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2020 in Review: J.D. Martinez

It was a rough one for the slugger.

Boston Red Sox v Miami Marlins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2020 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 2020. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player. 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 2021 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this listT. You can look over that list and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we are exploring how 2020 was for J.D. Martinez.

2020 in one sentence

J.D. Martinez was arguably the most disappointing player on an incredibly disappointing team, putting up his worst season since 2013.

The Positives

There’s really not a whole lot of positives to come from this season for J.D. Martinez, which was perhaps the most shocking part of the entire year for the Red Sox. Martinez has long been one of the best hitters in baseball, taking a spot on that mantle in 2014 and never leaving until this season. We’ll get more into the specifics of the shortcomings in the next section, but we really had to stretch some things here for these positives because not a whole lot of clear example existed.

One good thing was that his approach didn’t really change too much, particularly with his desire to attack strikes. When Martinez first arrived in Boston back in 2018, this was the quality that most stood out and most rubbed off on his teammates. It was something he and Alex Cora preached, and it worked. He actually took a slight step back in his swing rate on pitches in the zone last season, but in 2020 his 73 percent rate was right back within his career norms, and was actually a bit higher than it was in 2018 as well. This may seem like a small thing, and it is in the context of his entire season, but it’s good to see that he didn’t get gun-shy with his struggles. It’s also worth pointing out the veteran’s swing rate on pitches out of the zone also stayed steady, so he also didn’t just go in the total other direction. A sign of a good hitter is maintaining one’s approach even through the bad times.

I’d also point to the quality of contact being something of a positive, though that one requires some context. To start, Martinez did not make much soft contact at all. I think this can be an underrated part of a hitter’s performance. So much of the focus is on hard contact, and that obviously matters a lot. But simply avoiding soft contact gives one much more of a chance to convert batted balls into hits. Even amid his struggles, Martinez’s soft-hit rate stayed steady. And even generally, he still was well within the top half of baseball in hard-hit rate and average exit velocity, and just outside the top quarter of the league in barrel rate. That would be a positive for most, but it was actually a step back for Martinez compared to his career norms.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

The Negatives

It’s a little difficult to even know where to start here, as Martinez’s downturn in 2020 was so jarring and it affected almost every part of his game. Overall, he finished the season hitting .213/.291/.389 for a 77 wRC+. That last number indicates he was 23 percent worse than the league-average hitter, his worst mark since back in 2013 when he was still with the Astros. It should be pointed out that a lot of these struggles have been attributed to his inability to watch video between at bats. While I don’t doubt there is some validity to this claim, it’s impossible to determine how much of his poor performance is due to that. So I’m not going to try and weave that narrative into this section, less because I don’t believe it but more because it’s impossible to quantify with any of these specific areas.

And the area I think it makes the most sense to start is with his power. Martinez is a great all-around hitter, and calling him just a slugger at his peak inadvertently served to discredit his all-around skillset. That said, the power carried the day. His .252 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) in 2019 was 30th in baseball, and it was also his second worst mark in a five-year span. He’s an incredible power hitter. This past season he finished with a .175 mark, essentially league-average. (The league-average mark was .173 in 2020.)

As I said above, Martinez did suffer a bit in his quality of contact, and specifically with his rate of hard contact, compared to his career norms. But he was still better than league-average. There were some issues with consistently driving the ball — he hit a lot more high fly balls than usual in 2020, and while those can fly out of the park sometimes they also are less likely to find gaps for doubles — but I want to focus more on his opposite field prowess. This is what has long stood out the most for Martinez, as perhaps no one in baseball has been better at driving the ball the other way. At his best, he is regularly dropping baseballs into the bullpens at Fenway.

In 2018 and 2019, his Isolated Power marks when going the other way were .492 and .302, respectively. In 2020, that mark fell down to .273. More importantly, he simply did it less. This seems to me to be a bit fluky in a shortened season, but Martinez hit the bulk of his batted balls back up the middle this past year, and according to Baseball Savant he had his lowest rate of hitting the ball the other way of the Statcast era, which dates back to 2015. Center field is obviously the deepest part of every park, so that could explain some of the power drop-off.

I would also point to Martinez’s performance against both fastballs and offspeed pitches. He has never been one to really crush breaking balls, but he does enough to get by and then feasts on everything else. Over the last few years, he has been elite against both of these types of offerings. This past season, though, he finished with a .273 wOBA (on the same scale as OBP) against fastballs and .267 against offspeed pitches. In each of his first two seasons in Boston, those numbers were over .400 in both categories. He also saw his whiff rate increase against fastballs, which helps explain his 25 percent strikeout rate, his highest since joining the Red Sox. It also could indicate some loss of bat speed, which would of course be troubling for an important part of this lineup.

The Big Question

Will J.D. Martinez terrorize right-handed pitching again in 2020?

In 2019, Martinez was a little bit of a disappointment, but that was mostly in comparison to his otherworldly 2018. He was merely very good instead of elite. A big reason he took that step back, though, was because he was simply average against righties, finishing with a 103 wRC+ against them. If he wanted to get back to the mountaintop, he needed to get back to being elite against same-handed pitchers. Instead, he went in the opposite direction, finishing with a 78 wRC+. It should be mentioned that he also carried a .262 batting average on balls in play against them, and in a split in a shortened season sample size will always be an issue. Still, this is going to be another area to watch looking ahead to 2021.

Looking ahead to 2021

Martinez officially opted into his contract for next season, which came as a surprise to exactly no one. There is a slight chance he gets traded this winter as the Red Sox potentially look for more lineup flexibility and some payroll savings, but it’s much more likely he is back in the lineup in 2021. Assuming that is the case, he will be one of the biggest keys for this team. I suspect some of the circumstances of this past year — including but not limited to the lack of video — played into this performance, but there’s a lot of ground to make up to get back to where he was. The key to me will be how well he’s driving the ball the other way. If he’s struggling to do that early on, my concern level will jump tremendously. For now, though, I’m cautiously willing to toss this season aside and expect a bounce-back to something close to 2019.