The Orioles are 5-0, Ross Stripling almost threw a no-hitter in his Major League debut, and Eugenio Suarez apparently doesn’t make outs anymore, but those were all just footnotes of the first week of the 2016 season. There’s only one big story in MLB right now, and no, that’s not another easy setup for a pun based on Trevor Story’s last name. Okay, maybe it is. They’re so easy!
But despite Trevor’s made-for-headline-writers last name, it’s his performance that keeps him in the news. After finally failing to hit a home run on Saturday, the first time in five big league games that he didn’t go yard, Story launched another one last night, bringing his season total to seven. No one else has more than four. 16 teams have fewer home runs than Trevor Story right now. He has as many long balls as the Mets, Marlins, Pirates, and Angels combined.
So, yeah, welcome to the big leagues, kid. It’s not often that rookie shortstops put on this type of show, and no player of any type has ever hit for this kind of power in their first week in the Major Leagues.
Of course, the usual caveats apply. Almost anything can happen in six games, especially for a hitter who played those six games in Arizona and Colorado, with three of those coming against the Padres. Halfway through his crazy first week, Paul Swydan reminded us that such luminaries as Josh Rutledge and Clint Barmes have crushed the ball after coming up to play middle infield for the Rockies, only to be exposed by big league pitchers as time wore on.
So Story’s monstrous first week isn’t any kind of guarantee of future success. Pitchers will adjust and stop giving him elevated fastballs, and his strikeout rates in the minors suggest that there are holes in his swing that can be taken advantage of. As the league catches on to the fact that Story can hit the baseball a long way, he’ll see fewer pitches to hit, and how he’ll adjust to that might very well determine what kind of hitter he turns out to be.
But throughout spring training and over the last week, as Story just keeps ripping the ball with authority, people have been looking for comparisons based on Story’s skillset. As Jeff Sullivan has noted several times, Story was an extreme fly ball hitter in the minor leagues, and that makes comparing him to other middle infielders difficult.
You could see some Jed Lowrie in there from that aspect, but Lowrie posted better walk and strikeout rates, and didn’t have the same kind of raw power that Story is showing right now. You also see guys like Chris Carter hanging out in that kind of extreme fly ball territory, but Carter is built like an NFL lineman, and Story doesn’t have Carter’s contact issues, so he’s not a great fit either.
But there is one guy that Story’s skillset does somewhat match up with, and it’s a pretty exciting name if you’re a Rockies fan looking for reasons to believe in Story as the team’s new franchise shortstop. That guy, as you’ve probably already guessed from the headline, is J.D. Martinez.
Martinez’s backstory is pretty well known, as he was a fringy Quad-A outfielder who bounced around a bit, and got released by the Astros at the end of Spring Training in 2014. But the Astros loss was the Tigers gain, as Martinez had re-tooled his swing, and as a result, had unlocked some of the game’s most significant power. His swing-hard-all-the-time approach means that he sacrifices contact for the right to do damage when he does put the bat on the ball, so Martinez has struck out about four times as often has he’s walked since his breakout in Detroit.
Because hard-hit balls are a lot more valuable when they’re elevated, Martinez has also moved towards maximizing the number of balls he gets in the air, and last year, 66% of his balls in play were line drives or fly balls, and Martinez has started off the 2016 season even more dramatically; 92% of his balls in play in the first week of the season were elevated, putting him with the second highest air-ball rate in baseball. #5 on that list? Trevor Story, currently at 89% air-balls.
At this point, we can be fairly confident that Story is going to hit the ball in the air a lot, and he’s probably going to struggle to the control the strike zone. But the good news for Story is that that’s basically the description of J.D. Martinez too. Martinez only made contact on 72% of his swings last year, and chased way too many pitches out of the zone that he couldn’t hit, but he was able to hit the ball with enough authority — 87% of his batted balls were classified as medium or hard hit — that he’s sustained one of the highest BABIPs in MLB over the last few years, and that didn’t change even as he became an extreme fly ball guy last year. While many fly ball hitters run very low BABIPs — Jose Bautista and Brian Dozier being two notable examples — Martinez has avoided that particular pitfall, which helps offset the strikeouts.
Of course, we don’t know that Story is going to be able to sustain high BABIPs like Martinez has, and he might not hit the same proportion of his fly balls over the fence that Martinez has, so don’t go take this post as a sign that Story’s fly balls and strikeouts combination means that he’s clearly J.D. Martinez 2.0. There’s a lot we don’t know about Story, and it’d be presumptuous to act like we have enough information to suggest that Story is definitely going to follow Martinez’s path to success.
But let’s take a look at our rest-of-season projections for regular players who are expected to post similar levels of walk rates (4%-8%), strikeout rates (25%-30%), and isolated power (.190 to .230) to Story this year.
ZIPS and Steamer aren’t entirely buying into Story as a big-time slugger yet, but there’s Martinez as an example of the best version of this kind of hitter. And while Randal Grichuk isn’t quite the extreme fly ball guy that Story looks like or Martinez was last year, he’s also in this family of hitters, and had a good amount of success last year with this same basic model of hitting. Swing hard and hit the crap out of fly balls can work, and Story looks like a guy who could be following in Martinez’s footsteps.
And, of course, Story doesn’t have to get anywhere near Martinez’s lofty numbers to be a valuable player for the Rockies, given that he plays shortstop and seemingly might run the bases pretty well. If he can even hit for a reasonable fraction of the power Martinez has shown, Story could be a fantastic ballplayer, given his all-around value. It’s way too early to say that Story is definitely going to follow Martinez’s path to success, but if you’re looking for an example of a guy who has made this skillset work, he’s currently hitting in the middle of Detroit’s line-up.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.