While the Red Sox look to turn things around, especially offensively, and get themselves out of the hole they dug themselves into with their poor start to the year, one of the underlying storylines hanging over the head of the roster is the contract situation for some of their stars. Most of that focus has understandably gone towards Xander Bogaerts, who will almost certainly be a free agent after this season, and Rafael Devers, who has one more year of team control after this season before being eligible to hit free agency. It’s not just those two stars whose contracts are about to come up, though, with a number of key players on this roster eligible to hit the open market after this season.
One of the biggest names in that group is J.D. Martinez. In a way we’ve had this conversation for the last couple of seasons as the slugger has had an opt-out clause after each year but has declined to trigger it. Those options are over, and barring a surprising extension he will once again be a free agent after this season. There are the usual caveats with his potential free agency surrounding his age — he’s currently in his age-34 season — and his lack of defensive utility. That stuff doesn’t matter so much when he’s hitting like he is to start the 2022 season. If he keeps this up, Martinez is going to be a hot commodity next winter.
Martinez is currently riding a 17-game hit streak, has only failed to record a hit in two of his 34 games played this year, and has reached base at least one time in all of those games. As the offense has floundered this year, he’s doing everything he can to keep things afloat. Through Monday’s action, he is hitting .321/.370/.541 for a 164 wRC+. If that last number were to hold over the entire season, it’d be his best mark since 2018 when he was awarded two Silver Slugger awards.
That Martinez is putting up good numbers at the plate is not exactly newsworthy in and of itself. While there have been some signs of decline as he’s gotten deeper into his 30s, he has still been a very good hitter outside of the weird 2020 season. What is noteworthy about this year, however, has been the way he’s been putting up his numbers. It’s a different kind of Martinez in 2022, specifically with the way he’s hitting the ball. Now, to be fair, there is almost certainly some luck happening with Martinez’ numbers, or at least it doesn’t quite look sustainable. He’s currently riding a .413 batting average on balls in play, and while he’s typically a high-BABIP hitter no one can be expected to keep that up.
On the other hand, simply calling it luck is a bit misleading as well. Martinez is doing a lot of things that lend itself to running a high BABIP, and it has to do with the way he’s hitting the ball. While he has always been a good all-around hitter and not just a sell-out-for-power hitter, it’s been the home run power that has really put his performances over the top. This year he only has four homers, a 17-homer pace extrapolated over a 150-game sample. Despite that, he’s still boasting a .220 Isolated Power, a bit lower than we’ve come to expect from him but still a good 80 points higher than league-average.
He’s doing it by hitting doubles all over the park. Now, some of this probably has to do with the deadened environment the whole league is experiencing, and in years past perhaps some of those doubles would have left the yard. But at the same time, Martinez seems to be adjusting to the new ball and just looking to get on base and shoot the gaps. Typically a high launch angle kind of hitter, his average launch angle this season is 10 degrees, the lowest of his career going back to when Statcast started tracking this in 2015. He’s also hitting line drives at a significantly higher rate than usual (35 percent compared to a career rate of 28 percent), and using the whole field more than we’ve ever seen. Martinez is currently going the other way 39 percent of the time compared to a career rate of 28 percent.
So as we said, there is probably some luck involved here and we can’t really expect the BABIP to stay above .400, but Martinez is also doing a whole lot to keep it significantly higher than you’d expect for other hitters. It’s just speculation, but we know that Martinez is a student of hitting and the master of quick adjustments. Given how poorly the ball has been flying, it would make sense to think that he is adjusting his game a bit and going for these doubles and line drives to make things happen and get on base. I’d say it’s working.
It’s not to say there aren’t any concerning signs from Martinez in this early portion of the season as well. His plate discipline numbers have taken a dip compared to years past with an over-aggressive style that has plagued the entire roster. His 6.7 percent walk rate would be the lowest of his career since 2014, when his career resurrection began. He’s also striking out at a 26 percent clip, his highest since 2017. He’s going to need to stop expanding the zone or it’ll be hard to keep up these batted ball tendencies.
At the same time, these numbers are banked and nothing in particular looks unsustainable. While most of the league has been lamenting the lack of carry on balls, it seems Martinez is making the proper adjustment and excelling because of it. And now that offense is starting to climb again, it will be interesting to see how he pivots, if at all. Whatever happens, I’m not worried about his ability to adjust, and while he probably won’t keep hitting quite this well, Martinez is certainly doing everything he can to ensure a healthy payday later on in the coming winter.