As was the case for many other Red Sox players, 2020 was a year to forget for J.D. Martinez. He finished with an OPS below .700 for the first time since 2013, hit just .213, and accumulated a disastrous -1.0 fWAR. It was a season comparable to his tenure with the Astros, before his swing adjustments with the Tigers that ultimately made him into one of the most feared hitters in baseball.
So, it begs the question: What happened? He seemed to show no signs of slowing down his first two years with the Sox, as he slugged 43 homers in 2018 and led the team in OPS in 2019. One metric from 2020 that stood out to me was his absurdly low batting average on balls in play. The league average BABIP tends to fluctuate around .300, but a player’s BABIP over a big sample size can be indicative of the quality of the ballplayer. A deviation from that ballplayer’s career BABIP is can often be related to luck, whether good or bad. J.D. Martinez’ career BABIP is .341, significantly higher than the league average, but his 2020 BABIP plummeted way down to .259. Given just how substantial of a drop that is, along with the relatively small sample of the 2020 season, it’s hard to believe luck didn’t play a role here.
However, it’s not that simple. Many factors can affect BABIP, especially a player’s rate of contact. Clearly, a hard-hit ball is much more likely to fall in for a hit than a weakly-hit ball is. Martinez’ hard-hit rate, exit velocity, and barrel rate were all the lowest he’s recorded since Statcast began tracking these metrics in 2015. There’s no doubt J.D.’s weaker contact had an impact on his BABIP and performance this past year.
Another potential culprit for Martinez’ lackluster year was the new MLB policy that limited access to video for hitters during and following games. It’s foolish to completely place the blame on this policy, but it’s equally foolish to claim it had no affect whatsoever. The slugger voiced his concerns with the video restriction multiple times, and he was one of multiple big leaguers to complain. After all, Martinez is a perfectionist with his swing who reviews it on video after at bat, and his career would be on a completely different trajectory if it wasn’t for his swing adjustments following his 2013 season with the Astros.
Lastly, age is certainly a factor working against J.D. At 33, he’s leaving his prime, and has likely already reached his ceiling. Most players in their mid-30’s aren’t in line for career years, and their numbers tend to trend downward at this point in their career. That’s not to say no one can improve in their 30’s, just that history doesn’t bode well for them.
So, what can we expect out of J.D. Martinez in 2021? His declining rate of contact mixed with his age definitely worries me, but I’m also convinced that some element of luck was related to his abysmal year. I believe Martinez is going to rebound in the coming, but that his production will fall somewhere in the middle of his 2019 and 2020 levels. Perhaps something like 25-30 homers and an OPS in the low-to-mid .800’s. Those numbers might not be worth $20 million, but an improved J.D. Martinez in the heart of the order will be a welcome sight to see, especially for a team that is likely to need as much as possible from their offense.