Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss J.D. Martinez.
The Year in a Sentence
J.D. Martinez came into the 2018 season with massive expectations to perform like a star while also lifting the rest of the lineup up with him, and he somehow exceeded each and every expectation.
It’s pretty hard to pin down specific positives for J.D. Martinez, because his first season in a Red Sox uniform was such an unmitigated success. As I said above, he somehow exceeded the massive expectations brought on by his free agency, which is a rarity these days. To put it simply, he was phenomenal in every area of offense. His power was every bit as advertised despite some overblown fears about Fenway’s large right field taking away from his numbers. Martinez finished the year with 43 home runs and a .299 Isolated Power, both of which are obviously elite.
In fact, they are so good that they sort of overshadow the rest of his game. Martinez is viewed as a slugger, which he is certainly is, but he’s not just a guy who mashes home runs. The Red Sox DH is essentially a robot built for hitting, combining that power with a great feel for hitting for average. He controls the strike zone better than just about any hitter I’ve ever seen and takes whatever is given to him, leading to an overall slash line of .330/.402/.629 with a 170 wRC+. That’s not just a power hitter. That’s an elite all-around hitter. Granted, he was helped by a .375 batting average on balls in play that will likely come down a bit, but he’s long been an above-average BABIP hitter and .375 is only the third highest mark of his career.
I could keep going through each split and show you how great Martinez was in whatever situation into which he was thrown, but we all know this. The biggest thing for me, however, was the consistency he showed at the plate. We’ll get to his process in just a second, but the 31-year-old (2018 was his age-30 season) never hit extended slumps at the plate. Over the six months of the regular season, his month-by-month wRC+ went as follows: 154, 186, 176, 164, 198, 134. That is incredible and a huge reason why the Red Sox were able to maintain their historic pace throughout the season. For a little context, that September wRC+ of 134 — far and away his worst month of the year — was better than the overall seasons from guys like Xander Bogaerts, Nolan Arenado, Joey Votto and Javier Baez and it would have been a top-20 offensive season in all of baseball over the full year.
Beyond all of his individual successes at the plate, Martinez also succeeded in bringing the lineup’s performance up with him. When he was signed, most of the focus was on the protection he was going to provide to the rest of the lineup. The overly simplistic view was that he was the new David Ortiz. It’s unclear protection is nearly as big of a deal as it’s traditionally made out to be, but his presence certainly can’t hurt other hitters. What was a bigger deal was how his approach to the art of hitting rubbed off on his teammates. Martinez is an uber-aggressive hitter who tries to launch every hittable pitch he sees. He’s famously a tremendous student of the game and is constantly studying video of both his opponents and himself. Hitters up and down the Red Sox lineup constantly talked about how seeing Martinez’ work ethic in action motivated them to do the same.
Now, was Martinez solely responsible for the huge year from so many Red Sox hitters, particularly guys like Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts? Of course not. Even before Boston ever inked the contract with Martinez, just simple regression back to the norms were enough for everyone to assume some sort of bounce-back from the Red Sox offense. Furthermore, Alex Cora and Tim Hyers preached a new approach at the plate from Day One, and that certainly played a role in the various resurgences. All of that said, Martinez absolutely deserves credit for his leadership role among the hitters. When so many players talk up how much a teammate means to their success, you can’t just toss it aside.
There’s really not a ton for this section, and overall it was pretty close to a perfect year for Martinez relative to what we were expecting. You can’t just toss aside his defense, though, because it is certainly not great. Now, he obviously didn’t play a ton in the outfield, but he was out there enough for us to get a good look and for him to make some impact. Martinez isn’t a total disaster out there, and you can hide him there in a part time role and not feel too bad about it. That being said, he’s clearly a net negative with the glove. The athleticism just isn’t there for him to cover a ton of ground, and particularly when Boston’s typical starting outfield is such an absurd group of defenders Martinez simply looks out of place. Again, this doesn’t outweigh his performance at the plate by any stretch, but it isn’t nothing.
Then, there is Martinez’ postseason. For a normal baseball player, this would not be even close to a negative. In fact, it’s really only mentioned in this space because of a lack of other negatives. Still, relative to his regular season Martinez was a little inconsistent in the playoffs and his round-by-round OPS went down as October advanced. Of course, by the end of the postseason he still had a .923 OPS, which was only slightly better than his September OPS. What a bum, am I right?
The Big Question
It’s easy to forget now, but perhaps the biggest concern regarding Martinez heading into the year was his injury history. Prior to 2018, he had only played one full season in the majors. That was a little misleading since one of those non-full seasons was actually due to him starting the year in the minors, but it was still something to keep in mind. Fortunately, it didn’t come into effect this year. Martinez played in 150 games and received 649 plate appearances.
The Year Ahead
At this point, there’s little reason to expect anything but more of the same from Martinez in 2019. He may not be quite as good on offense, because no one can really be expected to keep up that kind of pace year after year, but even with a bit of a downgrade he should be one of the elite hitters in the game. The injury question will be something to watch again, but as a primary DH the concern is certainly lessened. Really, the biggest question for Martinez will come after the season as his first opt out will come up. If he can come close to repeating this year, opting out seems extremely likely. It’ll be up to the Red Sox to see if they can agree to a new deal or even possibly restructure the contract mid-year before he can hit the open market.