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St. Louis Cardinals: Time To Believe In Jose Martinez

St. Louis Cardinals Jose Martinez

Back in the second or third week of Spring Training, I noticed something different about Jose Martinez.

I had been reading quite a lot on the “Fly Ball Revolution,” first noted over at FanGraphs. The link is to the first article, but there are quite a few from the past month. The basic idea is that the highest value batted balls are between 10 and 30 degrees, which I’ve also found through my analysis with xStats. Josh Donaldson is the face of the revolution, and ground balls are a dying breed if he gets his way.

The Jose Martinez at-bat I’m referencing is above. The pitch was over the heart of the plate, but low, and Martinez went down to drive a high liner to left-centerfield. He didn’t go with the pitch; he dug it out of the bottom of the zone and hit it to the fence.

Fortunately for us, before he scored the winning run on opening night, he did almost the exact same thing.

This time, the ball is below the strike zone. Again, rather than going with the pitch and hitting a hard grounder, Martinez dipped his back shoulder and leaned toward the plate. The effort nearly resulted in a hole in the right-centerfield wall.

This differs noticeably from his approach last season. While he only had fifteen batted balls, his average launch angle registered at only 3.4 degrees. I wouldn’t want to draw much from that small sample size, but a look at his approach on a similar pitch to the two shown above is telling.

Here, Jose Martinez takes a pitch in the lower third of the zone and hits a sharp grounder at the third basement. The batted ball registered at a 102.9 exit velocity. so there’s no question he squared this one up. Yet, while the third baseman couldn’t handle this one, he had a chance at it since Martinez put it on the ground. Sometimes the defender makes that play.

It’s hard to see in real time, so I froze the frame at (or as close as possible to) the point of contact and the finish of the swing. Comparing the two side-by-side and excusing my poor snipping/editing ability, the difference is obvious. For both sets of pictures, the 2016 swing is on the left and 2017 on the right.

Jose Martinez St. Louis Cardinals

While the difference at contact is a little less noticeable, a couple things are clear. For one, Jose Martinez has a more vertical shoulder tilt this year than he had last year. His torso is noticeably more angled as a result. This angle gives him better leverage to lift and drive the ball.

Jose Martinez St. Louis Cardinals

The difference is more pronounced at the finish of the swing. Jose Martinez bat is more vertical and his torso more tilted toward the plate. While the sample sizes I have available from each season are tiny and with the caveat that I’m not a scout, it looks certain that Martinez made a conscious change aimed at lifting the ball.

Fortunately, you don’t have to rely on my interpretation. Jose Martinez explained his new approach recently to USA Today: “We started watching some swings from Donaldson and Miguel Cabrera, and we noticed they don’t hit ground balls. They eliminate them.”

Through spring and one day of the regular season, it looks like Martinez has had no problem making this adjustment. The question now is whether he can consistently generate the exit velocity to avoid the donut hole and be productive.

The donut hole is probably the biggest caveat to the fly ball revolution. Essentially, for hitters who can’t consistently generate strong enough exit velocities, fly balls will be outs. For hitters that generate strong exit velocities, they’re more likely to be extra base hits and homers.

While Jose Martinez only has 16 Statcast-tracked batted balls to his name, he has shown an ability to generate strong exit velocities. Five of his sixteen batted balls were hit at exit velocities of more than 100 MPH, but yesterday’s (circled) was the first with the launch angle to really do significant damage.

Jose Martinez St. Louis Cardinals

I would be hesitant to draw any significant conclusions about Jose Martinez from 16 MLB batted balls. However, you don’t hit five of sixteen balls at 100+ MPH just by luck. Hitting a ball that hard requires some minimum level of talent, and Martinez has at least that.

Additionally, he explicitly said that he’s made an adjustment to his swing to maximize the value of his batted balls. So far this year, including Spring Training, that change has gone smoothly. Given that he’s shown an ability to generate strong exit velocities, this change could pay big dividends for him over the next few seasons.

I don’t think this change turns Jose Martinez into a star player, and we very well might be seeing the best he has to offer right now. The adjustment, however, at least has the potential to make him a valuable reserve, either as an injury replacement or bat off the bench. That’s likely more than the St. Louis Cardinals imagined they were getting back in 2015 when they picked him up for nothing.

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