The SI.com Debate Series will pit two of our writers against one another on opposing sides of a decision many fantasy owners will face during their drafts. In this installment, Gabriel Baumgaertner and Michael Beller debate Aaron Judge and J.D. Martinez.
Gabriel Baumgaertner makes the case for Judge over Martinez…
Whether it was his tremendous height, his towering home runs or his gap-toothed grin, Aaron Judge’s 2017 season will be remembered as one of the true meteoric rises for any player in contemporary baseball history. The 6’ 7” outfielder entered the season without a guaranteed starting spot. He finished the season with 52 home runs (15 in September alone), an OPS+ of 171, a league-leading 128 runs scored and 127 walks. The 25-year-old coasted to Rookie of the Year honors and finished second in MVP voting behind Astros second baseman Jose Altuve.
Is Judge a regression candidate? Will pitching coaches and the league’s best hurlers find the seams to frustrate and limit one of the league’s most formidable power threats? It’s possible. But if you’re left with a choice to draft Judge or J.D. Martinez, the answer is Judge. The reasoning is simple: Judge’s plate discipline and pitch-recognition abilities far outweigh Martinez’s. Even if Martinez eclipses Judge in batting average, he won’t top Judge in OBP. And let’s not forget that Judge received some pretty strong lineup protection in fellow masher Giancarlo Stanton.
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Some are looking at Judge as a prime regression candidate, but there’s a compelling argument that that focus should be shifted to Martinez. The 30-year-old slugger signed a five-year, $110 million deal with the Red Sox in the offseason after one of the most incredible second-half stretches of any player in recent memory. After Martinez joined the Diamondbacks from the Tigers, he hit an astonishing 29 home runs in 62 games to help propel Arizona’s first playoff appearance since 2011. Now, Martinez heads to Boston, where he’s expected to ping-pong balls off the Green Monster and exceed the 45 home runs he hit last year. Let’s not forget the high-priced free agents who have wilted in the Boston pressure cooker (Hello God, It’s Me, Carl Crawford), and also account for the fact that Martinez won’t maintain the torrid pace he compiled in the second half of last season. Martinez does a great job hitting for average to complement his power, but he doesn’t offer the power and on-base combo that Judge does.
Judge’s 127 walks represent the tipping point for why I prefer him over Martinez. Judge will likely have the edge in power (Judge may regress from 52 homers, but Martinez’s career high was 38 before last year). He’ll also exceed Martinez’s on-base rate by a good 30-40 points. The OPS totals will be close, but Judge will provide the extra value that Martinez won’t, even if Martinez finishes with a slightly better average.
Michael Beller makes the case for Martinez over Judge….
When we first hatched this debate idea, Martinez was still a free agent. We didn’t plan on this having the layer of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry on top of it, but it does make it a little more fun. Well, for me, I guess. Because I’m going to win this one. Judge may have been a great story last year. He may hit another 50 homers this year. He may hit one clear out of Yankee Stadium. That’s all cool. But cool doesn’t win you fantasy leagues. Production does. And, on that score, Martinez has him beat.
Four years ago, Martinez was a failed prospect who no longer had a place in Houston. Upon joining the Tigers, he embraced the launch-angle revolution and instantly looked like a different player. He has been among the best hitters in the league over the last four years, hitting .300/.362/.574 with season averages of 32 homers, 31 doubles, 88 RBI and 76 runs. In that time, he’s second in slugging percentage, 10th in homers and 18th in RBI, while still providing his owners with plus-rates every season. Entering his age-30 season, Martinez is doubtlessly a fantasy star.
Therein lies the difference between Martinez and Judge. I’ll grant that Judge has the higher ceiling. The guy hit 52 homers in his rookie year. He and Giancarlo Stanton are the only players in the league with 40-homer floors. Even in an era where Scooter Gennett hits 27 homers, a guarantee of 40 home runs is invaluable.
The problem, however, is that Judge does not provide the safe, across-the-board production that Martinez does. Judge struck out in 30.7% of his plate appearances last season. Any player who strikes out that often is a batting average and OBP risk. He offsets some of that in OBP leagues with his plate discipline—he had an 18.7% walk rate last year—but that alone is reason to be concerned about his ability to approach last year’s .284 batting average and .422 OBP.
Martinez, on the other hand, is a guarantee. He’s going to give you a .300 batting average and .365 OBP to go along with the 35 homers and 100 RBI. What’s more, now that he’s in Boston, he has more RBI potential than he has ever enjoyed in his career. Martinez going to hit in the middle of Boston’s order, surrounded by Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Xander Bogaerts. All three of them have OBP floors of .350, while Betts and Benintendi are both liable to push up toward or beyond .370. It’s going to be weird for Martinez when he goes to the plate without anyone on base this season. He’s one of the favorites to lead the league in plate appearances with runners on and runners in scoring position. There’s no better way to rack up gaudy RBI totals than by having the right teammates. Martinez has them.
You’re going to have to use a top-20 or -25 pick to get Martinez or Judge. No matter the size of your league, either one will be one of the first two players on your roster. At that stage of the draft, you should want a sure thing. Martinez is that. Judge, as high as his ceiling is, isn’t quite the guarantee that a top-20 pick should be. I’ll sacrifice a bit of upside to lock in the floor of one of the 10 or 15 best hitters in the majors.