2015 Player Previews: RF J.D. Martinez

Not even the most optimistic of observers would have thought when the Tigers signed J.D. Martinez late in spring training to a minor league deal, that he’d make much of an impact with the big league club. But that’s exactly what he did, becoming one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball. Now the big question becomes, can he do it again?

2014 In Review – J.D. Martinez

2014 Stats
Detroit 123 480 3.7 153 .315 .389 .354 .358 .553 6% 26% 6/3 -1 -6.9

Martinez headed into the 2014 in spring training with the Astros, and after a slow first couple weeks, coming off two disappointing seasons, the Astros decided to cut bait and released the outfielder outright. They wanted to give other young players an opportunity, and didn’t see much potential left with Martinez. The Tigers however did, with scouts being impressed with him from what they saw in winter ball, and after previously having tried to trade for him, signed him to a minor league contract as a free agent.

It took less than a month of Martinez mashing the ball in Toledo (.846 slugging percentage, including 10 home runs, in just 17 games) before he got the call to Detroit. He spent another month sharing time, but kept hitting, and by the middle of June, he was playing almost every day.

Martinez was very hot and cold over the course of the year, including an August that made it look like he was coming back to Earth (101 wRC+), but he started mashing again in September to erase those fears. He hit for a great average (aided by an unsustainable .389 BAbip), walked a fair amount, and mashed the ball all over the park, with a 0.24 ISO, which would have been good for top ten in MLB if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. It was also the best on the Tigers in 2014, beating All-Star sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, despite V-Mart turning in a career year.

Defensively, Martinez was relatively mediocre – he didn’t add much, but he wasn’t a huge negative on the defense, like Torii Hunter and Nick Castellanos were for the Tigers.

It all came together to mean the Tigers picked up a four win player (would likely have been closer to five if he got regular at-bats from Opening Day on) off the spring training scrap heap, when 28 other teams could have grabbed him as well. Without his out-of-nowhere contributions, it’s reasonable to believe the Tigers would not have won the AL Central.

2015 Player Projections

2015 Projections
Service PA WAR BA BAbip OBP SLG wOBA D-Val
ZiPS 527 1.8 .283 .339 .328 .483 .352 -4
Steamer 582 1.8 .273 .327 .322 .463 .343 -12

While Martinez was the equivalent of a five win player in 2014, neither projection system sees him coming anywhere close to approaching that value, with both forecasting him to be worth slightly less than two wins with an uptick in at-bats. Neither system does forecast him to go over 600, but given that he had yet to reach 500 plate appearances in a single season, it’s not surprising they’re not ready to forecast a full 150 or more games with 600+ plate appearances.

Both systems see a pretty significant regression to the mean on his average, with an average on balls in play dragging his average down to the .270-.280 range. With a similar walk rate, and slightly reduced but still strong power numbers, he’s expected to put up a very good wOBA still.

Defensively, while his defensive runs saved metric was almost neutral in 2014 (-1), his UZR/150 wasn’t quite as good, and the prior two years in Houston he was rather bad, leading both systems to project below average defense from him.

The TigsTown Take

On the TigsTown message boards, a frequent poster inquired why I thought Martinez wouldn’t be able to hit in the neighborhood of .290 with 25 home runs and 90 RBI’s. For starters, only three players in baseball reached all three of those marks last year, so he would be putting himself in pretty rare company.

Beyond that, just starting with his average as discussed above, his BAbip was a totally unsustainable .389. A drop of 40 points in his BAbip still puts him 20 points above his career average, and 50 points above the league average, and that would drop his average under .290.

The more likely scenario is reverting to his career norm which would be an average around .275 per the above projections, and there's also the risk of regression to the mean, in which his BAbip drops something like 100 points, in which case in the unlucky scenario his average could fall to .250. If you’re expecting Martinez to hit within 30 points of his 2014 production of .315, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

In addition, on the power numbers... to get 25+ home runs he'd have to obviously continue hitting homers at the pace he was last year or very close to it given his strikeout and batted ball rates, which was a home run per fly ball rate of 19.5% - that's better than Miguel Cabrera's HR/FB ratio for his career. There were only 6 guys in MLB that had a better ratio than that last year - Jose Abreu, Giancarlo Stanton, Chris Davis, Chris Carter, Nelson Cruz and Matt Kemp. That's pretty rare company.

Basically, for him to reach the levels above, you have to assume that the flukey numbers he put up that drove up his average will continue, and that he indeed is one of the best power hitters in the game. For a guy that was cut by the Astros 11 months ago, that is a massive jump for him to have made.

This isn’t meant to be a negative outlook on JDM, simply that it’s very unlikely he’ll be able to repeat his 2014 production, and a return to Earth is likely inevitable. That still means he can be a productive everyday corner outfielder, he’s just probably not going to be an All-Star-caliber one.

2015 Projections come from two different sources; ZiPS, and Steamer, both publicly available via FanGraphs.com and presented for information purposes only. ZiPS projections come from Dan Szymborski, and Steamer from Steamer Projections, a trio of independent academic researchers.

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