J.D. Martinez has been the most asked-about player all off-season among fantasy baseball owners. “Is he for real?” they’ll ask, “Can he repeat what he did last season?”
Fantasy baseball draft season is upon us and many owners are trying to separate the genuine from the fraudulent of the previous season. Is “Player X” a fluke because of a high Batting Average on Balls in Play (or BABIP, a stat that measures how often a ball in play goes for a hit) or is a high BABIP the result of his skill? And what helps a hitter reach a high BABIP? J.D. Martinez led all players (minimum 450 plate appearances) in this category, owning a BABIP of .389.
Although we are under the impression that a high BABIP is the result of “good luck,” there is a certain type of skill involved in maintaining a high BABIP. Or to put it another way, some hitters do a better job of creating their own good luck. One way to increase the chances of maintaining a high BABIP is by simply hitting more balls in play.
As we explained in our first recap of the 2014 Oakland Athletics’ offense, by hitting more fly balls at a higher rate (FB%) than any other team, the A’s simply did not allow themselves to increase their BABIP as the season went on. So what did they do this past offseason? They scrapped their fly ball philosophy and replaced their flyball hitters with players that can hit for higher ground ball and line-drive rates (GB% and LD% respectively). The fact holds true in your state’s lottery as it does in baseball; “you can’t win it if you ain’t in it.” A hitter cannot raise their BABIP if they predominantly hit for a high fly ball rate.
So variance is a major key in a hitter’s chance to get on base due to a batted ball. Fly balls are automatic outs (for the most part) and ground balls, depending on the opposing defense’s range (or lack thereof), help increase BABIP. Of course, too many ground balls makes hitters predictable and plays into the strategy of opposing pitchers.
So now that we’ve established the components needed for a high BABIP, we’re going to look back to see how previous leaders in BABIP have performed the following season in this particular category:
|BABIP Leaders Since 2010
As one will see, the leaders in BABIP in one season lost anywhere between 25 and 60 points the following season. But none of these hitters’ BABIP fell below .330. There was some regression, but not an extreme dip in BABIP. This does not hold true for all players, but this should highlight the notion that some hitters are just better at maintaining a high BABIP and creating their own luck.
A high BABIP does not guarantee success for a hitter. In Johnson’s case in 2014, a high BABIP, along with a high Line Drive Rate did not help his 2014 campaign (slash line: .263/.292/.361). But a closer look at his batted balls, he hit for a GB% of 48.0 percent, sort of nullifying his high LD% of 26.8 percent.
Here’s Martinez taking batting practice for the Houston Astros’ Low-A minor league affiliate:
Not the most aesthetically-pleasing swing you’ll ever see, but it helped Martinez become a household name among baseball junkies, coming up the loaded Houston Astros’ minor league system. He even found some success with it when he finally made it to the big leagues:
Unfortunately for Martinez, success in Houston would be rare as he struggled with high Strikeout Rates (K%) and not much production. Then the Detroit Tigers took a flyer on him and they were rewarded for their bold move:
The first thing one should notice is the difference in swings between his time in Houston and last season in Detroit. With the Astros, his hands were up high and it was coupled with an open stance. It looked almost robotic and he was still striking out at a high rate despite being in an open stance as he attempted to get a better view of the ball from the pitcher.
In Detroit, he’s in a more, traditional right-handed batting stance. His swing was more fluid, methodical, and efficient. Perhaps being around guys like Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez helped out immensely. Sadly, it did not help him with his plate discipline as he posted a K% of 26.3 percent, but it was also combined with an amazing slash line of .315/.358/.553. And to nobody’s surprise, the high BABIP was aided by Martinez hitting more grounders than fly balls and owning a decent Line Drive Rate (LD%).
Martinez swings at a lot pitches, whether in the zone or outside the zone. Even worse, he doesn’t make a lot of contact with the ball so that has led to him posting high strikeout rates. But instead of crippling Martinez’s 2014 campaign, his aggressive style actually helped him post a high BABIP and be a productive hitter. He finished seventh in Swing Percentage behind other aggressive hitters like Chris Johnson, Pablo Sandoval, and Carlos Gomez.
In order to post a high BABIP, you need to hit plenty of grounders and line drives. In order to post a high volume of batted balls, you need to swing at a lot of pitches. “You can’t win it if you ain’t in it.”
Per Steamer projections at fangraphs.com, J.D. Martinez’s BABIP should drop down to .326. Many critics will point out that Martinez’s high K% is a cause for alarm as Steamer also projects him to have a K% of 23.6 percent and Walk:Strikeout of 0.28. That is a similar mark posted by Xander Bogaerts in 2014, as he struggled mightily in his first full season in the Majors, finishing with a slash line of .240/.297/.362 and a BABIP of .296. What saved Martinez’s season from free-falling like Bogaerts were two things:
- Bogaerts was a fly ball hitter. To reiterate, Martinez hit plenty of grounders and line drives which aided his BABIP.
- Bogaerts hit a lot of infield fly balls (pop ups), placing him tied for 55th overall among 171 hitters who had 450 plate appearances in 2014.
Steamer projections expect the power to be there for 2015 (22 home runs), but the impressive slash line that Martinez posted last season will not be there this upcoming season. Nevertheless, based on the current history of BABIP leaders in the past, Martinez’s BABIP should be closer to .340 (a drop of about 50 points which is on par with past leaders of this category) than the Steamer projection of .326. Either way, Martinez should be able to post a high BABIP next year, providing modest returns for owners that take a chance on him.
ESPN’s Tristan Cockcroft has Martinez ranked 43rd among all outfielders, behind guys like Ryan Zimmerman, A.J. Pollock, and Melky Cabrera. So the high BABIP and poor plate discipline has people souring on Martinez for the upcoming season, but as mentioned before, there’s plenty of value for a guy that can provide power and create plenty of variance from his approach.
Personally, I have him listed as a top 10 right fielder in fantasy. At this point, do you draft an unproven, raw, young player like Jorge Soler, George Springer, and Gregory Polanco? Or do you take a chance on a Jay Bruce and hope he can regain his power stroke? Depending on value and need, Martinez might prove to be the “safe” choice in this scenario. As long as he continues to create plenty of variance and hit 20+ home runs, Martinez should help produce for owners in 2015. Just have to temper expectations and know that he will probably not repeat his magical 2014 season.