Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Other Martinez

Martinez has been a force since the calendar flipped to June (CBS)
A lot of praise has been showered on Victor Martinez for his MVP-caliber season, and rightly so. He's been one of the best hitters in baseball this year, putting up monster numbers in the face of sagging offensive production across the sport.

Just don't forget about the "other" Martinez on the Tigers, an unheralded Spring Training pickup who's having an outstanding season in his own right. I'm talking about J.D. Martinez (no relation), this year's Jose Bautista or Adam Lind.

Martinez was virtually unheard of before this year, but so it goes when you're a bad player on an awful team. You see, Martinez was a corner outfielder who didn't hit much or play much in his first three big league seasons, averaging just 84 games per campaign after arriving as a late-July call-up in 2011. Martinez actually hit decently that year with a .274/.319/.423 batting line (104 OPS+) and numbers that, when projected out over 160 games, worked out to be around 40 doubles, 18 home runs and 105 RBI. Martinez, just 23 years-old at the time, was a mild success on an abysmal Astros club that lost 106 games.

2012 wasn't any better for Houston, which lost 107 games, or Martinez, who struggled in his first taste as an everyday player. Despite a strong start his batting line shrunk to .240/.311/.375 (86 OPS+), leaving him below replacement level at -0.6 bWAR. On the plus side he showed a bit more patience and his power held steady, but didn't build off his solid debut so much as he took a step back from it.

2013 marked continued decline for Martinez, who batted an anemic .250/.272/.378 and was worth a full win below replacement despite barely playing half a season (86 games). Whatever strides he'd made in plate discipline the year before had disappeared, as he posted an abominable 82/10 K/BB ratio. The 25 year-old was supposed to be coming into his prime, but instead was merely treading water as a below average player. With minimal contributions in power, speed, and fielding, Martinez was a liability even the horrid Houston Astros couldn't afford to keep around.

So, in March of this year, with Spring Training drawing to a close, the Astros cut him. Based on what they'd seen from him--a .251 batting average, .300 on-base percentage, and sub-.400 slugging percentage in nearly 1,000 plate appearances--they were totally justified in doing so. Most teams would have given up on Martinez as well, I suspect.

The Tigers didn't. They scooped him up two days later, signing him to a minor league contract. Given his age (26) it wasn't entirely unreasonable for them to bank on a breakout, or at least hope he could be a productive fourth outfielder. But I'm guessing not even in their wildest dreams would they ever have expected Martinez to become a full-blown star.

An improved swing has led to better results at the plate (Boston Herald)
That's what happened in June, when Martinez mashed to the tune of .345/.367/.702 with nine doubles, seven home runs and 21 RBI. Given his spotty track record, one would have expected him to cool off sooner or later, but it hasn't happened. He's continued to rake since then and has been especially hot lately with 22 hits, six home runs and 17 RBI already in September. With the Tigers trying to fend off Kansas City, that barrage couldn't have come at a better time.

In Detroit Martinez has not only resurrected his career, but he's also emerged as one of the best hitters in baseball with his .398 wOBA, 157 wRC+, and .928 OPS. With his remade swing he's hitting well over .300, which makes up for his iffy on-base skills (only 25 unintentional walks) but is also completely tied to his .382 BABiP--a ridiculous number given his average footspeed that becomes even harder to explain after seeing only a slight uptick in line drive rate and considerable drop-off in ground ball rate.

But what's been most surprising has been his power. After managing just 24 home runs in his first three seasons (averaging one every 37.5 at-bats) he's already slugged 23 this year, going yard once every 17.6 ABs. He has as many home runs as Miguel Cabrera and his ISo is twice what it was last year. Power progression is to be expected as a player reaches his mid-20s, but seemed unlikely given his shift from a great home run park for righties in Houston to a much tougher one in Detroit. He's hit a few more fly balls than last year, but not enough to explain how he more than doubled his home run frequency.

Rather, that can be explained by his HR/FB ratio, which has more than doubled from last year's 9.5 percent to over 21 percent this year. There's probably some luck in there, as according to the ESPN home run tracker eight of his bombs just barely got out, but even if you take all those shots away he'd still have 15 on the year--a career high.

Martinez has noticeably improved against almost every type of pitch, but none more so than fastballs. After posting negative values against the heater in each of his first three seasons, he's been worth more than 21 runs above average against them this year. That, combined with better success against curveballs, sliders, and changeups, have made him a much more effective hitter.

And that's been huge for the Tigers this year, who've need every one of the four wins above replacement he's provided for them. If Detroit does hold on and win the division, Martinez's breakout season will be a big reason why.

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