Detroit Tigers OF J.D. Martinez has been struggling at the plate since the start of the season. But fantasy owners should look to buy in, since his peripheral stats portend a turnaround soon.
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At the start of the season, the Tigers were expected to be in the AL Central race on the back of their strong offense. But they’re 15–17 through 32 games, and it’s precisely because that offense hasn’t lived up to its end of the bargain. They’re tied for 14th with a .314 wOBA, have struck out more frequently than all but five teams, and are 14th in runs per game, which isn’t terrible, but simply isn’t going to cut it given the composition of their roster.
Two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera is hitting .298/.370/.455, all of which but the OBP would be the worst marks of his career (seriously, he’s incredible). First-year Tiger Justin Upton is slashing .220/.259/.315. But no one’s struggles are more surprising then their supposed-to-be-mashing teammate J.D. Martinez. After a breakout 2015 campaign, Martinez is hitting .230/.299/.369 in 137 plate appearances. He has four homers and a .139 isolated slugging percentage. In his age-28 season, Martinez was supposed to be the bankable slugger in the middle of Detroit’s lineup. What has gone wrong?
It’s easy to locate the issue, but much harder to figure out why it has arisen. Martinez’s batted-ball rates are all out of whack. Last year, 43.5% of the balls Martinez put in play were in the air, which tied him with Chris Davis for 14th in the majors. The top 15 also included Anthony Rizzo, Edwin Encarnacion, Nolan Areando, Kris Bryant, Jose Bautista and Lucas Duda. That’s the sort of company a home-run hitter wants to keep. Martinez hit about 1.3 fly balls for every ground ball.
This season, it’s the inverse. Martinez is hitting 1.2 grounders for every fly ball. His ground-ball rate is up at 44.2%, which, in 2015, would have had him rubbing elbows with hitters like Lorenzo Cain and Gregory Polanco. Cain and Polanco are fine hitters in their own right, but not the sort of hitter Martinez should be, or is when he’s at his best.
A high-ground ball rate is terrible for a power hitter. Last I checked, never in major league history has a grounder sailed over a fence for a home run. The increased ground-ball rate has been appreciably worse for Martinez than the average hitter experiencing a similar spike, and that owes to the league getting a book on him. Last year, Martinez hit .310 on his grounders. This season, he’s down at .163 on his grounders. The difference? He’s being shifted against far more often.
Martinez racked up 657 plate appearances last year. The defense shifted in 47 of those. In his 132 plate appearances this season, he has seen a shift 31 times. That’s a jump to 22.6% from 7.2%, and it’s wreaking havoc on his rates. Martinez’s BABIP is down to .264 from last year’s .339, and the evidence points strongly toward the increased ground-ball rate, as well as a higher incidence of shifts, as most culpable.
Here’s an example of a 2016 out that was likely a hit for Martinez last season. This is a well-struck one hopper back up the middle that turns into a routine play for Rougned Odor. Teams aren’t deploying extreme shifts against Martinez. That would be self-defeating against a hitter who hits the ball to the opposite field about 25% of the time. What they are doing is cheating subtly to the pull side. There’s no way Odor gets to this ball if he isn’t shading Martinez up the middle.
Here’s a great look at where Odor basically sets up on this pitch. He and his coaching staff did all the work making this play by reading the advance scouting reports.
OK, but do we know Martinez is hitting too many grounders? The unsatisfying answer is no. Martinez is a low-ball hitter, thanks to the uppercut swing he inaugurated with the Tigers in 2014 that helped make him the hitter he is today. Still, both last year and this year, about one-quarter of the pitches thrown his way have been high strikes or up out of the zone. There’s no meaningful difference in the way pitchers have attacked him, either by zone or in their pitch selection. Martinez hasn’t changed anything about his setup or swing path. More likely than not, it’s just one of those things that make baseball what it is.
This is excellent news for the Martinez investor. Everything else in his peripheral profile is supportive of a looming turnaround. He’s striking out less and walking more this season. His average fly ball distance is down, but it’s at a still-robust 292.09 feet. His first-strike, swinging-strike, and o-swing rates are all down from where they were last year. This all suggests that an in-season breakout is in the offing. Now is the perfect time to try to buy Martinez.
