Heading in Opposite Directions: J.D. Martinez and Jorge Soler

For each of the previous installments of this series, where I have compared the 2019 seasons of two players on different trajectories who achieved similar Roto value, I have run a poll. The assumption behind the polls is that the two players could be similarly valued for 2020. I’ve used the polls to get a pulse on which player would be viewed as the better fantasy performer — the one on the upswing or the one who just had a “down” year?

In comparing Jorge Soler and J.D. Martinez, whose 5×5 Roto values were separated by one-tenth of a dollar, there is no mystery as to which player will be targeted earlier on draft day. In the #2EarlyMocks, Martinez ranked seventh among outfielders with an 18.6 ADP, while Soler ranked 30th with a 97.3 ADP. In the recently-completed Pitcher List Experts Mock that I participated in, Martinez was the 20th player chosen overall, and Soler stayed on the board until the 73rd pick.┬áSoler may have slightly outearned Martinez this year, but the Red Sox outfielder/DH has had success for so much longer that it is not at all surprising that fantasy owners would not view them as equivalent.

So this time around, I didn’t bother to ask poll respondents which player they preferred, assuming they would use the same draft pick or spend the same amount in a bid for either. Instead, I asked which player was more appealing at his #2EarlyMocks ADP. Even though Soler went 79 picks later on average, it was a fairly even split between which player would be the more desirable pick. Soler won the poll by a 56 to 44 percent margin, but still, roughly four of every nine respondents said they would prefer to draft Martinez despite having to yield a second-round pick to do so.

One interpretation of these results, and of these players’ respective early ADPs, is that Martinez is not expected to decline further, while Soler is viewed as a prime regression candidate. Even though Martinez turned 32 in August, we have some sound reasons to expect a similar performance from him in 2020. He did decline in 2019, falling from the third-ranking outfielder in Roto value to ninth, and his OPS dropped from 1.031 to .939. Yet, after batting .330 with 43 home runs, 130 RBIs and 111 runs in 2018, there was not much room for Martinez to go anywhere but down. Martinez’s 2019 line was a still impressive .304/36/105/98. He did lose some power, as his average exit velocity on flyballs and line drives dipped from 96.8 mph in 2018 to 95.0 mph, but he made more frequent contact and was more selective. His SwStr% improved from 13.1 to 12.2 percent, and his O-Swing% also dropped from 33.2 to 31.8 percent.

If not for a poor September, Martinez’s 2019 stats would have been even closer to the bar he set the year before. Through the end of August, he compiled a .317/.391/.585 slash line, as compared to a 2018 line of .330/.402/.629, but then the bottom fell out. For the final month, he averaged 92.5 mph on flies and liners, hit ground balls at a 55.8 percent rate and struck out in 30.1 percent of his plate appearances, all of which contributed to a .713 OPS. Granted, this could be viewed in at least two ways. Either it’s a gigantic outlier that can be discounted or a possible sign that he was impacted by back spasms, which could plague him again in 2020.

If we take the former view, there is little reason to pass on Martinez once we have arrived at the 20th overall pick (or later), should he still be available. Even if we think Soler has a good chance to come close to his 2019 production, we might as well make the safer play while we still can.

But what if we are more than a little concerned about Martinez’s age or history with back spasms? It would make sense to address a different position in the second round (Anthony Rendon and Walker Buehler are two players who could still be on the board, for example) and try to get Soler several rounds later. In his five previous seasons, Soler had never come close to playing in all 162 games, like he did in 2019, and his 48 home runs, 117 RBIs and 95 runs all shattered his previous personal bests. With such a dramatic level of improvement over any previous season’s counting stats, he is a risk to regress. While we can’t reasonably assume that Soler will match his 2019 numbers in 2020, we can at least know that his skill and batted ball indicators backed up fantasy stats this season. He had the perfect storm of being able to stay healthy all season, maintaining gains in exit velocity on flies and liners he achieved in 2018 and reverting to the flyball tendencies he exhibited in 2016 and 2017.

Selected Stats for Jorge Soler, 2016-2019
Season Team PA EV FB/LD (mph) FB% ISO
2016 CHC 264 93.2 43.3% 0.198
2017 KC 110 94.4 44.3% 0.113
2018 KC 257 96.3 34.0% 0.202
2019 KC 679 97.2 41.2% 0.304

I may even be selling Soler short to say that his peripherals backed up his performance. His .265 Avg was 12 points below his xBA, and his .569 SLG fell 24 points short of his xSLG. My greatest skepticism over Soler’s chances for a repeat performance relates not to his power production, but to his ability to bat .239 on ground balls (the major league average was .236), when he had the seventh-highest pull rate on grounders (68.1 percent) of the 119 batters who hit at least 150 ground balls. His AL-leading home run total may look like a fluke, but he has been one of the best hitters in the majors at making hard contact over the last two years, and his flyball rate has been much higher than average in three of the last four seasons.

I am with the consensus in feeling much more comfortable in using an early pick to draft Martinez than I would be using one for Soler. That said, I am with the majority of the poll respondents in liking the value for Soler better at his early ADP. It’s not even really a close contest. If Soler continues to get drafted after the likes of Andrew Benintendi, Michael Conforto and Michael Brantley, he has a good chance to be one of the best picks of the 2020 drafts.

Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.

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I would rather have Brantley, Benintendi, or Conforto. Consider me skeptical about Soler . . .