Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at J.D. Martinez.
One Big Question: Can J.D. Martinez rediscover his power?
J.D. Martinez is a power hitter. He always has been. He has hit 238 home runs in his 10-year career, which ranks 12th in MLB in that time despite it including his first three years with the Houston Astros when he averaged 84 games per season. That power is what the Red Sox signed him for prior to the 2018 season and its what he provided in his first two years in Boston, as he smashed 79 combined home runs across 2018 and 2019.
But then 2020 happened. During a really awful season for the Red Sox, Martinez was shockingly one of the worst batters on the team. He slashed .213/.291/.389 with a 77 wRC+, putting him 23 percent below league average. By fWAR measurements, he cost the Red Sox an entire win, and since he played DH the vast majority of the time, his offense (or lack thereof) was most to blame.
Now, while those slash numbers we just looked at are clearly troubling, what was perhaps even more discouraging was the sudden power outage for Martinez. He hit seven home runs across 237 plate appearances. Obviously he was not going to flirt with 40 home runs in a 60-game season like 2020 was, but his seven home runs in 60 games rate (54 technically, as he did not appear in six contests) would equate to a total of 18.9 home runs across a 162-game season. To put that in perspective, Martinez has not hit fewer than 20 home runs in a season since 2013. In addition, Martinez posted a .175 mark in isolated power (ISO) in 2020 after being above .200 for six-straight seasons.
Even more alarmingly, based on his production in 2020, Martinez had an expected home run total of 8.3, according to Baseball Savant, which he still underperformed. In addition, only 42.9 percent of his home runs were considered “no doubters,” which was down from 44.4 percent in 2019, according to Baseball Savant.
The Red Sox clearly need Martinez to bounce back and be the all-around great hitter he’s been in the past, but if there is one side of his game they need most, it’s his power. Can he get it back?
Before we dive further into the numbers, we can probably say yes simply because last year was one of the more difficult seasons for anyone to play in. In addition to the shortened game count, every player was dealing with the difficulties of playing during a global pandemic, which has still yet to abate. The pallor of COVID-19 will still hang over the 2021 season, but there’s been at least some time to get used to what that means, so Martinez should have that on his side. On top of that, Martinez was affected perhaps as much as anyone in all of baseball by the lack of access to video between at bats. This is something he has always leaned on in his career, and that access should return this season.
Now, back to the more quantitative discussion. One of the most striking differences between Martinez’s performance in 2020 and his previous work was a change in the type of contact he made. After six straight years of producing a hard-hit rate of at least 40 percent, Martinez only mustered a mark of 35.7 percent last year. Martinez also produced a barrel rate of 11 percent, which was his lowest mark since 2015. The bulk of that loss in hard contact transferred to the middling variety, with Martinez producing a 53.2 percent mark in medium contact rate. Such a stark decline caused Martinez’s average exit velocity to crater below 90 miles per hour for the first time since 2015.
Trying to find a culprit for this loss of solid contact is difficult, but the primary suspect is that Martinez got under balls a bit more than usual. According to Baseball Savant, Martinez was under 31.8 percent of his batted balls last season, which was up from 19.7 percent the previous year and substantially higher than league average (24.3 percent). This led to more fly balls, but fewer strongly struck ones. Despite posting his highest flyball rate since 2015 (43.5 percent), Martinez’s home run to fly ball ratio plummeted to 10.4 percent. His career average is 20.7 percent and he had put forth a mark of no lower than 23.4 percent in each of the previous three seasons.
As he swung under more balls than usual, Martinez’s average launch angle rose to 14.7 degrees, which would be fine if he were also making hard contact, but when you combine softer contact with more loft, you’re just going to get more fly outs and pop ups rather than hits.
So it seems that the solution to Martinez’s power outage would be for him to flatten his swing a bit and try to hit the ball more on a line, but its obviously not that simple, especially since there is a bit of evidence that last year was less of an aberration than we’d like to imagine. Specifically, Martinez’s exit velocity and barrel rate have both been declining in recent years. That didn’t hurt him much in 2019, and he’s still been safely above league average, but it clearly was part of the problem in 2020 and if it continues in 2021, its unclear what the result will be.
However, such doom and gloom rhetoric has no place at this point in the season, particularly as the bulk of the data before 2020 shows that Martinez can fix what went wrong with his hitting and get back to being the slugger the Red Sox need, particularly with the aforementioned regained access to video.