Despite not accumulating enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, J.D. Martinez hit the third-most home runs of any player in baseball. Make no mistake, he’ll be paid for his power this winter.
Since his breakout season with the Tigers, Martinez has been an incredible power asset. Over the past four seasons, the outfielder is 10th in MLB with 128 homers, despite having the second-fewest plate appearances of any player in the top 20 in that category. During that time, Martinez trails only Mike Trout in slugging percentage. He also ranks within the top five in wOBA and wRC+ during that stretch, with an even .300 batting average and .362 OBP, so it’s not as if he’s an all-or-nothing presence at the plate.
During the 2017 season, Martinez took his power to a new level. Across 489 plate appearances between the Tigers and the Diamondbacks, Martinez posted a whopping .690 slugging percentage, which would have led all of baseball by a full 59 points if he’d made enough trips to the plate to qualify for the slugging title. The power numbers he puts up are incredibly impressive and will motivate many teams to inquire on him.
It’s not just his power numbers that stick out, however. Those figures are just one by-product of Martinez’ true greatest strength: quality of contact. His whopping 49% hard contact rate led all of baseball last season, and only Aaron Judge had more barrels per plate appearance. His 208-foot average batted ball distance ranked 10th among hitters with at least 250 batted ball events. His 90.8 MPH average exit velocity ranked 12th, while his 97.2 MPH average exit velocity on fly balls ranked 6th.
Though Martinez’ power is absolutely elite, he comes with a slew of weaknesses that hurt his value and build in a frightening amount of risk. It all starts with his health; Martinez has missed significant time with injuries in each of the past two seasons. In fact, the outfielder has only qualified for the batting title once in his career; teams will certainly be somewhat skeptical about his ability to produce at his 2017 clip over a full season in 2018, let alone in future years as he ages.
One can’t completely ignore defense, either, and Martinez is a downright liability in the field. Fangraphs rated him the seventh-worst defensive player in baseball in 2017. His Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games was -14.8; that figure was the worst among all MLB outfielders. Defensive Runs Saved paints a slightly better picture, but his -5 DRS still ties him for 40th place out of 56 qualifying outfielders. If Martinez was even average defensively, he’d no doubt be one of the top ten most valuable players in baseball. As it stands, however, he’s outside the top 40 in WAR among hitters alone across a three-year sample size.
There’s also plenty of swing-and-miss in Martinez’ game, although it may not be a chief concern in today’s environment. His 26.2% strikeout rate was the 41st-highest among 216 MLB players with at least 400 plate appearances last year. Part of this stems from his 71.2% contact rate, which put him in the bottom eighth of baseball players in that category. It’s worth noting that Martinez improved his walk rate dramatically this year as well; his 10.8% walk rate put him in the 30th percentile. All told, high strikeout totals aren’t entirely uncommon for power hitters, but Martinez does have some of the poorest plate discipline among the elite power threats in the game. If we isolate the top 30 players in slugging percentage this past season, Martinez has the 6th-highest strikeout rate and 12th-lowest walk rate in that group.
The mediocre plate discipline is probably worth the trade-off for his avalanche of extra base hits, but it’s tough to know whether his swing will age well. Martinez and agent Scott Boras are reportedly seeking a contract above $200MM. While few in the industry think he’ll come close to that figure, the MLBTR team predicts he’ll earn something in the range of $150MM. If a win is worth roughly $9MM on the free agent market, one would think Martinez will need to provide somewhere close to 14 wins for his new team over the life of that contract, factoring in some inflation. Over the last century, only a handful of players have produced 14 WAR or more for their entire careers with a strikeout rate above 25% and a walk rate below 11%. Those players are Chris Davis, Ryan Howard, David Ross, Colby Rasmus and Melvin Upton Jr. None of them stands out as being particularly productive beyond his age 30 season. Of course, the game is trending in more of a strikeout-heavy direction these days, so perhaps that stat shouldn’t be observed with too much gravity.
Those readers interested in “clutch” hitters should know that Martinez hasn’t been good in high leverage situations. Since his breakout began at the start of the 2014 season, Martinez ranks dead last among 289 qualifying hitters with a -4.30 clutch rating via Fangraphs.
With the number 611 overall pick in the 2009 draft (20th round), the Houston Astros selected Martinez out of Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He ascended quickly through the minor leagues, making his professional debut just two years later, performing as a roughly average major leaguer in half a season’s worth of at-bats. Things didn’t go well for Martinez across the next two seasons, however. He posted a .245/.295/.376 batting line from 2012-2013 and was ultimately released by Houston.
Although his career seemed all but over after being cut by a then-cellar-dwelling Astros team, the Tigers nabbed Martinez, who had spend the offseason overhauling his swing. Early into the 2014 season, it became clear that Detroit had picked up a completely different player than the sub-replacement level outfielder who had struggled with the Astros. Martinez went on to put together a .318/.358/.553 slash line en route to 4.0 WAR and a 154 wRC+ that year, and has produced fantastic offensive numbers ever since.
As a right-handed power hitter, Martinez would be a welcome asset to the middle of any MLB team’s batting order. However, his price tag will put him firmly out of reach for the majority of teams in smaller markets. Furthermore, the length of the contract he’ll command might give pause to NL teams, who could be concerned that his already-poor defense will decline further with age. While that certainly doesn’t eliminate NL clubs, it does mean that AL clubs (who could play him at DH in the latter years of the contract) might be willing to offer a longer deal. As MLBTR has already noted in our Top 50 Free Agents With Predictions article, the Red Sox are a very good fit. The piece also mentions the Cardinals and Giants as suitors. I’d add the Yankees and Rangers to that list as well, though both would likely need to do some creative financial work to make it possible. Perhaps a few other surprise bidders could emerge.
The $200MM+ contract Boras is seeking for Martinez isn’t realistic. MLBTR’s initial projection of $150MM over six years is more plausible. However, it’s become evident by now that teams are willing to be patient and wait out the free agent market. Going into last offseason, Yoenis Cespedes had a similar four-year WAR output, was just a year older, and had fewer health questions; he signed a four-year, $110MM contract. Based on that, it might be safer to predict a five-year deal for Martinez. I’m going to forecast exactly that, at a $135MM guarantee.