J.D. Martinez is the Answer, But What’s The Question?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

J.D. Martinez has had a crazy good week. In his last seven days, he’s had 28 PA and hit .407/.393/.852 (.523 wOBA/240 wRC+), which has brought forth a team best 0.6 WAR. He’s hit three home runs and done some other really good things. It’s a J.D. Martinez kind of week and it’s happened while Torii Hunter has been hurt. Could this be a sign of things to come?

Martinez doesn’t have a track record of MLB success, but he has enough physical talent that you could look at him and buy what he’s selling. There are too many strikeouts in his past, not nearly enough walks, and a lack of defensive value but the power catches your eye and he kind of looks like the right-handed pinch hitter you want your team to have. He hasn’t had much success in the major leagues before 2014, but he hit is way through the minors and I’m always in favor of seeing what those type of players can do.

Thanks to his hot week, JDM is hitting .300/.330/.570 with a .387 wOBA and 146 wRC+. A bat like that can play anywhere on the diamond. In the outfield, he’s been somewhere between slightly below average and a slightly above average in a corner spot, which means he’s not that valuable defensively, but as long as he isn’t killing you (See: Hunter, Torii), a .387 wOBA will wash away any borderline play and keep you in the lineup.

If you’re looking at his stats to date, JDM needs to be in the Tigers everyday lineup even after Torii Hunter returns. JDM has a .387 wOBA and Hunter has a .319 wOBA. Over a full season, that difference would be worth three wins, all else equal. And all else isn’t equal. Hunter has been a terrible defender and Martinez is an okay one. Torii runs the bases a bit better, but there’s only so much value there. If you take their season to date numbers and play this out, it’s JDM in a landslide.

But of course, we can’t just take their season to date numbers and extrapolate because neither player will continue to play like this the rest of the way. They’ll both trend back toward their career marks, but the question is by how much?

The Steamer/ZiPS estimates (two projection systems that use career numbers, in-season data, and historical comparisons) think JDM is due for a .320-.325 wOBA the rest of the way and Hunter will have a .330-.340 wOBA the rest of the way. They also say Hunter will be a -7 or so defender and Martinez will be a -3 or so defender (including the positional adjustment). Let’s play this out a little.

Over a full season, Hunter’s rest of season wOBA advantage equates to about one extra win and his defensive difference equates to about 0.5 fewer wins. If both players play to their projections (Hunter better, Martinez worse) Hunter might be worth and extra 0.3 WAR from now until October. This is what the pro-Hunter, anti-Martinez projections say. And it’s easy to think they’re being too generous.

It’s wrong to throw them out, and I think their offensive estimates are pretty reasonable (although they probably undersell JDM just a touch), but I think they are way overselling Torii Hunter as a defender. The projections see Hunter’s bad defensive numbers last year and his atrocious ones this year as a sign of trouble but not a sign of out and out collapse. Those stats can be tricky and sometimes they’re wrong, so the systems are cautious about relying on the current year.

I would rely on the current year in Hunter’s case. Hunter’s ability to play defense is just about gone, in my opinion. He can’t get to balls, he can’t make good throws, and his route running has been extremely poor. This isn’t a one year blip and he’s 39. Hunter didn’t just make a few bad plays that tanked his numbers, he’s legitimately lost his defensive way. Maybe that’s something he can fix, but I’m not confident about that. His lack of ability to turn batted balls into outs is very damaging to a fly ball heavy staff.

So if JDM’s season to date numbers are way better than Hunter’s and the projections make it a near wash, it might be time to think about reducing Hunter’s role in favor of Martinez. I don’t think Martinez is a great player and he probably shouldn’t be a starting outfielder on a contender going forward, but given the current roster, he belongs out there. We’ll see what happens when Dirks gets back, but for now, it should be a Davis/Hunter job share with Jackson and Martinez starting at the other two spots.

Davis’ only value right now is on the bases and Hunter is actively hurting the team. They should play a little better collectively going forward but it’s probably best to move them into the sharing role and let Martinez have his chance. If it turns out he’s overmatched, then so be it. Martinez isn’t a long term answer for the Tigers but he might be a short term one while they figure out what the future looks like and you have to stop putting Hunter in a position to cost the team runs.

The Astros didn’t want J.D. Martinez and now he might be a very important piece of the Tigers attack. If that doesn’t tell you baseball is weird and that this season has been strange, I don’t know what will. For now, J.D. Martinez should continue to be a regular outfielder and Torii Hunter should come to terms with his limited role, no matter how strange that sounds.

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2 responses

  1. Well, yeah. We have a serious shortage of players who can be described as “starting outfielders on a contender”. In fact, if AJax continues to slump, it may be fair to say we don’t have any players who fit that description. Let us suppose, optimistically, that Suarez is actually the major league player he seems to be. Not totally out of the question–he has some power, can run a bit, and is showing impressive strike zone judgment for his years. Now let’s assume Iglesias comes back strong, and maybe Devon Travis is the real deal. All of a sudden, we have a plethora of infielders. DD’s usual modus operandi would be to trade off kids for established vets, but maybe we could put Suarez at third or second (I don’t see in him an elite shortstop’s range). Maybe Devon Travis can play a major league brand of ball at second. And maybe our outfield next year features Kinsler and perhaps Castellanos.

  2. […] Almost exactly a year ago, I put words on the page about JD Martinez’s breakout. At the time, he was on fire, or en fuego if you’re 15 and want to sound like you’re cool because you know words in another language. Looking at Martinez using that article as a bookmark (through June 19, 2014). […]

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