Victor Martinez is going to sign a four-year deal, and it's going be a disaster. That much is certain—or, in the very least, widely presumed. And still, there are many out there who want the Mariners to sign him. I want them to sign him. And I'm sure most of you at least fall in the "it's a bad idea—but if it happens, I'll be pretty damn excited" camp.
So let's say it does. Or let's say you're in the group fervently in support of an all-hands pursuit of the Tigers DH. Why's he different? In what world this does work out and not make the Mariners' front office look insane and reckless? Father time, as they say, is undefeated.
The argument usually starts with plate discipline and, around these parts, a loose tie to Edgar Martinez—a prayer that he'll somehow end up the same. First off, Edgar Martinez had a career wRC+ of 147, good for 34th in the history of baseball, so let's just forget about that. Second, what really is "plate discipline"? People point to V-Mart's absurd 6.6 percent strikeout rate and the fact he was the only player in baseball in 2014 who walked more than he struck out.
But really, aren't those statistics more traditionally the result of plate discipline, not the application of it? The application of it, in its most basic form, is simple: you just don't swing at bad pitches. You see a good pitch, you hit it—you see a bad one, you lay off. That's discipline.
So how does Victor Martinez fare on that front, on swinging at balls? Welllllll....
Yup. Bad and getting worse. Last year, Martinez swung at an even 35 percent of pitches outside the zone, which was the 34th-worst in baseball—or a little bit worse than Ryan Howard, and a little bit better than Mike Zunino (39 percent).
Here's the thing though—it still matters what happens on those pitches. It matters a lot if you just make contact at all. And here's a look at Martinez's metrics there:
So that goes a long way in explaining why Martinez is swinging so much at pitches outside the strike zone. Last year, his O-Contact% was 88.1 percent, best in all of baseball. If you can hit bad pitches, or at least make contact, then why not? Of course, taking those bad pitches for balls would be one idea, but a pitcher is going to have a tough time striking you out if you keep fouling off his best out pitches, or putting them in play. And when he put them in play, he wasn't so bad either. By average, he was fourth in the game on pitches outside the zone, batting .295. He had the tenth-best ISO on pitches outside the zone as well.
That ISO—or more broadly, just Martinez's slugging ability—is important here. It isn't just that he can occasionally smack a bad ball (he had eight home runs on pitches outside the zone in 2014, tied for third), but that he combines that ridiculously high O-Contact% with the ability to mash, not just on those pitches outside the zone, but all pitches. See, most times, those batters who can make contact on pitches outside the zone are sacrificing power for contact—looking to put the ball in play and take advantage of their speed.
There are a few ways of looking at this. For one, in looking at statistics over the past two calendar years, there are only two players in the O-Swing top 25 (which Martinez heads) with an ISO at or above his .178 mark. One is Adrian Beltre, checking in at 78.7 percent (ten points lower) and a 180 ISO, and the other is Robinson Cano, with an ISO that matches V-Mart's .178, and a O-Contact% at 77.3 percent.
Next, we can look at this a little bit more broadly. Specifically, LL community member and former(?) writer Eric Blankenship looked at this a little more broadly. He took a look at Victor Martinez's statistical averages over the past three seasons (2011, 2013 and 2014) and compared them, in looking at the key plate discipline metrics to single seasons from other batters going back to 2002 (the start of plate discipline tracking). He awarded each season a total comp score, which is based on a tally of the plate discipline categories where the batter's season was a good comp—with the metrics the batter controlled being worth 1.5 and the ones pitchers controlled being 1.0.
Here's how that ended up looking. I chopped off a lot of the excess and left only the rankings, some key results (ISO, wRC+) and the plate discipline metrics—PDComp is the comp score for each batter season. Here's a look at the top 26 (going to the last 6.5 score) for comps for V-Mart's past three seasons:
|2002||Paul Lo Duca||.109||105||7.0||15.8%||67.8%||45.1%||78.9%||93.9%||91.6%||56.3%||55.9%||3.8%|
That's a little big, but for those who don't want details, you can always skip past. For one, I know there are some odd names on there—like Brian McCann's 2014—but it's important to note that you don't have to go very far for the comps to not even be all that close (McCann, for example, barely even gets halfway there). There are some decent hitters in there, for sure, but of those who are closest there are a lot of speed guys, guys who—as I alluded to above—can swing at some bad stuff to just put it in play and take advantage of their speed. That's not Martinez, and he still excels.
