The winter meetings kick off next week in Orlando, and with it comes the tons-of-fun Rule 5 Draft. Though the increase in its popularity has been coupled with the steady decrease of useful picks, many teams use it to take chances on bounce-back players to fill out a big league bench or bullpen. There have not been any true impact position players taken for at least 7 years, especially since the change in rules for eligibility a few years ago. Outfielder J.D. Martinez was removed from the 40-man roster November 20th while putting together an impressive winter league season in Venezuela. Since then he has done nothing but continue to show an improved look at the plate, and teams that have noticed could take advantage of one of the best value Rule 5 picks in years.
Injuries have taken a toll on Martinez’s big league numbers, with 2011 representing the last season he contributed better than replacement value. However, he is not far removed from the guy that blasted through the minor leagues to the tune of a .928 OPS, and was considered a lineup building block for the rebuilding Astros just two seasons ago. Through 81 at-bats in the Venezuelan Winter League, J.D. has torn the cover off the ball to the tune of a .333/.402/.630 line with 6 home runs. He has undergone some pretty impressive swing improvements since he finished his injury-riddled Major League season, which I will explore further in this article. Quick synopsis? J.D. is showing a tremendously better ability to drive the ball to center and right-center fields due to a change in swing path and lower half stability.
Though his numbers have undoubtedly suffered the last two years, Martinez is no stranger to hitting balls hard in the big leagues. He has very real present power that is rivaled by few other professionals.
That was the longest hit ball at Comerica Park this year at 464 feet, you know, where Miguel Cabrera plays half his games. Just one shot, but a pretty impressive display of power on the only hanging slider Scherzer threw this year. Here’s a close up shot of that home run, again from the center field camera:
Though you cannot really argue with results like this, there are a couple things to see here that lend his swing to inconsistent contact if his timing is altered slightly. J.D. brings the bat into the zone at a relatively flat angle, swinging more around his shoulders rather than underneath them. You can see from start to finish his hands work down or level through contact, somewhat the chop down path that many players are taught. Because of the way the bat enters the zone, Martinez’s hands are moving across his body toward the third base dugout, and his top hand rolls over very soon after contact. This swing does not create much true lift; he must relay on hitting the ball in the perfect spot to drive the ball this well, with very little room for error. Maybe he’s just tomahawking a pitch in the upper middle part of the zone? For a demonstration of a proper bat path, here’s Joey Votto on an even higher pitch:
Notice how the bat comes down into the zone, and his hands drive through the ball on an upward plane that matches the ball’s descent. This swing allows him more easily to hit tough pitches better than almost everyone in the game. For a better comparison to his Venezuela swings, take a look here at Martinez going the other way for an opposite field home run off the Royals in May of this year:
Pretty similar qualities show up in this shot, and continue to show up in the vast majority of his 2013 MLB swings. The hands get away from his body as he starts to swing, taking the knob across the plate rather than down and close to his body. There is a lot of east-to-west movement in his swing path, again resulting in the top hand rolling over just after contact. Notice also how his front foot almost lifts off the ground at contact, limited the amount of force and control he can gain from his legs. Again, he hits a home run here, so who cares, right? Well, when he gets fooled by a pitch, this short path through the plane of the pitch results in weak contact, such as here on a groundout to the third baseman:
Flat path equals weakly hit balls to the pull side when early. Contrast that with a pitch that fools Joey Votto:
HA! You can’t fool Joey Votto! That’s a home run to straightaway right field, one of the few that he chose not hit to center or left field. Because of Votto’s path being more in line with the flight of the ball, he can be a little off with his timing and still hit the ball hard. His early timing can more often result in balls that fall into the outfield, rather than rollovers to the pull side.
Enough of Martinez’s “old” swing; now let’s see where he is in winter ball. Here J.D. is hitting a double to right-center field on a pitch up and out over the plate, followed by the opposite field homer from above for comparison:
See how the first move with the hands is more down behind his body before flattening out to get the barrel to the ball, a slight but very important difference. It is a more direct path to the ball, and you can see a noticeable change in his extension and follow-through as a result. His top hand does not roll as soon after contact or as violently, staying on line with the ball longer. His finish then comes more over the left shoulder rather than around as a much more fluid continuation of the swing path. This change is even more obvious on lower pitches. This swing is a lineout to center field on a low off-speed pitch:
You can see how the shoulders rotate more on a vertical plane rather than a level one, much like we see with all the great modern hitters. He stays on the ball longer with his shoulders tilted over the plate, allowing him to get fully extended toward the middle of the field before rolling his hands. And really, it doesn’t even look like he rolls across the ball here, instead more rolling back to his body, way after it would ever affect the batted ball. He looks much more connected to the ground than his swings from the regular season. Also improved is his ability to adjust to speeds because of his better mechanics. On this swing, Martinez gets caught out in front of another low off-speed pitch.
Instead of rolling it over, he drives it to deep center field where it is caught at the warning track for a loud out. Same look as his other winter ball swings, with a much more vertical path that helps him stay grounded with that front leg. I think we can all agree he stands a better chance at being productive if his misses are deep fly balls rather than ground balls he has to hustle on to beat out for hits. Here he is fooled again on a low and outside breaking ball that he drives up the middle for a nice base hit.
Not quite Votto-awesome, as he still wants to throw the hands away from his body a little early, but certainly an improvement over nearly all his swings you can find in the MLB.com archives. Here’s a side shot from the telecast of the same swing, followed by a side view of his oppo homer off Kansas City:
He actually lets go of the bat just after contact, but because his path to the ball was so good he hits it well anyway. You can see a huge difference between that and the steep approach to the ball in the MLB swing. In the second swing he is in and out of the zone with a quick wrist roll after contact. Another noticeable difference from the side is how much wider his legs are, seemingly giving him a little more stability. This affords his lower half the room to create more forward drive with his hips as well, though I do believe the hand path differences are really where the money is at for him. Since there were so few side shots available in the broadcasts, and because I like most of you, here is another view of a swinging strikeout on a splitter/hard-sinking change-up for your perusal.
Baseball is no doubt a game of constant adjustments, and J.D.’s success in the LVBP this year shows that he is smart and athletic enough to improve himself into being a better hitter. Just his minor league pedigree alone might have warranted interest from a team looking for a decent bench player with some modest upside. However, the work he has done with his swing may be what pushes him back on track to being a respectable middle of the order threat for a competitive team. The power is not in question, and if his hit tool is really starting to blossom he becomes an exciting player very quickly. The investment is minimal to add him to the mix for a roster spot and see what happens in Spring Training. Even if his injury woes continue for any part of this year, what team would not want to stockpile Rule 5 talent on the DL as added depth to draw on throughout the long season? 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.