The Sustainable J.D. Martinez

Coming into 2015, baseball fans everywhere had the same question on their collective minds: “Is J.D. Martinez sustainable?” The question was more than fair, as there were plenty of indicators that the now-28-year-old’s 2014 breakout could be a fluke.

It was all too easy to point at Martinez’s batting average on balls in play (.389 in 2014) and write off a good portion of his .315/.358/.553 slash. His power spike — from a .120 isolated power in 2013 all the way up to a .238 ISO the next year — was impossible to ignore, but naysayers still had avenues through which to dismiss it.

Martinez may have hit 23 homers in 480 plate appearances in 2014 — with another ten in just 71 PA in Triple-A before his promotion — but had never hit more than 19 in any season, at any level. Moreover, he hit just 19 total homers in the 864 PA he compiled in 2012-2013. Now all of a sudden, he hits 33 of them in one year? This was another area that was relatively simple to disregard as flukish.

I found myself somewhere in the middle. I believed in the power (for reasons I’ll get into shortly), but had serious concerns about Martinez’s on-base ability. His .389 BABIP was accompanied by unimpressive plate discipline — 26.3% K-rate, 6.3% BB-rate — and that combination was admittedly tough to ignore.

On the other side of the coin, his 43.3% hard-hit rate last year was the league’s No. 4 mark. Hard-hit balls are obviously more likely to become hits; a rate like that both makes the BABIP harder to simply shrug off, and also makes the power easier to buy into.

Long story short (too late), it wasn’t hard to throw together a decent argument either way regarding Martinez’s 2015 prospects. As we all know by now, Martinez silenced his critics by hitting 38 homers, with a robust .282/.344/.535 slash. His BABIP dropped by 50 points, but .339 is still a strong mark, and was easily high enough to maintain a solid batting average.

This year, his 42.3% hard-hit rate was the best in the majors. Combine the last two seasons, and Martinez is making hard contact on 42.7% of his batted balls, good for third in baseball in that span, behind only David Ortiz and Miguel Cabrera. His ISO climbed even higher in 2015 (to .253) than last year, and his walk rate improved to a respectable 8.1%.

His surging home-run rate is more than just a product of hitting the ball hard, as Martinez’s fly-ball rate has increased in each of the last three years:

  • 2012: 31.6%
  • 2013: 34.1%
  • 2014: 36.8%
  • 2015: 43.5%

Along with his steadily climbing fly-ball rate, Martinez not only sustained last year’s spike in HR/FB rate to 19.5%, but surpassed it at 20.8%. If you’re looking for explanations for Martinez’s fly-ball surge, look no further than the man’s own words.

In June, Martinez told Eno Sarris that he “used to always think ‘Hit down on the baseball.’ But then I realized that’s not what everyone else is doing. [. . .] The new swing almost feels like an uppercut. Hands drop down to the zone instead of coming up before the pitch.”

Martinez also benefits from the fact that he hits lefties and righties more or less equally well, with a slight advantage against southpaws. Since the start of 2014, he’s dramatically improved his plate coverage against right-handers:

Martinez 11-13 iso vs rMartinez 14-15 iso vs r

Meanwhile, facing southpaws, Martinez has changed his entire approach:

Martinez 11-13 iso vs LMartinez 14-15 iso vs L

His power against lefties used to be on pitches near the top of the zone or higher, probably because his batted-ball data was pretty close to league-average, and these were pitches he knew he could hit in the air. Now that’s he’s adjusted to a more flyball-heavy, power-hitting profile, he’s looking for pitches middle-in (even off the plate) that he can pull.

It’s no surprise that he’s pulling 42.7% of his batted balls over the last two seasons, compared to just 34.8% before that. Again, Martinez offers his own explanation: “I had to change my step [. . .] If I get my foot down earlier, I’m going to send the bat earlier.”

It makes perfect sense; the quicker the bat enters the zone, the better a hitter’s ability to pull the ball with authority. Still, Martinez is far from a simple pull hitter, as his power to all fields is outstanding.

Alas, Steamer remains unconvinced, predicting Martinez to regress in nearly every way possible next season. For fantasy purposes, I’m hoping owners in my leagues feel the same way. I’m not sure what else Martinez needs to do to prove that he’s legit, and next year will be his age-28 season. What’s not to like here?

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Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.

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