Injury-Dependent Baseball: Contemplating Jefry Marte

We don’t know whether there’s a heaven, but if there is, we’re pretty sure it’s got Fantasy Baseball. Moreover—eliding for the nonce the question whether “fantasy” is a viable concept in the realm of Pure Essence—we figure that most of the stuff that can make things go wrong with your team, like the whips and scorns of time or the thousand natural shocks the flesh is heir to, isn’t problematic in Paradise. So if you draft Miguel Cabrera in heaven, you get the indestructible 2012-2013 model, not the still-sublime but more fragile 2015 version.

Here in the fallen world, though, injuries happen, and, as you undoubtedly know, a significant one just happened to Cabrera. He’s out for six weeks—at least six weeks, some say—with a calf strain. We didn’t draft him; if you did, you have our sympathy. What makes your misfortune interesting for present purposes is that it has called our attention, for the first time ever, to Jefry Marte, whom the Tigers have just promoted from Toledo and who’s expected to form the short side of a first base platoon with Alex Avila while Cabrera is out. The questions we’re asking ourselves about Marte are: (1) is he worth getting if you’re desperate for a warm body at Corner Infield, as you may well be if you own Cabrera? (2) is he worth keeping in mind as a daily league/streaming option? (3) is he worth going out of your way to get? The answers, we think, are yes, yes, and (to our immense surprise) maybe.

Let’s first quickly review the Marte story so far. He’s a right-handed-hitting third baseman, and was a fairly celebrated juvenile signing from the Dominican Republic by the Mets in 2007. The main attraction was the power he’d supposedly develop as he matured, but, as you’ll hear, he didn’t. He showed plenty in the Rookie League in 2008 (.325/.398/.532)–enough to make the Baseball Prospectus Top 100 Prospects for 2009, in the same quintile as Freddie Freeman and Todd Frazier. Then things went sour: a bad season in A ball in 2009, a mediocre and injury-compromised 2010, and an indifferent 2011 in high-A, after which he was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, with no takers. Ditto in AA in 2012, including the Rule 5 exposure and the no takers. He was traded to Oakland in December 2012 for the very marginal Colin Cowgill, mostly, it appears, because the A’s needed to clear a roster spot. Marte had a decent enough season in AA in 2013 to get assigned there again in 2014. He did worse, and the A’s released him after last season. The Tigers signed him to a minor league contract last November. He was an NRI this Spring, and not particularly impressive (.216/.293/.405), though he did hit two home runs in 37 at bats.

So Marte began this season in Toledo, City of Concealed Meanings, and 2015 was looking like Marte’s Last Stand. It was hard to be optimistic: he’d be turning (and now is) 24, he’d never hit more than 10 home runs in a season, he’s not an especially gifted glove man, and he’s been jettisoned by two organizations already. But a funny thing happened in Toledo: in 323 plate appearances (288 at bats), he hit .271/.337/.497, with (this is the important part) 13 home runs. That’s impressive, because the Toledo ballpark is fairly inhospitable to power hitters. To choose an example not at random, Nick Castellanos, who hit 11 home runs in 533 at bats with the Tigers in 2014, hit 18 home runs in 595 at bats in Toledo the year before. In a full season of regular play, Marte’s 13-in-288 translates, we think, into about 20 home runs.

How to explain this transformation? If you compare Marte’s 2014 and 2015 stats on Fangraphs—go ahead, we’ll wait while you do—they look awfully similar, except for the home runs. But the homers aren’t just a blip, and don’t seem just to be the result of Marte’s growing into his body. Rather, it looks as if Marte has completely retooled his swing to take advantage of his power. In seven years of pro ball before 2015, Marte’s ground-out/air-out ratio never went below 1.35. In other words, he was, if anything, a groundball hitter. This year, the ratio is 0.80, which would make him a flyball hitter.

We haven’t come across anything that accounts for this, but it can’t just be an accident. Did Marte suddenly figure something out on his own? Is it the work of the Tigers’ minor-league hitting coordinator Bruce Fields? Possibly, though Fields is a long-time hitting coach who generally emphasizes line drives and opposite-field hitting. Is it Toledo’s likewise long-tenured hitting coach Leon Durham? Could be, but there’s no reason to think so. Besides, both Fields and Durham, while generally well-respected, as far aw we know haven’t produced, and have never been credited with producing, career-altering transformations for anyone else.

So we can’t account for the change, but we suspect it’s genuine. And this in turn means that, as a desperation replacement, Marte won’t harm you. He should hit about .240 and, if he gets regular playing time—as to which see below—hit ten home runs. In other words, he’s Logan Morrison, who—we love these synchronicities, whether they’re karmic or coincidental—was 41 spots ahead of Marte on BP’s 2009 top-prospect list. Right—you don’t want Morrison. Nobody wants Morrison. But Marte has more upside and is playing on a team with (even sans Cabrera) a better lineup, in a ballpark that favors right-handed power. So really, with regular playing time, he’s Pedro Alvarez, who’s owned in more than 50% of Yahoo leagues. And even without regular playing time, he’ll have some positive value.

If you’re not desperate, you might still consider picking up Marte. It’s not completely fanciful to think that he might get regular PT. Maybe Avila, fresh off two months on the DL and probably destined for arthroscopic knee surgery, goes down again. Maybe—please God no—Victor Martinez gets hurt again and Marte DHs. Or maybe—it won’t take a vast amount for this to happen—the Tigers decide that Nick Castellanos isn’t the answer at third base. He’s been hot lately, but it looks to us like he’s not as good a hitter as the current model of Marte—similar average, similar OBP, less power. Castellanos, improbably, appears to have gone from being a Chisenhallesque third baseman to an adequate one–the improvement in fielding stats is pretty remarkable–but if he slumps in the field and/or at bat, you can imagine Marte getting a shot at a full-time job.

One thing seems certain to us: Marte is an attractive streaming option against left-handed pitchers, upon whom he rains devastation. His platoon split this year: .358/.413/.695 vs. .227/.300/.397. The splits in previous years have been less extreme, and he’s shown signs of being able to hit right-handers, so we think he might do well in a full-time job. Meanwhile, though, he should get his first MLB start against left-hander J.A. Happ this very evening.

And to distract you from the suspense about Marte tonight: Last week, Rotographs Daily Grinder Brad Johnson proposed a free Fangraphs Mid-Season Readers’ League. He got enough of a response to make up at least three leagues. The earliest responders got a league hosted by Brad; the next group got a league hosted by Brad’s fellow DFS expert Dylan Higgins; the next group winds up with us as hosts, which we hope you find as funny as we do. It should be good for a few laughs at our expense, a blog post or two, and the eternal glory that will accrue to the winner, whom we promise to identify and laud at the end of the season if that’s what he or she wants. If everyone who signed up with Brad wants in our league, we’re full, but that’s not going to happen because it never does. If you’re interested, sign up here for the waiting list and we’ll see how things shake out. The snake draft is on Sunday, July 12th at 7 PM ET.

The Birchwood Brothers are two guys with the improbable surname of Smirlock. Michael, the younger brother, brings his skills as a former Professor of Economics to bear on baseball statistics. Dan, the older brother, brings his skills as a former college English professor and recently-retired lawyer to bear on his brother's delphic mutterings. They seek to delight and instruct. They tweet when the spirit moves them @birchwoodbroth2.

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I don’t know quite enough about J.D. Martinez, but didn’t he undergo a similar flyball heavy transformation when joining the Tigers?


I think JD’s transformation occurred over winter ball before joining the Tigers.