In what has largely been a disappointing season for the St. Louis Cardinals offense, José Martínez has stood out. His wRC+, a catch-all offensive metric where 100 is MLB average, stands at 151 – eleventh best among qualified hitters.
In fact, Martínez’s stretch of hot hitting extends back to mid-June of last year. Below are the list of players with 400 or more plate appearances and a higher wRC+ than José’s 152 over the last year:
That’s it. I don’t think I need to speak to the credentials of the players on that list. Over the last year, José Martínez is right there with them. While it's sort of shocking to see a guy who spent a decade in the minors pop up on that list, it's less surprising when we consider the hitting process. Over the last year, in terms of contact quality and contact rate, he’s hit like Mike Trout. José Martínez has hit the baseball like Mike Trout.
Generally, as players make more contact, the average quality of that contact decreases. Joey Gallo and Aaron Judge have the best quality of contact but are among the worst at actually making contact. Joe Panik and Jonathan Lucroy make a lot of contact, but don't do much damage with it. José Martínez makes a lot of contact and does a lot of damage with that contact. It's a unique blend. If we consider his all-around skillset with the bat, he’s almost unparalleled in today’s game:
The only other player with at least an 89 percentile ranking across each of these categories is José Ramírez. Mike Trout is great. José Ramírez is great. José Martínez, acquired for almost nothing from the Kansas City Royals, might be great.
The biggest concern for the St. Louis first baseman, of course, is his defensive ability (or lack thereof). John Fleming of STLbullpen.com recently dove into the slugger’s historically one-sided season, a campaign in which he is on pace for the second-lowest wins above replacement (WAR) for a National League player who held an OPS+ (another catch-all like wRC+) of 140 or higher. While having that strong a hitter in your lineup is undoubtedly useful, it’s concerning that he’s providing such little value despite hitting so well.
John used Baseball Reference’s version of WAR (bWAR) for its compatibility with BR’s Play Index. I prefer to use Fangraphs’ version (fWAR). Luckily, since I’m using a calendar year, Fangraphs’ version is easy to find. I wanted to see how much value Jose is costing himself when he’s standing outside the batter’s box relative to his value in it. To do that, I scaled each position player’s fWAR (min. 400 PA) over the last calendar year to 600 plate appearances, my proxy for a full season’s worth, and compared it to their wRC+.
Total value correlates with offensive value extremely well, as most of a player’s opportunities to add to or reduce their value comes at the plate. You can see a pretty big disparity between Martínez’s data point and the trend line. It’s the second-largest negative gap between offensive value and total value.
In case that chart doesn’t do Martínez’s offensive dominance and defensive incompetence justice, here’s another with wRC+ on the x-axis and Fangraphs defensive runs on the y-axis, scaled to 600 plate appearances.
José Martínez, on a rate basis, is the worst defender in this sample. His combination of offense and defense puts him in the same neighborhood as J.D. Martinez, Nelson Cruz, and José Abreu. Of course, it’s hard to complain about inclusion in a peer group with that pedigree. Those three are very good players, even with their limitations. So long as their offensive value outweighs their defensive shortcomings, these are guys who teams will happily employ.
You’ll note that two of Martínez’s closest comps are corner outfielders. Due to the Cardinals current roster construction, I’ve often wondered why the idea of José Martínez playing in an outfield corner has been scrapped. Given Fowler’s year-long struggles, Pham’s month-long disappearance, and a third baseman who is probably best suited for first base, it might make sense to toss Martínez in right field to increase roster flexibility and optimize the lineup. Pham and especially Bader are good enough in center to cover some of Martínez’s defensive deficiencies. And while it’s not fair to call him a natural anywhere on the defensive side of the diamond, he started 650 games in the outfield during his minor league career compared to only 43 games at first. He’s definitely not good out there, but he might not be much worse out there than Fowler now, anyways. He definitely has the better arm.
Martínez probably won’t finish his Cardinals career in the same company as Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, Jim Edmonds, and Matt Holliday. Yet, some underlying metrics indicate he has actually out-hit his career production to date, suggesting his performance isn’t unsustainable so long as he can keep up the excellence of his process. He doesn’t provide much else of value, but he can hit. José Martínez is a professional hitter.