The top Tigers regulars by wRC+, with first names left out in order to generate a surprise I’ve already ruined:
- Martinez, 160
- Martinez, 160
- Cabrera, 144
- Kinsler, 128
- Avila, 107
Everyone’s familiar with the Tigers’ big names. The Tigers are a team built to be carried by the big names. That’s why it wasn’t so bad when the team lost Andy Dirks early on — though useful, Dirks isn’t a big name, so the Tigers could survive his absence. But something they didn’t expect was the play of J.D. Martinez. Filling in for Dirks, Martinez has performed at the plate like a big name, and not coincidentally, Martinez’s career turnaround follows a winter of changing almost everything about himself as a hitter.
It’s very poor form to toot your own horn, even in instances in which you’ve been proven correct. If you’re right often enough, people will find you. So I’m not here to toot my own horn. I’m here to toot Dan Farnsworth’s horn, as he’s the man who authored this FanGraphs post last December. Last offseason, there weren’t that many people interested in reading a post about J.D. Martinez, but now it all seems so very prophetic, as Farnsworth highlighted changes Martinez had made to his swing and put to use in winter ball. The title of Farnsworth’s post: “Rule 5 Dark Horse: J.D. Martinez.”
An excerpt from the very end:
I think that whoever takes a chance on this guy will be more than happy with the results, and with some continued refinement to his swing we could be looking at a Rule 5 steal for a legitimate Major League power hitter.
Consider what Martinez has been for three months. Last season, he couldn’t stick with the Astros. Over the winter, he was passed over in the Rule 5 draft. Toward the end of spring training, the Astros released Martinez outright. A couple days later the Tigers grabbed Martinez, expecting him to function as organizational depth. Martinez subsequently hit the crap out of the ball in Triple-A, and he hardly slowed down after getting promoted. To date, J.D. Martinez has out-hit the guy many consider the greatest hitter in the world.
Something we can safely assume is that Martinez isn’t really this good. Probably, he’s not one of the greatest power hitters in baseball. But what J.D. Martinez is, now, is a player worth discussing, a player worthy of full-time consideration. With the Astros, Martinez was worth negative WAR. With the Tigers, Martinez hasn’t done much of anything about his walks or strikeouts, but he’s more than doubled his isolated slugging, and the fact that he overhauled his whole swing lends substance to what might otherwise be dismissed as statistical noise. A batter’s swing is what a batter is, and it stands to reason a total re-working of a swing can fundamentally change a batter’s identity.
Let’s hear a bit from Martinez. From February, before the breakout:
Astros outfielder J.D. Martinez didn’t tinker with his swing this winter. He blew the whole thing up.
“I changed everything,” Martinez said. “From my hands to my feet, my leg kick, my stride, my load — just everything.”
“I had held my hands high and had an early foot stride with a wide stance,” Martinez said. “I dropped my hands low, got a smoother stride and a straighter stance.”
“I like to get the ball up in the air,” he said. “If I get the ball in the air, there’s a chance it will go out or be a double. Everything’s been working for me.”
By now, there are people who believe in Martinez. Yet the industry’s previous skepticism was made obvious by how Martinez couldn’t land a decent job, even after mashing over the winter. Players are always changing their swings when they want to improve, and most of the time not a lot comes out of it, but Martinez appears to be one of the rare guys who find the change that works for them. Carlos Gomez blossomed when he started getting more aggressive and trying to hit for more power. J.D. Martinez seems to be blossoming after changing the way he swings at pitched baseballs. Following, a swing from 2013 and a swing from 2014, slowed down somewhat:
For the full swing analysis, read the linked Farnsworth post. He’s the swing expert here, and I’m just passing along the message. At least for me, personally, it tends to be easier to analyze a pitcher’s mechanics, but if nothing else, you can see a difference here if you look at Martinez’s respective follow-throughs. There’s a follow-through difference because there are differences before the follow-through, and this new version of Martinez tries to keep the bat in the strike zone for longer. He seems better equipped to drive the baseball up the middle and the other way. Martinez has always had good hitting ability, but now he can more consistently put the right part of the bat on the baseball.
Something Martinez has talked about is making changes in order to not miss the hittable pitches. According to Brooks Baseball, between 2011 – 2013, Martinez swung at 78% of pitches middle-middle. This year, he’s swung at 100% of pitches middle-middle. He’s definitely demonstrating confidence in his new style, and it’s interesting how a different swing has changed Martinez’s plate-discipline numbers.
So far, 344 players have batted at least 100 times. Martinez ranks second in swing rate, between Hector Sanchez and A.J. Pierzynski. He has the same rate of swings at balls as Carlos Gomez, and he has the same rate of swings at strikes as Carlos Gomez. The two make a comparable amount of contact, and while for Gomez this isn’t new anymore, for Martinez this represents an aggressiveness spike. Used to be, he swung about half the time. Now he’s swinging at a lot more strikes and a few more balls, presumably because these days he believes he can more consistently do damage. Plate-discipline stats aren’t only a function of eyes — a different swing can make different pitches more or less appealing. Martinez at least feels like has greater plate coverage, and a greater ability to respond to a pitch mid-flight.
Martinez now looks like one of those cases where the projections might not be as useful as they would be for somebody else. What the projections don’t know is that Martinez changed the way that he hits. And he didn’t just make some small tweak — he changed almost every part of his swing. All the projections know is he’s hit for unusual power over 150 plate appearances, and that’s frequently nothing. Martinez, right now, has a .295 ISO. ZiPS projects him for .157. Steamer’s at .172. Those systems see Martinez as a fringe semi-regular, but if this power is part of what he really is, then the Tigers will have found a good player on the wire at the end of spring training. A good player who came free from the Astros, of all teams.
That Martinez has eight walks and 37 strikeouts suggests that his ceiling can be only so high. He isn’t making a ton more contact now. But he is making a lot better contact, as he did in the minors, and as he did over the winter. That better contact hasn’t come out of nowhere — it’s come out of an effort to be a completely different kind of hitter. Most of the time, these things don’t work out, and J.D. Martinez still has plenty more to prove, but for at least right now, it looks like Martinez has changed everything. And all he needed to do was change everything.
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