s less likely to regress super hard.

The concerns with Martinez are his walks and his strikeouts. He likes to swing — in the zone and out of it — and he makes a below-average rate of contact. For that reason, he’s unlikely to hit like prime Miguel Cabrera. But he certainly makes more contact than Chris Davis, and as Martinez becomes better known, he’ll see fewer strikes, so he’ll end up with more walks. Maybe Martinez ends up hitting like the good versions of guys like Michael Morse and Corey Hart. But those good versions were good hitters. And when you blend that ability with Martinez’s other ability to play the field without embarrassing himself, you have a guy who looks like a star sometimes. Maybe a lot of the times. Sometimes the apparent breakouts are noise. And sometimes there are actual, honest-to-goodness breakouts.

We hoped you liked reading So How Good Has J.D. Martinez Become? by Jeff Sullivan!

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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.

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tz
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tz

It’s great to see how Farnsworth’s heads-up came into fruition:

– Take Martinez’s winter-ball data, which is interesting but far from conclusive

– Add real nuts-and-bolts expert analysis to see whether this is the sign of a potential success story

– The narrative then proves true when looking at the numbers the next year.

It seems that maybe the ripest market inefficiency in baseball now is figuring out who will succeed based only upon scouting analysis and performance data from questionable sources. For example:

– Jose Abreu hitting the snot out of the ball in Cuba, but not knowing how to translate that to an MLB equivalent.

– Mike Trout playing HS ball in New Jersey, with a short season and not as many chances against elite competition as he’d have gotten growing up in the Sun Belt.

Great stuff.