J.D. Martinez hits missiles for the Red Sox but how does he rank among MLB’s hardest hitters? We break down the metrics and make his case for Hard Hit King.
When the Boston Red Sox added J.D Martinez over the winter, Yankees fans said “So what? We’ve got Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton!” And that’s true. But so far, through the 2018 season, no one has hit the ball harder than Martinez.
Yeah, I know what you’re saying, Yankees fans. Judge has a higher average exit velocity at 95.8 MPH. But Martinez is just 0.7 MPH back from that rate, and he’s got a whole lot more on his side.
To begin with, we can look at hard-hit percentages. Both Baseball Savant and Fangraphs display it on their player pages. And in both cases, the Red Sox slugger has a significant lead on his Yankees counterpart. From Fangraphs, he enjoys a 52.8% to 44.8% lead. And at Baseball Savant, it’s 59.3% to 56.6%.
Why the disparity? Each site has their own criteria for what they consider a hard hit ball and access to different sets of data. As Statcast is proprietary data owned by MLB, I’d argue that that Baseball Savant has the more accurate measure. But either way, Martinez comes out ahead.
It’s all about frequency.
This is because Martinez hits the ball at high exit velocities more consistently than Judge. The measurement of balls hit 95 MPH or higher has Martinez leading the majors at 105. He is tied with Matt Olsen for the lead in percentage at 59%. Now, hitting the ball in the air and getting good results is about more than hitting it hard. But if you are hitting the ball that hard, good things are likely to happen. Judge ranks 30th in the number of balls hit at that mark or higher at 81. He is 4th in percentage at 56.6.
The reason why Judge has a higher average exit velocity comes down to one factor. When he gets ahold of one, and I mean really gets ahold of it, no one hits the ball harder. His max exit velocity this year is 119.9 MPH. That’s absurd. And it ranks 1st in baseball. Martinez ranks 57th at 112.8 MPH. Judge possesses an ability to hit at such elite exit velocities that he’s almost unparalleled. In fact, only Stanton is in his company there. Other sluggers like Joey Gallo and Mike Trout might touch that range once or twice a season. Judge and Stanton do it at least a handful of times per campaign.
I want productive power, not a carnival trick.
The difference between Martinez and Judge mostly comes down to soft contact. Both have a 39.9% medium contact rate at Fangraphs.com. So the entire difference in their hard contact rates there comes down to soft contact. Martinez sits at just 7.3% on the season. That’s the best in baseball. He’s also 2nd in hard-hit percentage there. Judge ranks 49th and 23rd respectively.
So yeah, if we’re just talking about who can get to the highest exit velocity on any individual swing, it’s Judge. But I’ll take the guy who gets into the 95-110 MPH range more often, all things considered. Of course, if you are looking for a reason to hope Judge closes the gap by the end of the season, there’s evidence he will. Martinez’s rate is out of whack with his last two seasons. He posted hard hit percentages of 48.7, 46.9 and 48.7 the last three years. Judge is right in line with his 2017 production this year.
I wouldn’t bet on that, though.
There’s another change in Martinez’s approach since joining the Red Sox. Remember when I pointed out that good results on balls in play come down to more than just exit velocity? Well, the other component is launch angle. Martinez, over the last four seasons, has been a fairly consistent fly ball hitter. He would have ranked 22nd in MLB in FB% at Fangraphs if he qualified last season. He’d was 63rd in 2016, and 15th in 2015.
If we go to xStats.org we can actually look at how those fly balls break down by launch angle. The site tracks several ranges. GB% includes balls in play between 0 and 10 degrees. LD% is 10-19 degrees. HD% is the first fly ball range at 19-26, and FB% is 26-39 degrees. The most productive of those ranges is HD% as that’s where you’re going to find most of your Barrels. The FB% range is going to have more home runs, but HD% will have far more doubles and triples. So if you had to pick a range to live in, it’s the HD% and it’s not that close.
Let’s break it down.
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Martinez had 11.7% of his balls in play in the FB% range in 2017. Since joining the Red Sox he’s dropped that to 7.9% which is the lowest of his career during the Statcast era. His 24.7 HD% is also his highest since they started measuring it. That’s why his average launch angle has dropped from 15.3 degrees to 8.8. It’s also why his average exit velocity is up from 91.0 to 95.2 MPH.
The closer your launch angle is to that 0-10 degree range, the more likely it is you’ll hit the pitch flush. After all, it’s probably coming into the zone between 10 degrees and -5 or so. Flush contact will generate higher exit velocities than slightly off-center contact. On average, ground balls have the highest exit velocities of any grouping of balls in play.
That’s why launch angle is so important. It’s also why the launch angle revolution is so misunderstood. It’s not about increasing launch angle, it’s about optimizing it. And the trade-off between fully flush contact, and nearly flush contact while putting the ball in the air is a good one if you can keep the ball from getting too far into the air.
J.D Martinez is obsessed with his swing.
It’s no secret that Martinez watches an insane amount of video. In fact, he films his batting practice every day looking for things he can improve upon or fix. So when we see a significant drop in launch angle with a corresponding rise in exit velocity and in his results overall, we can assume that he made an intentional change. We’re 41% of the way through the season. The sample is large enough for that assumption.
Because that change is likely intentional, there’s a pretty good chance that hard hit percentage is genuine. Not to mention the sheer number of balls he’s hitting 95 MPH or harder. If you want to bet on Aaron Judge catching him, it’s not inconceivable. But I’d probably keep my wallet in my back pocket on that particular wager. In the meantime, Red Sox fans can sit back and enjoy him hitting missile after missile.
Do you believe Aaron Judge is likely to finish ahead of J.D. Martinez for hard-hit percentage by the end of the year? Tell us why in the comments! Think the above analysis is missing something? Let us know in the comments! Think the author is a biased homah? Sound off in the comments!