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2019 in Review: J.D. Martinez

J.D. Martinez wasn’t two Silver Sluggers in one year good, but he was still good in 2019

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on J.D. Martinez.

2019 in one sentence

This past year J.D. Martinez wasn’t the dominant force at the plate he was in 2018, but he still showed off why he is one of the best hitters in baseball.

The Positives

It is no secret that J.D. Martinez is one of the best all-around hitters in the game. Although he is known for his big power — he’s not called “Just Dingers” for no reason — he excels in every area of hitting. Even better, he seems to get a little better at one thing every year. This past year, it was his control of the strike zone that improved. While he’s now been an elite bat since 2014, he’s kept up that production despite striking out at a rate fairly significantly above average. This year, he cut his rate down to a career-low 21 percent. It’s far from an elite rate, of course, but it was still two percentage points lower than the league average in 2019.

While his strikeout rate was dropping, he was also managing to draw more walks. Granted, his jump to 11 percent was less than a half-percentage point increase over the next two years, but being able to even maintain that kind of rate while cutting the strikeouts down is impressive. The big key is that Martinez was simply making more contact on pitches in the zone while continuing not to chase the bad pitches. It’s the kind of approach that lends itself to people calling him a robot made for hitting.

That he’s able to do all of this while also producing one of the best batted ball profiles in the league on top of it is all the more impressive. Once again, Martinez was able to turn balls in play into hits more often than just about any hitter in baseball, finishing the year with a .342 batting average on balls in play. Over the last three years he has posted a .350 BABIP, the fifth highest mark in all of baseball. The formula is easy to crack, with a hard-hit rate well above average, a soft-hit rate well below average, a few more line drives than the average hitter and a better ability to use the entire field. In other words, he smokes the ball regularly and is not a guy who can be easily defended.

Getting a little more specific, Martinez’ season was particularly held afloat because of the damage he was able to do against left-handed pitching. He’s always been something of a lefty masher, but he took things to new extremes in 2019. In 170 plate appearances against southpaws this past year, Martinez hit an absurd .404/.494/.887 for a 242 wRC+. In other words, he was 142 percent better than the league-average hitter when he was in the box against a left-handed pitcher. There were 378 players who got at least 50 plate appearances against lefties in 2019 and none of them were better than Martinez by wRC+. The big difference was getting the ball in the air where he could really do his damage, with his ground ball rate falling by 28 percent against southpaws.

Martinez also absolutely feasted on fastballs, which has been the case his entire career. He saw heaters just under 60 percent of the time this year — goes to show the importance of surrounding great hitters with other great hitters — and he destroyed them. According to Baseball Savant, he whiffed just 19 percent of the time against fastballs while putting up a .442 expected wOBA and a .419 actual wOBA. That’s actually a bit worse than last year, but it’s still elite. By FanGraphs’ measure of performance against specific pitches, he was ahead of guys like Gleyber Torres, José Altuve and Justin Turner.

The Negatives

While Martinez was otherworldly against lefties — even relative to his lofty standards — he still had his worst overall season by wRC+ since 2015. Obviously, the reason was mediocrity against righties. He wasn’t a total disaster against righties, to be fair, but he was just an average hitter, finishing the year with a 104 wRC+ against them. He struck out a bit more and walked a bit less against them, but the big issue was his power falling quite significantly with an ISO of just .177. That was actually lower than the average hitter in 2019. I alluded to this a bit above, but Martinez’ ground ball rate started to approach 50 percent against righties. This is the biggest reason it felt like a down year for him even though the final numbers were good. Against a significant majority of hitters, he was merely fine rather than great or even good.

Along with that, we also started to see signs of Martinez’ age in 2019. He did still play in 146 games last year, a solid number for a guy who turned 32 in August, but he also had some back issues with spasms keeping him out for short stretches throughout the year. Anyone who is on the wrong side of thirty and/or has dealt with back issues knows these things don’t tend to get better with age. There’s also a real possibility that he played through some of the spasms, which sounds like a built-in excuse for some of his stretches of mediocrity but is also a reasonable assumption. Whatever the case, the back is now something we’ll have to watch for the rest of his career.

The Big Question

Will J.D. Martinez continue to produce at an elite level in the non-power areas at the plate?

Yes. In fact, the area to really take a step back in 2019 was his power. He was still a very good power hitter, but as mentioned above that came almost entirely against lefties. Martinez got better in terms of strikeout and walk rates while putting up his normal elite BABIPs. The power is why he went from god-like to merely very good at the plate this past year.

2020 Vision

As we know by now, Martinez opted back into his contract for the 2020 season, so at least for now he is on the roster. There is going to be plenty of speculation that he’ll be dealt before next season starts, but my guess is that won’t happen. Martinez is really only an option for half the league given his lack of defensive ability and he can block trades to three of them. Add in the fact that so many teams either aren’t trying or are trying while also cutting or at least not adding payroll and the list of teams Martinez can realistically land with is slim. I’m still guessing he’ll be in the middle of the lineup on Opening Day for the Re Sox in least no