We’ve known that the Red Sox had agreed to terms with J.D. Martinez for a while now, but due to some unknown health issues there was a hold up on making things official. By all reports, it was nothing to worry too much about (at least in the short-term), and the press conference will be on Monday. (It may have even happened by the time this is published! You are reading from the future. Spooky!) I think it goes without saying that adding Martinez to this roster is going to help this team, regardless of what you think of his overall value. I would argue that WAR has a tendency to undervalue elite hitters with limited-to-negative defensive value, and I would also argue that $/WAR analysis is flawed since every team has different spending abilities and the marginal value of a win is different for every club. Regardless of your opinions on my opinions, Martinez is a straight-up masher and the Red Sox are better with a straight-up masher in the middle of their lineup. Most of the conversation has been around the fact that this is the only way he is going to help this team. On the surface, that’s true, but there’s another way he can have a major impact on this roster for this year and moving forward.
Martinez has had one of the strangest career paths in recent memory. Most of us know it by now, but here’s a recap in case you’re unfamiliar. He was a 20th round pick who made his way to the majors in Houston back in 2011, but never really found a way to make an impact there. He was a light hitter who didn’t provide value on defense and ended up being below replacement level in a part-time role with the Astros for three years. They eventually cut him despite being at the lowest point of their tank, and the Dave Dombrowski-led Tigers took a chance. That paid off big time, as Martinez immediately developed into one of the very best hitters in baseball from the moment he made it to Detroit’s major-league roster during the 2014 season.
It would be overly simplistic to pin his offensive turnaround on just one factor, but there is one part of all this that certainly stands out above everything else. Martinez underwent a change with his swing mechanics to produce more lift on his batted balls, adding a significant amount of power to his game. This kind of change has become more and more common in recent years, but Martinez has become one of the most prominent faces of the so-called “flyball revolution” sweeping the majors.
This is where he can make another impact on this Red Sox roster beyond the presumed production he is going to bring at the plate. I’m not going to pretend like I know anything about Martinez’ personality or is reputation around clubhouses in the big leagues, though I will say that the fact I’ve heard nothing about any of this is more a good thing than bad. It’s unclear how much of a leadership role he will or wants to take on, but the Red Sox have to hope he’ll be willing to take some guys under his wing. It’s not as if this launch angle, flyball-oriented strategy at the plate will be something the Red Sox clubhouse is completely unaware of, but this will be a different take on it. It’s one thing for players to hear about this from coaches or people outside the organization trying to lend advice. It’s quite another to hear and learn about it from arguably the highest-profile benefactor from this approach who also just so happens to be one of the truly elite hitters in the game.
Make no mistake, either. The Red Sox could stand to benefit a ton from some sort of adjustment in how they approach things at the plate. I think most of us would agree that this is a roster that would be due for plenty of positive regression in the lineup even without this kind of adjustment, but that doesn’t mean it’s not at least worth a shot. In 2017, this team had the 12th highest groundball rate in the league and the ninth lowest flyball rate, per Fangraphs’ batted ball data. These aren’t horrendous rankings, of course, but they can be improved. Specifically, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Sam Travis could stand to get the ball in the air a little more. All three ran groundball rates at or around 50 percent last year, and Bogaerts and Travis in particular have struggled to tap into their power potential over their career. Sure, Bogaerts in particular has the injury excuse baked into his performance, but even when he was healthy it’s not as if he couldn’t add more power to his game.
The Red Sox signed Martinez because he’s an elite hitter and there’s little reason to believe he’ll be anything but that in the middle of their lineup. This team lacked offense in a big way for most of 2017, and even with the aforementioned positive regression they had a clear need for a big bat. While Martinez doesn’t offer much value in the field or in the bases, his potential to rub off on some of the other hitters in this lineup could be another way he could prove his worth without the bat in his hand. In a top-heavy league and a presumably tight division race on the horizon, Boston needs any edge it can get. Having Martinez as a mentor to improve power potential throughout the lineup is a sneaky edge to look out for in 2018.