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2021 in Review: J.D. Martinez bounces back

Most of the way, that is.

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American League Championship Series Game 5: Houston Astros v. Boston Red Sox Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Welcome to our 2021 Boston 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 2021. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at the year that was for J.D. Martinez.

2021 in one sentence

After a dismal 2020 in which he underperformed for a number of reasons, J.D. Martinez largely bounced back in 2021 to be a key part of the Red Sox lineup once again.

The Positives

I don’t think there’s anywhere you can start here besides his quality of contact. At his best, Martinez is essentially a robot created to just mash baseballs. He works incredibly hard to keep his mechanics in check from at bat to at bat — this is why the lack of video last year seemingly hurt him so much — and everything works in one fluid motion to make the best contact possible. He lost that ability in 2020, which was the only year in the Statcast era (since 2015) he has not been in the top 10 percent of the league in terms of hard-hit rate (batted balls hit at least 95 mph). He was back in that range in 2021 with a 49 percent hard-hit rate. Baseball Savant visualizes where he ranks in a lot of these contact-based metrics. For context, red is very good.

And sort of along these same lines, it’s not just that Martinez was hitting the ball hard, but he was also using the whole field. This is another area in which Martinez excels, and his opposite field power has long been one of the skills that has set him apart from so many other hitters in the league. In 2020, he used the opposite field at his lowest rate since back in 2014 when he was first starting his breakout. This past year he upped his rate back up to 30 percent. That quality of contact along with the use of the entire field was a major reason he was able to get his batting average on balls in play back up above .340 as it had been in 2018 and 2019 after falling way down to .259 in 2020.

The resurgence was really at its peak in the first half, as Martinez was on fire out of the gate and quickly put aside any concerns that may have existed after that 2020 season. In the first month of the season, the veteran hit .351/.425/.745 for a 208 wRC+. He didn’t keep up that pace for the entire season, but the next few months were great as well and he was able to earn an All-Star bid thanks to his 143 wRC+ at the break.

And finally, as we go back to the theme of his performance compared to his down 2020, perhaps the biggest difference was his ability to jump on fastballs. He uncharacteristically struggled against velocity in 2020, but this past year Martinez was again able to find success against the heat. Per Baseball Savant, his expected wOBA (wOBA is an all-encompassing offensive stat, with the expected version of the metric coming based largely on his contact profile) sitting at .396, 63 points higher than the previous season.

The Negatives

While this was largely a positive season for Martinez and a big bounce back from the previous campaign, it wasn’t all positive. And in terms of negatives, the place to start is with his plate discipline. He has always been able to pair his great quality of contact with an above-average walk rate, but that rate fell down to roughly average this past year with an 8.7 percent rate. That’s his lowest since way back in 2014. It’s not much of a surprise, either, once you look at his plate discipline data, which shows that he was not only chasing the most he has in the Statcast era, but also swinging more at pitches in the zone. That last part isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and often isn’t, but it leads to shorter at bats and thus fewer walks.

The other interesting negative here is that Martinez was really not that great against left-handed pitching. Handling southpaws was a relative issue for the Red Sox lineup as a whole, and not having Martinez mashing in those situations played a part. To be fair, he certainly was not bad against lefties, but rather just fine. He finished the year with a 113 wRC+ against lefties compared to a 135 mark against righties. It seems the problem was simply that he wasn’t squaring them up, relying mostly on medium contact per FanGraphs rather than hard contact.

The Big Question

Can J.D. Martinez rediscover his power?

This one is a resounding yes. Sure, he didn’t quite reach the same heights in terms of Isolated Power (SLG - AVG), but his .232 mark was still a 57 point increase compared to 2020 and put him tied for 28th in all of baseball. As far as the reasoning, it goes back largely to what we were talking about above with respect to the quality of contact and success against the fastball.

2022 and Beyond

To the surprise of some, J.D. Martinez did decide to come back to the Red Sox for 2022 rather than opting out and hitting the open market. It did take away some flexibility for the team this winter, but by and large it is a good thing. The expectation should be for Martinez to again be a key cog in this lineup and produce in the middle of the lineup. What happens after 2022 is an open question, but in the short-term I’m expecting similar production to what we saw in 2021.