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J.D. Martinez’s no good, very bad season

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The h*ck is going on?

Atlanta Braves v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

I think it’s fair to say the Red Sox are worse than people expected them to be this season, insofar as we could really expect anything from anyone in this bizarro world season. Nobody really expected this team to be top-tier contenders, but the general consensus coming into the year seemed to be that something close to a .500 record. I had them pegged for a 28-32 campaign, and my feeling was that I was on the lower end of the consensus. And even for the people with lower expectations than myself, I don’t think they were expecting a true bottom-out type season.

The thing is, despite the record and overall performance being so much worse than most people’s expectations, the season has sort of gone as we expected. At least in a way. The pitching was always going to be the issue for this team, it just turned out that it was one of the worst pitching staffs ever assembled rather than just being regular ol’ bad. To be fair, the offense didn’t do the team any favors early on, either, with a few slumping stars helping contribute to the atrocious start that ended the season basically before it began. For the most part, however, those hitters have worked themselves out of those slumps. That is, except for J.D. Martinez.

With an opt-out looming after the season, Martinez was always going to be one of the most fascinating players of the season. The assumption, at least from me, was that he’d just keep hitting and make the opt-out an intriguing decision for a star-level hitter, but one who has a limited defensive profile (to put it nicely), is on the wrong side of 30 and would be entering a sure-to-be-depressed free agent market. Instead, with the way he has performed this year, it seems borderline impossible that he would consider opting out into this market, particularly with it unknown as to whether or not the universal DH will be here to stay in 2021. Given the way he’s hit this year, it’s hard to see Martinez ripping up his current contract and risking the open market.

Washington Nationals v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

This isn’t just a bad season relative to Martinez’s expectations. That was an accurate way to describe 2019, when he finished the year with a 139 wRC+ (meaning he was 39 percent better than the league-average hitter), a mark that came in as his lowest since 2015 but also put him among the top 20 to 30 hitters in the game. No, this season he’s just been bad. Period. Over 181 plate appearances, he’s hit just .205/.287/.360 for a wRC+ of 70, meaning he’s been 30 percent worse than the league-average hitter. Among qualified hitters this season, only ten have been worse by wRC+.

I’ve talked a lot this season about the struggle of really making sweeping judgements on players this season, both for the size of the sample and also the external factors that come into play in such a tumultuous year for the entire country. To support that point, two of the ten players with a worse wRC+ than Martinez this year are José Altuve and Javier Baez, two guys who are more familiar with MVP races than races to the bottom of the wRC+ leaderboard.

With Martinez in particular, the external factors seem more readily apparent as a potential excuse for his struggles. One of the hallmarks of his career since breaking out in 2014 as a star-level hitter has been his use of video. He has spoken about how easy it is for him to lose his swing, and he is constantly watching video of himself after every at bat to make sure his mechanics are in place. This season, however, the league has shut down video access to players. They say this is out of caution for COVID, but it’s hard not to think the sign-stealing scandals of the Astros and Red Sox — a 2018 team that included Martinez — was part of it as well. To Martinez’s credit, while he’s mentioned it a couple of times early he hasn’t harped on this as an excuse. On the other hand, it’s hard not to think about that as we watch him struggle in a way unseen since 2013, right before he was cut by the Astros.

All of that said, when you’ve established yourself as the kind of hitter Martinez has established himself as, you can’t let a lack of video derail you to this extent. And while the sample is certainly small, there are real concerns. I was actually surprised the strikeouts and walks were as close to being in line with the last few years, because it seems like he’s striking out much more than usual. And while he is, his strikeout rate is only at 24 percent, which is only a couple percentage points higher than his career norms. His walk rate, similarly, is only a touch lower than usual.

The real issue comes when Martinez puts the ball in play. Usually one of the best in the game at making consistently hard contact, he has seen some of the biggest declines in all of baseball. According to Baseball Savant, in comparing 2019 (which, again, was a down year for him anyway) to this season, Martinez’s decline in hard-hit rate has been steeper than all but 13 of the 188 players who have qualified for the batting title in both seasons. Similarly, his expected wOBA (a measure of overall batting ability based on quality of contact as well as plate discipline) has fallen at the seventh steepest rate. It’s not what you want!

If you’re looking for a bit of positives, it is worth mentioning that there is some evidence that Martinez is getting a bit unlucky against fastballs. The concern for an aging hitter — Martinez just turned 33 — is that the bat will slow down and stop hitting fastballs. Martinez does have an ugly .270 wOBA (on the same scale as OBP), but his .352 expected wOBA at least points to some noise in that number.

The real concern has actually been on offspeed pitches. In his first two seasons in Boston, Martinez crushed offspeed offerings, but this year he has a wOBA of .272, right in line with his .266 expected wOBA. This shows up in his splits by where he hits the ball, too. When Martinez is smashing changeups, he is often sitting back on the ball and ripping it out to right field. Just generally, when he is going well he is smoking the ball the other way. This season, he has a wRC+ of 3 (!) when going the other way. For context, those numbers were 175 and 224 in 2019 and 2018, respectively.

It’s hard not to be concerned with Martinez’s performance this year, particularly when it seems tough to imagine he’ll be on another team next year. I mentioned above the issues with him opting out, and trading him with his value at an all-time low wouldn’t seem to be the smart move, either. So, the Red Sox have to be banking on a bounce-back. The good news is, if you so choose, there is enough evidence that this weird season is playing into some bad luck and you can talk yourself into this being a throwaway year. The bad news is he’s not getting any younger, and there are a whole lot of important numbers trending in the wrong direction for someone entering his mid-30s.