Have the Cardinals Found the New J.D. Martinez?

“Cardinals’ Devil Magic” is a bit of a running joke around baseball, as every year, it seems like the organization turns some marginal prospect into a big league contributor. This dates back to guys like Allen Craig and David Freese, but Matt Carpenter probably embodies the success the organization has had turning fringe talents into stars better than anyone. Last year, it was Aledmys Diaz coming out of nowhere to put up a monster season; this year, it’s Tommy Pham, who currently ranks 15th among position players in WAR.

More than any other strength, this is what keeps the Cardinals in contention every year. They have a unique strength of finding underpowered position players and turning them into big league contributors. And while Pham has gotten most of the headlines this year, they might just be doing it again, in the person of Jose Martinez.

The only time we’ve really talked about Martinez this year was back when I was wondering why the team was bothering to play Matt Adams in left field, when Pham was stuck in the minors. I mentioned Martinez in passing as a guy who had crushed the ball in spring training, and got carried as a bench bat, which caused the team to option Pham to the minors. Previously, the only mentions of Martinez on the site came courtesy of Carson Cistulli, who included Martinez in a Fringe Five write-up in April of 2016, and picked him as “Cistulli’s Guy” on the Royals prospect list a few months before that.

Here’s what Carson said about Martinez back then.

For what Martinez lacks in defensive ability — he’s pretty much confined to an outfield corner — he compensates for it by way of offensive skill and, to the degree it can be said of a player entering his age-27 season, projection. Martinez was the best player in the Pacific Coast League last year according to a rough minor-league approximation of WAR provided by StatCorner. Nor was that performance the product entirely of statistical variance. While the line was certainly buoyed by a .434 BABIP, Martinez also benefited from his typical command of the strike zone — recording strikeout and walk rates of 12.1% and 13.9%, respectively — while also posting a .179 isolated-power figure.

Nor does any of this recognize his most notable trait — namely, his height. Martinez is 6-foot-7. Over the last decade, only 10 seasons have been logged by players 6-foot-7 or higher. All told, players around his height — which is to say, from 6-foot-6 to 6-foot-8 — have recorded a .223 isolated-power mark in 17,750 plate appearances. All of which is to say that Martinez quite possibly hasn’t reached his power ceiling yet. Paired with an above-average penchant for contact, that conspires to produce an interesting offensive profile.

As Carson correctly noted, it was pretty unusual for a guy Martinez’s size to be a low-power/high-contact guy, but that’s what Martinez had been throughout his minor league career. In fact, low-power doesn’t even really do justice to what Martinez was. In 2013, while kicking around the Braves system, he ran an .086 ISO in Double-A as a 24-year-old. In 2014, the Braves actually sent him to high-A as a 25-year-old, as he was the quintessential organizational player, hanging around to be a good influence on younger teammates and to help lower level teams try to win some games.

But after he climbed back up the ladder and had the monster year in Triple-A in 2015, the Cardinals plucked him from the Royals in exchange for some cash considerations. He wasn’t very good for Memphis last year, though, putting up just a 95 wRC+ as a 27-year-old. The contact was still there, but Martinez just didn’t hit for enough power to look like a big leaguer, given his defensive limitations.

Over the winter, though, Martinez apparently made some changes.

“All the hitting coaches I had since I’ve been playing said I needed to hit with more leverage and elevate the ball,” said Martinez. “But, getting with Miguel Rojas and Martin Prado in the offseason (in Miami) was a big help for me.”

The three Venezuelans — Rojas and Prado both played for the Miami Marlins — worked out together at a hitting facility in the Miami area and Martinez said a hitting instructor he knew only as “Sosa” (presumably, not Sammy), told him, “I’m going to help you to hit more homers and more doubles.”

If you look at Martinez’s minor league batted ball numbers, he annually ran ground-ball rates north of 50%, and it’s nearly impossible to hit for power when you’re doing that. This year, though, Martinez has lowered his GB% to 42%, a little bit lower than the Major League average. And the results have been staggering.

In part-time work, totaling 257 PAs this season, Martinez has hit .314/.379/.546, good for a .388 wOBA and 141 wRC+. And while it’s easy to just say small sample size, there’s really nothing here that looks like a fluke.

Because while this isn’t what you’d expect from a 29-year-old who didn’t hit for any power in the minors, Martinez now hits the crap out of the ball.

Top 10 Exit Velocity, 2017
Player Average EV
Aaron Judge 94.6
Nelson Cruz 92.8
Miguel Sano 92.8
Joey Gallo 92.7
Khris Davis 92.4
Giancarlo Stanton 91.9
Paul Goldschmidt 91.5
Manny Machado 91.3
Jose Martinez 91.3
Kendyrs Morales 91.2
Minimum 150 batted balls

And now that Martinez isn’t hitting the ball into the ground all the time, he’s spraying line drives all over the field. And so by MLB’x xwOBA calculation, Martinez’s results actually indicate he’s been a bit unlucky this year.

Top 5 xwOBA, 2017
Rank Player xwOBA
1 Aaron Judge 0.427
2 Mike Trout 0.426
3 Joey Votto 0.425
4 J.D. Martinez 0.413
5 Jose Martinez 0.412
Minimum 200 Plate Appearances

Martinez’s success obviously comes in a smaller sample than the guys around him, but the company he’s keeping is remarkably impressive. And while small sample results absolutely need to be regressed heavily against a guy’s track record, it’s much harder to fluke your way into hitting the ball hard for this long. And we already knew Martinez controlled the strike zone; the key was always just unlocking his power.

He still doesn’t really pull the ball all that often, but with the changes he’s made to his swing and approach this year, he’s now driving the ball the other way with authority. The aforementioned J.D. Martinez has the highest wRC+ (321) on balls hit to the opposite field, but Jose Martinez comes in right behind him, with a 309 opposite field wRC+. When you’re driving the ball like this without trying to pull everything, there is obvious natural raw power there. Martinez just had to figure out how to use it. Now, at 29, it looks like he finally has.

With Matt Carpenter still around, and guys like Jedd Gyorko and Kolten Wong vying for playing time at 2B/3B, Martinez still doesn’t have a clear path to everyday at-bats in St. Louis next year. But given the changes he’s made this year, Martinez has earned a shot at a regular first base job somewhere. A high-contact guy who has unlocked his power and showing a pretty good idea of the strike zone is still a useful player, even if he’s limited to first base defensively and is a bit on the older side.

The Cardinals certainly have a logjam of position players to sort through this winter. If they don’t think they’ll have a spot to give Martinez 500 at-bats next year, he could be a very interesting trade chip. But if I’m John Mozeliak, I’d probably just keep Martinez and make him my everyday first baseman next year. Given the organization’s success with unlocking power from contact hitters, I wouldn’t be surprised if Martinez really has turned himself into a high-level hitter.

We hoped you liked reading Have the Cardinals Found the New J.D. Martinez? by Dave Cameron!

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

newest oldest most voted
wily mo
Member

well, what’s his middle name

Anon
Member
Anon

Alberto according to b-ref

EonADS
Member
EonADS

Alberto. J.A. Martinez?

Lance Brozdowski
Member
Lance Brozdowski

“Just Alberto Martinez”? Feels like an homage to Albert Pujols; still like Just Dongs more! haha

Brock Paperscissors
Member
Brock Paperscissors

J.A.M.

You just got JAM’d!