Welcome back to another article! Christmas is just three days away! Anyone else as excited as me? My favorite part is baking some absolute fire sugar cookies, decorating them, and eating them all while watching Christmas movies on Christmas Eve. Remember calories don’t count on Christmas. While all the lights, food, gifts, and family are all amazing aspects of this time of year, something is cooking. That would be the hot stove, and it’s starting to heat up and get us focused on the 2021 baseball season as we head into the new year. Looking ahead we can’t forget to look back. In a season in which a global pandemic was occurring, and we only had 60 games of data, it is incredibly hard to make assessments about players and their performances, and that includes J.D. Martinez, who I’ll be looking at in this article.
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As with many sports, there are many factors that come into play when looking at how a player performed during a particular season. Players may be statistically slow starters, not play well in certain weather, have problems with certain teams that they continued to face in the re-alignment, and more. What a player has done in their career before 2020 needs to be taken into consideration for these exact reasons.
This offseason, I’ll be doing a series of articles looking at what went right, what went wrong, and the overall 2021 outlook for certain players. I can only take into account the data that has been given and use that to best assess what to expect from each player in 2021. This should be fun! Let’s dive into our next player in this series, J.D. Martinez
What Went Right for J.D. Martinez in 2020
Stayed Aggressive at the Plate
The first positive part of J.D. Martinez’s season was that his approach didn’t really change too much. This showed particularly with his desire to attack strikes. Martinez had a zone swing, zone contact, first pitch swing, and swing percentage all in line with his career norms in 2020. When Martinez first arrived in Boston back in 2018, this was a quality that seemed to set the tone for how he and other Red Sox hitters would attack pitchers. In other words, this approach rubbed off well on his teammates. His 73 percent of zone swing percentage rate was right back with what we’ve seen since 2014 and was higher than each of his previous two seasons. While this may not seem like a small thing, it shows his struggles didn’t let him keep his bat on his shoulder at the plate. You combine this with the fact that he didn’t stray too much away from chasing pitches outside the zone, it seemed that Martinez maintained a similar approach at the plate and could have realigned with his norms had a full season played out.
Quality of Contact
Another one of the ways you can tell if a hitter is able to bounce back is looking at their quality of contact. Martinez excelled in this area as he did not make much soft contact at all. I think this can be an underrated part of a hitter’s performance. J.D. Martinez had the second-lowest soft contact percentage of his career this past season. This can be easy to miss as so much of the focus is on hard contact. While hard contact is important, a player avoiding soft contact gives them more of a chance to convert batted balls into hits. This was the case for Martinez as it stayed consistently low throughout his struggles.
If you do want to look at the other side of the coin, he still was well within the top half of baseball in hard-hit rate, average exit velocity, xSLG, and in the top 73% of the league in barrel rate. While this is a step down from Martinez’s previous production, it is still incredibly good.
This also tied in well with his batted ball profile. J.D. Martinez dramatically decreased his groundball rate 8% while upping his line drive rate over 5%. He also continued hitting the ball to all parts of the field and did not rely on pulling the ball. He even added a few more degrees to his launch angle.
What Went Wrong
No Access To Video
The Boston Red Sox slugger has a very in-depth routine before each game. Prior to the 2020 season, Martinez set up three iPad’s and reviewed his BP to see what he should or should not do during his game at-bats. Martinez also could be seen after each at-bat studying the plate appearance in the dugout. With no access to video for players to use in this pandemic-shortened season, Martinez took a strong dislike to the announcement, even before a game had been played.
In a report from SI.com’s Tom Verducci in March, Martinez was quoted as saying:
“I think what people don’t get is there is a new generation that revolves around technology and analytics and seeing their swing. To me, studying my swing and making changes, that’s what makes me who I am. I got released doing it the other way.
“… I’m sure there are some people who are anti- (in-game video). Those are natural hitters. I’m not a natural hitter. I had to teach myself how to hit. That makes me rely on it and there are similar players out there who feel the same way. Guys that rely on breaking their swing down and seeing what they’re doing wrong. Because it’s hard enough already.”
The issue with the ban on in-game video is that, over the past few years, a new wave of talent is completely reliant on this data. Nobody in this group may have been affected more than Martinez, one of the most technical hitters in the game.
When looking at how his entire hitting profile changed after his release from Houston, you can see how deep Martinez digs into hitting and using every tool available to make him a better hitter. When you take away arguably a hitter’s best tool, you can see the result.