Not to overwhelm, but I want to offer another interesting look at the intersection of Martinez's unique approach and his slugging ability. In a piece on Fangraphs where he profiles this odd trait extensively, August Fagerstrom takes the 119 highest O-Contact rates since the beginning of the PITCHf/x era (2007) and plots them against their ISOs. Here are the results:
Martinez, as you can tell, is an outlier. And that's what we're looking for—we're looking for that one single thing that might make him different. Of course, it isn't fair to just stop there. While it may be a weird and unique trait that Martinez has, we don't know for sure whether it means anything as it pertains to his age. Well, at least we haven't discussed that yet.
A 2012 Fangraphs piece, this one from Bill Petti, examines the impact of age on plate discipline. Here, specifically, is a chart on plate discipline and contact rates:
Notice the one enormous drop-off. Yeah, that's O-Contact%—Martinez's single biggest strength, and improvement, in the latter half of his career. Here's how Bill describes the data presented:
Hitters generally increase their contact rates through age 29. After that, contact begins to decrease, driven lower by the drastic decline of contact outside the zone. This coincides with the rise in swinging strikes, which also beings to ascend around age 29. This likely reflects the general aging of a hitter’s skills: Slower bat speeds force players to cheat more on fastballs, which leaves them more vulnerable to pitches outside of the zone.
So—bat speed? This is something for the scout's to take a look at, but for a fun anecdote, here (from another August Fagerstrom piece on Martinez) is V-Mart destroying a 96mph fastball in and well off the plate—and, per effective velocity theory, even harder to hit.
But if we're looking past fun-to-loop anecdotes on bat speed, Martinez still had a .195 ISO against pitches 95mph or above in 2014. I don't know if that's all bat speed, but it's something.
Still, it all goes back to Victor Martinez's insane ability to make contact on pitches outside the zone without sacrificing power, and the fact that this is normally the key area where hitters suffer as they age. Martinez hasn't—and not only that, he's actually improved. So, there are a couple ways to look at this:
- Martinez, clearly, is an outlier. His bat control, and the power that goes into it, are otherworldly and incomparable. And even if he does start to slide on that key O-Contact% metric, he's starting from such a high point that he'll still be a offensive player for a few years to come.
- On the other hand—how much of Martinez's offensive production is derived from his ability to make contact on pitches outside the zone? What if this isn't a gradual thing, and that once it goes, it really goes? It's possible that, if Martinez does slide in this area, the rate at which he swings at balls outside the zone doesn't decline accordingly—creating the value nosedive we all fear.
Honestly, I don't know which one it is. It's clear that Martinez, to this point, is an outlier from a plate discipline standpoint. The difficulty of finding meaning in this is exacerbated by the fact that we only have plate discipline data going back so far, so it's difficult to find accurate comps and discern what their careers could mean for Martinez. Then, in the areas that we do have comps, so many with an offensive profile similar to Martinez's played during the PED era, so it's difficult to tell whose steep declines were attributable to age and whose were attributable something else (like, say, the rapidly-approaching end of that era).
To be honest, I'd love for someone to pick up the baton and run with it, if they can see a direction in which to go. Maybe there's something here, and maybe there isn't.
Either way, the Mariners will have a chance to sign Martinez. As of Monday evening, he's open to negotiating with everyone—and I'd be surprised if Jack Zduriencik or someone on his staff hasn't already reached out and made initial contact.
So, this is going to be interesting to watch. In the end, the deal he receives—from whomever he receives it—is going to be a massive risk. But it's important to remember that while it will certainly be a risk, it will come down to more than hoping against hope he'll end up being an outlier—because as we've seen, there are already signs pointing to it.