For much of the 2018 season, Jose Martinez has served as the Cardinals 2nd most productive hitter. Prior to the resurgence of Matt Carpenter in Mid-May, he was decidedly their best offensive player. Unfortunately, those days are gone.
Setting It Up
After carrying a 133 wRC+ for the season’s first 5 months — including a red hot .389/.442/.547 with a 172 wRC+ in August — Martinez has crash landed in September. Through 16 games played this month, he has a slash line of just .233/.270/.267, leading him to a paltry 48 wRC+.
Most alarming in the September struggles are the piling strikeouts.
In the 5 full months prior, Martinez’s highest strikeout total was 16, in July. By month, his K%’s read as: 11.6% (Mar/Apr), 17.4% (May), 14.9% (Jun), 23.2% (Jul), and 13.5% (Aug).
In September, he already has 23 strikeouts, good for 36.5% of his plate appearances.
When he puts the ball in play, the numbers are consistent with his overall season performance. In fact, he is hitting line drives at a greater clip than any other month this year. However, he is not putting the ball in play nearly as often, as evidenced by the strikeouts, and that is leading to a really poor performance.
The Clutch Performances
One of Martinez’s trademarks over the last two seasons has been his success in run scoring situations. For his career, he holds a .298 average, with an .833 OPS and 121 wRC+ with runners in scoring position.
Here’s what he had done the first 5 months of 2018 (3/29-8/31)
With RISP: .328 average with an .886 OPS and 139 wRC+, 17.3% K%.
In all situations with a runner on base: .343 average with a .940 OPS and 155 wRC+, 15.4% K%.
By yet another measure, what Fangraphs defines as “High Leverage”, he had been hitting .344 with a .952 OPS and 158 wRC+, 21.1% K%.
Compare those numbers to when he hit with the bases empty — .287 average, .772 OPS, 114 wRC+, and 15.7% K% — and we see that he is at his best when he has someone to drive in.
Really, any way you slice it, he had shown himself to perform better when the stakes are higher all season.
Here are how his September numbers shake out in the same situations.
With RISP: 3/17, .176 average, .353 OPS, -9 wRC+, 9 K’s (52.9%)
With Runners on: 10/30, .333 average, .722 OPS, 100 wRC+, 12 K’s (38.7%)
High Leverage: 2/8, .250 average, .500 OPS, 34 wRC+, 4 K’s (50%)
Look at those strikeout numbers. Someone that was disciplined and excelled at putting the ball in play when it mattered most, has now lost his bat-to-ball skill.
And then, of course, there are the Bases Loaded situations, which is not reserved for September. Martinez has had an issue in this area all season.
With the Bases Loaded: 0/11, 2 BB’s, 0 Sac Flies, 5 RBIs (on the 2 walks and a few ground outs), and 3 K’s.
Now, these situations have been even more glaring in September. In the first 5 months, he had 8 plate appearances with the bases loaded. Despite not getting a hit, he produced an RBI in 4 of the 8 chances. Still, it fascinates me that he didn’t have more success, considering the numbers mentioned above.
In September, he has faced 5 bases loaded situations, produced just 1 run, and struck out twice. A few of these came late in close games. Had he gotten a hit, driving in a run or two, the Cardinals likely have 1 or 2 more wins on the season.
Did the League Catch Up?
Going back to the sudden rash of strikeouts.
Since Martinez came into the league, I always thought that his wide open, busy stance and big swing would be susceptible to outside pitches. However, he proved, throughout 2017 and most of 2018, that this was not the case. He showed a penchant for taking the outside pitches to right field, often with authority.
And so, I find it hard to believe that after nearly 2 seasons. and 876 plate appearances, pitchers suddenly discovered that you could get him out by pounding the outside of the plate. Based on his stance and swing, the was the first place a pitcher would be wise to attack, and Jose showed them that it wouldn’t work.
Unfortunately, it is working now.
Searching For Answers
Hopping over to Brooks Baseball, the “Hitter-At-A-Glance” section sums up what the eye test and the numbers have told us about Jose. On fastballs, breaking pitches, and off-speed pitches, they categorize him as having “a steady approach at the plate with a league-average likelihood to swing and miss.”
That sounds pretty much spot on, unless you have been watching the last 3 weeks.
So I took a look at his zone profile.
Here’s how pitchers attack him (full season):
During the season’s first five months, Jose saw the highest percentage (9.74%) of his pitches (a total of 190) low and away (outside the strike zone). However, he actually swung at only 25 of those pitches. That 13.16% swing rate was the lowest of any zone. Simply, pitchers have attacked him low/away, but he has been good about laying off those pitches.
It’s a good thing he does, because he has whiffed on 64% of swings in that location.
If we just look at September, he has seen roughly the same percentage (10.53%) of pitches low/away. However, where he was excellent at laying off these pitches before, he has chased them 34.62% of the time this month, more than twice as often as before. The whiff per swing rate is about the same.
Another zone is below the outer third of the strike zone, but across the plate. That is the 2nd most frequent pitch location against Jose. His discipline was never as good with this zone, as he chased 26% of pitches there, whiffs on half of them. In September, he has chased 40% of pitches in that zone and whiffed on 7 of the 8 swings.
The bottom line is, he has gotten away from the plate discipline that he showed all season. Pitchers really aren’t going after him any different than before. And it’s not that he suddenly can’t hit pitches that he was hitting before. On the contrary, he never hit pitches in those locations very well. But he made up for it by not chasing those pitches. This month, he isn’t holding back and its led to the alarming number of strikeouts.
Rounding It Out
One of my first thoughts when I sat down to write this was that perhaps his increased playing time in the outfield (i.e. significantly more running than first base) had zapped his legs at the end of a long season. Or that the 79% increase in plate appears over last season had simply worn him out. But I just don’t think that is the case. His batted ball profile has sustained, so he isn’t hitting the ball with any less authority. He just isn’t hitting the ball nearly as often.
It’s a discipline issue, and I believe he can fix it. The Cardinals certainly need him to.
Thanks for Reading!
Thanks to Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball for the stats!
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