Red Sox: Maximizing J.D. Martinez’s value

PHOENIX, AZ - SEPTEMBER 27: J.D. Martinez /

J.D. Martinez represents a huge addition to a Boston offense that struggled in 2017. How should the team maximize his potential value?

Not all positions are created equal. While we may not think about this on an everyday conversational basis, we know it to be true. In fact, this simple truth is already embedded into sabermetrics like WAR and defensive runs saved with positional adjustments.

Shortstops, catchers and center fielders provide the most defensive value. First basemen provide the least. Well except, for the designated hitter.

We know the DH is unique in that it completely takes defense out of the equation. However, the spot has a stigma attached that isn’t entirely accurate. We normally think of an aging, slower slugger occupying the position, which leads to an incorrect notion that that player contributes bad defense to the team.

No, that player contributes no defense to the team. No positive value, but no negative value. There’s a reason teams hide the guy they need in the lineup but don’t want in the field at DH – it essentially scales a major weakness to the mean. In terms of defensive runs saved, the designated hitter provides 0. Perfectly average because it’s nothing at all.

As you have probably heard, J.D. Martinez is not a very good defender. To quantify, he has compiled -32 defensive runs saved and -25.3 UZR in his seven MLB seasons. Granted, most of that damage came in the 2016 season which saw -22 defensive runs saved and -17.2 UZR, but overall Martinez grades in the definitive negatives for fielding, especially as he ages into his thirties.

Meanwhile, as you have also probably heard, Martinez is one of the best in the game at hitting. He has the second highest slugging percentage in the game (only behind Mike Trout) over the last four seasons. His wRC+ and ISO rank fourth over that same span. He is the best in the game at driving the ball the other way and to center field, while remaining elite to his pull side as well. Point is, J.D. Martinez can rake.

More from Red Sox News

A position player can be boiled down into three parts: Hitting, defense and baserunning. So here with Martinez we have a superhuman slugger whose value is held back by his glove and his legs.

This is the beauty of the designated hitter position: by playing Martinez exclusively at DH, his defense can be reset to zero. All of a sudden the Red Sox employ a superhuman slugger whose glove provides average value and still poor baserunning. That paints a much prettier picture of J.D. Martinez.

There’s a reason Martinez has only racked up 15.2 WAR with a .936 OPS over the last four seasons, while Kevin Kiermaier has accumulated 21.5 WAR with a .750 OPS in the same span (in 58 fewer games). Defense matters.

Playing him at outfield only accomplishes one thing: taking away part of his offensive value with his defensive struggles. With arguably the best outfield in all of baseball in Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts, there’s simply no need to ever trot Martinez into the grass.

Fans have long been spoiled by the presence of David Ortiz, arguably the best to ever regularly suit up as the designated hitter. Like Martinez, Ortiz was never graded as a positive defender. Through his 278 games at first base, the legendary Ortiz racked up -6 defensive runs saved.

Think that number gets better with more exposure? No, more time at first would only lead to more negative value for Ortiz, which would slowly eat away at the value he provided with the bat.

Ortiz has also shielded Red Sox fans from the recent decline of the DH position. First of all, only eight of 15 AL teams featured a singular designated hitter that took over 400 plate appearances at the position. The full-time DH has become a less and less popular approach, with more teams instead opting for a roving spot to give regulars a breather.

Additionally, DH production is in precipitous decline. In fact, designated hitters combined for their worst season since the position was introduced in 1973. Check out this graph via Fangraphs that charts AL DH production versus league average production by wOBA.

In its 45-year history, AL DH performance dipped under league average performance for just the second time and recorded its worst single-season wOBA ever.

Looking at those eight “full-time” DHs last season, it’s not hard to pinpoint the epicenter of the disaster.

Carlos BeltranAlbert PujolsMark TrumboVictor MartinezMatt HollidayHanley RamirezKendrys MoralesEdwin EncarnacionJ.D. Martinez

2015 OPS



2016 OPS



2017 OPS










Almost across the board we see steep decline over the last three seasons. That is, until we get to J.D. Martinez at the end, who is included simply for the sake of comparison. He is trending in the opposite direction, improving his OPS and easily eclipsing his peers.

Oh, remember that graph from earlier charting AL DH’s wOBA compared to the league average? In order to plot Martinez’s .430 wOBA from last season, we would have to double the range of the y-axis. Not only is Martinez’s offense incredibly value, it’s even more relatively valuable at the DH spot over an outfield spot.

Baseball only gives you nine positions to build a lineup. Every position gives a team a chance to gain an upper hand on its competitors. Like or not, every American League team has to fill a designated hitter spot. That position is going to have to be taken up by somebody, and the Red Sox just acquired a hitter who is head and shoulders better than anyone else currently doing it as the rest of the field declines. That’s a major competitive advantage.

Next: Red Sox: Hanley Ramirez is poised to bounce back in 2018

Better yet, they acquired a player whose value is only set to increase there. It may not be as flashy, but the less we see of J.D. Martinez in the outfield, the better.