Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about J.D. Martinez
The Question: Will J.D. Martinez continue to produce at an elite level in the non-power areas at the plate?
Heading into last year’s offseason, we all knew the Red Sox needed some punch in the middle of the lineup. It was reasonable to expect improvement from plenty of the hitters already on the roster, but an additional big bat was necessary. J.D. Martinez was, of course, a free agent, and even before the offseason started everyone put two and two together. It was a foregone the slugger to end up in Boston. It took longer than expected, but eventually he signed on and expectations were through the roof. After an absurd run at the end of 2017 with the Diamondbacks, one could argue expectations were too high. I certainly thought anyone expecting him to repeat his Arizona performance was a little too confident.
Well, silly me. It wasn’t a totally analogous performance, but Martinez was in fact the same caliber of hitter for the entirety of 2018 that he was in the final two months of that 2017 season. It was absurd. By the end of the year he had put up a line of .330/.402/.629 for a 170 wRC+. In other words he was 70 percent better than league-average. Seventy percent! It was his best full season of his career, but it wasn’t totally out of line with his career. Looking forward to the 2019 season, there’s little reason to expect Martinez to be anything besides one of the very best hitters in all of baseball yet again.
Earlier I called Martinez a slugger, and that’s obviously not an unfair label. He hits a whole lot of dingers, and the homers lead the narrative about him. He was seen to be brought in because of his power, and generally speaking Martinez is thought of as an elite power hitter above all else. It’s not an unreasonable thing to thing to say about a guy who has hit over 40 homers in two consecutive years and hasn’t posted an Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) of at least .228 in each of the last five years. For context, Edwin Encarnación posted a .228 ISO in 2018.
The thing is, Martinez isn’t only contributing with his power, and in a way it’s kind of insulting to just think of him as a power hitter. Granted, there are worse insults out there, but it still reduces him to something much less than he really is. Martinez is a great power hitter, but he’s also one of the best all-around hitters in all of baseball. The .299 ISO last season was great, and it was even better when added to a .330 batting average and a .402 on-base percentage. There’s little doubt about Martinez continuing to be elite at the plate, but if he’s going to take any sort of step back in 2019 it’s probably going to be in the other areas.
Now, this was certainly not the first time Martinez has had this kind of year at the plate. The righty has hit over .300 in four of the last five years, though this was a career-high and the first time he combined that with an OBP over .400. It was heavily inflated by a high batting average on balls in play, too, which immediately brings into question the sustainability of the performance. You see a .375 BABIP and it’s only natural to think some significant regression is coming. It was the highest mark in baseball, in fact, with only Christian Yelich really coming close.
However, there is some reason to believe Martinez can come pretty damn close to repeating that moving forward. It probably shouldn’t quite be the expectation, but it’s not the first time he’s done it. In fact, in the five years since he’s rebuilt his swing and turned into an elite hitter, this was only his third-highest BABIP. He posted a .378 mark in 2016 and a .389 BABIP in 2014. In this five-year run, the lowest BABIP he’s put up is .327, which still would have been in the top-40 in baseball this past year. Martinez is simply a high-BABIP hitter, and his batted ball numbers support it. He tied his career-high in line drive rate, cut down his fly ball rate while still managing the monster power numbers, had his second-highest hard-hit rate, his second-lowest soft-hit rate, used the whole field more than ever and hit all of four infield fly balls the entire season. He was an absolute machine, and none of it really seemed out of line with what we can expect from him.
Even more encouraging to me is that Martinez really shifted his approach depending on where he played, which is just another piece of evidence to me that he actually a robot created to mash baseballs. If you’ll recall, when he first signed with Boston perhaps the biggest concern was how his swing would translate to Fenway. Martinez is probably the best opposite-field hitter in the game, particularly in terms of power, and Fenway obviously has a massive right field. It’s not a great mix. Well, Martinez took care of that by ignoring right field at Fenway while still using that opposite-field swing on the road. While he went the other way a whopping 36 percent of the time on the road, at Fenway Park he cut that rate down by just about ten percentage points.
On top of all the absurd batted ball numbers, Martinez steadily improved his already-strong plate discipline in 2018 as well. He’s always carried a higher-than-average strikeout rate, but this past season he was essentially exactly league-average in the area while walking over ten percent of the time for the second consecutive year. He was his typically aggressive self on pitches in the zone, but he was a bit more selective this year. Specifically, according to Brooks Baseball, he cut way back on his swing rate against breaking balls. Obviously, of all the pitch types breaking balls are the most likely to end up out of the zone and hard to hit. Laying off those pitches lead to more balls, which leads to more walks and also more fastballs, which in turn leads to more of that hard contact.
So, is 2018 repeatable for J.D. Martinez? Hell yeah it is. He is a machine.