Trouble Against Right-Handed Pitching
In 2019, Martinez took a little bit of a step back from what we normally expect from him. To put it simply, he was merely very good instead of elite. A big reason for this was because he was simply average against righties. In 2019, Martinez finished with a .272 batting average and a 103 wRC+ against them. That is compared to a .404 batting average and 242 wRC+ against lefties.
If J.D. Martinez wanted to get back to being elite, he needed to get back to being the bomb against same-handed pitchers. Instead, he went in the opposite direction, finishing with a .213 batting average and 78 wRC+. This was also while struggling with lefties to the tune of a .214 batting average and 78 wRC+.
One of the things that could change in 2021 was that Martinez carried a .262 batting average on balls in play against lefties. and splits in a shortened season are hard to take at face value. This is an area we are going to need to watch looking ahead to 2021.
Hitting for Power
Martinez is a great all-around hitter and with his skillset, deserved to be called one of the game’s most elite in his prime. One of the best parts of J.D. Martinez’s game was his power. His .252 ISO in 2019 was 30th in baseball, and it was also his second-worst mark in a five-year span. The two years prior he had accumulated a .387 and .299 ISO. He’s an incredible power hitter. This past season he finished with a .175 mark which was essentially league-average. The league-average mark was .173 in 2020.
As stated before, Martinez did suffer a bit in his quality of contact, more specifically with his rate of hard contact, compared to his career norms. He still remained better than league-average. He had trouble consistently driving the ball and even though he hit a lot more high fly balls than usual in 2020, they weren’t all line drives. This means if it’s not leaving the yard, there’s less chance for gap hits.
One of the most underrated parts of Martinez’s game was his ability to hit the ball the opposite way. Martinez was arguably the best in the game in his prime at doing that. In both 2018 and 2019, his Isolated Power marks going opposite field were .492 and .302, respectively. In 2020, that cut down to .273. Even though he was still hitting the ball the other way some, this coincided with it going down as well. Could this be because of the shortened season? Potentially, but Martinez hit the bulk of his batted balls back up the middle this past year. According to Baseball Savant he had his lowest rate of hitting the ball the other way of the Statcast era, which dates back to 2015. Centerfield is the deepest part of every park, so that could explain some of the power drop-off.
Trouble Against Fastball & Offspeed Pitches
Martinez has never been a great breaking ball hitter. However, he was decent enough against them that he did just well enough against them to be able to crush everything else. For reference .252, .273, and .250 xBA’s compared to much higher numbers versus fastball and offspeed. A lot over .300 and some over .400.
Martinez’s dominance versus those pitches was huge to his success. This was not the case in 2020. In 2019, Martinez had a .340 xBA, .648 xSLG, and .446 xwOBA against fastballs. This past season, though, he finished with a .238 xBA, .487 xSLG, and .329 xwOBA. This same type of effect was the case for him against offspeed as his 2019 numbers of .336 xBA, .699 xSLG and .453 xwOBA went way down to .218 xBA, .404 xSLG, and .248 xwOBA. He also saw his whiff rate jump versus the fastball, which explains his 25 percent strikeout rate, his highest since joining the Red Sox. It also could indicate some loss of bat speed, which is never good for an aging hitter.
Outlook for J.D. Martinez in 2021
Martinez officially opted into his contract for next season, so we know exactly where he’ll be playing in 2021. At least for the start of the season that is. There is no sugar coating that his slash line of .213/.291/.389 will not play for most people’s fantasy teams in 2021. I’m in the camp that some of the circumstances of this past year (the pandemic, lack of video, contact rate being down around the league) played into this performance.
There is a lot J.D. Martinez must do if he wants to get back to one of the league’s most elite hitters. The key to me will be seeing how he makes adjustments during each game, his elite hard-hit rates going back up, and see if he’s truly locked in driving the ball the other way. If he’s struggling with all this early on, it may be time to jump ship.
For the 2021 season, I’m fully expecting Martinez to be someone closer to what we saw in 2019. According to NFBC ADP, he is the 62nd ranked player and going off the board at around pick 98. He’s coming at a huge discount from year’s past and he is someone that I think is great to take a chance on for your 2021 fantasy team. JD Martinez shouldn’t be done yet, that’s not what his profile says and getting him after round 8 (in a 12-team league) according to this price is well worth the gamble for me.
The hot stove is just starting to heat up, but FantraxHQ has been cooking all offseason! Keep track of all our 2020-21 MLB Offseason Analysis.
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