Adam Eaton, OF, White Sox
Eaton’s counting stats leave a bit to be desired this season, but that has come largely through no fault of his own. Eaton is hitting .300 with a .391 OBP this season. He’s well on his way to his third straight year with an OBP north of .360. It’s his teammates in the middle of the order who have failed to drive him in, and those at the bottom of the order who aren’t giving him any RBI chances. In other words, his counting stats are bad by association. He’s still likely to hit 10 homers and steal 20 bases. If he keeps getting on base at this rate, the runs and RBI will come, as well.
Dallas Keuchel, SP, Astros
Time for another calculated gamble. Keuchel has been nothing short of bad this season, and his velocity is down noticeably. The average velocity on his two-seam fastball, his fastball of choice, is at 88.9 mph after it sat in the low-90s last season. While that’s unquestionably troubling, the silver lining is that Keuchel never has been and never will be a guy who makes his money by overpowering hitters. A velocity dip could suggest something is wrong with his arm, but that’s something we’d likely already know seven starts into the season. His ground-ball rate is down, but it’s still an impressive 56.5%. He’s surrendering fewer homers and getting more popups this year while inducing plenty of weak contact. His .344 BABIP simply has to move in a beneficial direction. Your buy-low window likely won’t be open much longer.
Christian Yelich, OF, Marlins
There’s a theme to our sell players this week. All of them are, without question, good players who can continue performing at the levels they’ve set through the first five weeks of the season. Buying and selling players is inherently an exercise in arbitrage, however, and there is potential profit in selling all three of these guys, especially since they will be attractive on the open market.
With that disclaimer aside, let’s talk about Yelich. He’s enjoying a breakout season, hitting .333/.449/.523 through 136 plate appearances. At 24 years old, there’s real evidence Yelich is becoming the hitter he projected to be when he tore through Miami’s farm system. At the same time, he enjoyed a surge up the fantasy rankings last week when he hit three homers. That’s not really part of his skill set, and will almost certainly turn out to be an anomalous week when we look back on the 2016 season. If you can sell Yelich as a potential 20-homer hitter, you can sell him higher than the value he’ll actually return this year.
Welington Castillo, C, Diamondbacks
Castillo is the top-ranked catcher in standard fantasy leagues, carrying a .317/.360/.577 slash line with seven homers and 19 RBI through 114 plate appearances. The catcher position is a wasteland this year, with Kyle Schwarber and Travis d’Arnadu injured, Buster Posey underperforming, Russell Martin cratering, and a number of other projected fantasy starters failing to live up to modest expectations. That is to say you should only be dealing Castillo if you have one of the few other reliable catchers, or can secure a haul that is too good to refuse. Given all the wreckage at the position this year, the latter is quite realistic.
Steven Matz, SP, Mets
There’s no mystery surrounding Matz’s stellar performance this year. The guy is a great pitcher with frontline bona fides who can continue pitching this well all season. Having said that, it’s worth noting that two of his six starts covering 42.3% of his innings have come against the Braves. In case you’ve missed it this year, the Braves are on pace to be among the worst offenses in major league history, if not the absolute worst. That’s not to take anything away from Matz, but just to point out that the degree of difficulty hasn’t been overwhelming this year. In fact, he has faced two teams in the top 10 in wOBA this season, and one of them—the Marlins—knocked him around for seven runs on six hits in 1 2/3 innings. As good as Matz is, there’s a real opportunity to sell him at his high point available to his owners right now.
Taijuan Walker, SP, Mariners
Walker gave the Mariners, their fans and the fantasy community a real scare when he left his last start after the second inning, failing to throw his fastball any harder than 91 mph. Luckily, it was just neck spasms and he was able to make it through a 25-pitch bullpen session on Sunday without incident. He’s slated to start Wednesday against the Rays, a move the Mariners wouldn’t dare make if he weren’t absolutely ready to get back on the mound. If the velocity is back where it belongs and the neck issue was trying minor, he should get right back on the breakout path he began blazing in April.