Jose Martinez has had a great first half of Spring Training. It’s worth debating what his role should be this upcoming season.
At the end of the preseason, the Cardinals will have to decide who will make their 25-man roster. One interesting question to think about: would you rather keep the 28-year-old rookie or the player who has a 1.254 OPS this Spring and a minor league batting title? Before you answer that question, realize that both players are Jose Martinez. There are a plethora of reasons for both optimism and pessimism regarding Martinez this year. Since he is tearing up the Grapefruit League, it’s time to analyze this enigma’s performance.
About the Spring
Yes, it’s true that Spring stats can be misleading, but they aren’t entirely useless, either. Dan Rosenheck has done a lot of work showing that Spring Training stats actually can make our projections a bit more accurate. It’s true that you might not be able to tell someone’s regular season average from his Spring average. However, that does not mean that his strikeout and walk rates from the Spring are also useless.
So far, Martinez is slashing .389/.476/.778 through 41 plate appearances. What should catch your eye are the 6 walks, 5 strikeouts, and 3 home runs. Walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated slugging are pretty good as predictive statistics and don’t take much time to stabilize. In those three stats, Martinez is doing much better than his preseason projections would indicate.
ZiPS and Steamer have Martinez pegged for about a seven percent walk rate in 2017. While that number isn’t awful, it would likely put Martinez in the bottom third of the league. Again, Spring Training stats shouldn’t change our projections much, but we should make some adjustments based on those stats. As for Martinez, his 14.3 percent walk rate this Spring suggests that he will likely do a little better than the initial seven percent projection. He probably won’t even get to eight percent, but just a half percent increase can be big.
We can do the same kind of qualitative mathematics for his strikeout rate and isolated slugging. Martinez’s 17 percent projected strikeout rate now seems a little high. And his .120 projected isolated slugging now seems a little low. Again, these numbers shouldn’t change our projections much, but they don’t really have to in order to make a big difference.
Martinez Needs to Hit This Year
Let’s face it: if Martinez is going to stick with the Cardinals this year, it will be due to his bat. Martinez has never drawn rave reviews with his glove, and a good glove would have given him a shot in the majors sooner. Martinez won a batting title in 2015 with the Royals AAA affiliate, so the team would have had no choice but to try him at least as a September call-up if he were a good fielder.
Of course, there are plenty of players who make major league teams without being a good fielder. Martinez is hoping to stay in that group this year. If he wants to do that, it might help to at least be a league average hitter. ZiPS and Steamer have Martinez pegged for about a 90 wRC+. In other words, Martinez is expected to be about 10 percent below league average at the plate.
If that were the end of the story, then 2017 would not look so promising for Martinez. Nevertheless, the 28-year-old rookie is tearing the cover off the ball this Spring. Even if Spring stats don’t matter much, a reprogramming of the projection systems to include a small factor for Spring stats might push Martinez to league average.
How much can this really matter?
Before going through this analysis, I regressed wRC+ onto walk rate, strikeout rate, isolated slugging, and BABIP just to make sure that we can actually make something of slight improvements in these categories. I am sure that there is a more appropriate way to do this, but those four variables did explain 95 percent of the variance in wRC+ in 2016. What becomes clear from this analysis is that Martinez’s power output will be very important.
Walk rate and strikeout rate have predictive power, but isolated slugging is a bigger factor. Remember, we already have a baseline for Martinez’s 2017 projection. Those numbers won’t change much from the Spring, so getting the projected 90 wRC+ to 100 is no easy task. Unfortunately, Rosenheck doesn’t go too much into exactly how much we should change our projections based on Spring stats. Ultimately, we are going to have to estimate and be conservative at that.
It seems reasonable to think that Martinez might beat his projected walk rate by 0.5 percent and his projected strikeout rate by 1.0 percent based on his early Spring returns. He might do better than that, but we’re trying not to go overboard, here. If we assume that those are the only changes, then my regression analysis suggests that his wRC+ will be about 3 points better. If you’re following along, that means we still have a long way to go.
Making up those last 7 points means that Martinez will have to beat his isolated slugging by roughly .02. Another way of saying that is that Martinez will need .02 more extra bases per at-bat than expected. A gap of .02 seems minuscule, but it isn’t that easy. It would essentially be like trying to turn Yadier Molina’s 2016 power output into David Freese’s 2016 power output. Then try doing that to a player who will be facing major league pitching for (close to) the first time at age 28.
Having said that, what I am describing can certainly be done. In fact, Martinez’s Spring Training stats might even indicate that he is on his way to doing just that. He is sporting an isolated slugging of nearly .400 this Spring, which is far better than his .120 projection. Come to think of it, if that large a discrepancy isn’t good enough for a .02 point regular season projection bump, then maybe Spring Training stats are useless.
The Spring Isn’t Over Yet
The real problem with my analysis here is that the Spring isn’t over yet. Everything that I just said about Martinez could easily reverse over the next two weeks. If Martinez goes 6 for his next 30 with no extra base hits, then we aren’t left with much to get excited about. The high walk rate and low strikeout rate are encouraging. The power output is very encouraging. But if the next two weeks are nothing like the previous two, then everything I just said goes away.
For now, it appears that Martinez appears to be on the right track. The information we now have on him certainly suggests that he is more likely to do well this season than the information we had on him in February. It’s been a crazy start to the Spring for Martinez, and the Cardinals are hoping it continues into April. Additionally, this scorching month for Martinez gives the organization more confidence that the rookie outfielder will succeed in 2017 than they had before.
Photo Credit: Scott Rovak – USA TODAY Sports