It doesn’t matter how you look at it, whether with old school metrics or cutting edge analytics. J.D. Martinez is, quite simply, the best hitter in MLB.
In retrospect, the Boston Red Sox signing slugger J.D. Martinez was a no-brainer. They had a dire need for a power bat to slot into the heart of their lineup. And he needed a club that could pay him something near his lofty contract demands. It was a match made in, well, a fairly down free agent market. But it was a good fit. Since the contract was signed, Martinez has done everything possible to make that signing look like a good one. So much so, that there has been talk of restructuring his deal to get rid of the opt outs.
The deal has been a smashing success for the Red Sox who are looking at recouping something north of $60M of value on the field in year one while paying him just $23.75M. The cost of 1 WAR was estimated to be about $10.5M last season, up from $10.2 in 2016. So something in the $10.8M range is a reasonable estimate for 2018. And he’s on pace to finish the year with 6.2 fWAR and 6.9 rWAR. That puts his value on the field at between $66.96M and $74.52M. So even if we go conservative and assume the value of WAR hasn’t increased, he’ll clear $60M in value by the end of the season, unless he misses time to injury or falls off a cliff offensively. And since that value is driven almost entirely by his bat, it’s worth asking whether he is the best hitter in baseball or not?
Yeah, he is. Wanna fight about it?
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There are a couple different ways we can look at this. The first are metrics like AVG, HR, and RBI’s. Cole Witaszek took a look at the more traditional metrics recently and concluded that he only has about a 1.25% chance to win the Triple Crown, despite being close to the lead in all three categories. It’s really hard to lead all three over a full season, of course. Which is why it’s such a special accomplishment, even if we have moved away from highly valuing batting average and RBI’s as predictive stats. Even still, he’s having a monster season by those metrics. His AVG is currently 4th in the majors and just .004 behind second on the list, Jose Altuve. But his .325 sits a bit further back of the leader, Mookie Betts, who has a .341. After that it all comes up Milhouse. His 33 HR and 91 RBI are both league leaders meaning that the elusive Triple Crown is certainly within reach.
What about the more advanced metrics, you ask? Well, his wRC+ of 174 is 3rd best in baseball behind Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. You might say that should end the debate, as wRC+, like OPS+, is an aggregate hitting stat that is supposed to tell the whole story at the plate. His walk rate is down a little more than 1% from last season, which may be due to his existing in a more potent lineup. That makes it harder to pitch around him. He’s only tied for 9th in OBP, but is tied for the league lead in SLG (with Mookie Betts). His 47.5% hard contact rate is 7th in baseball, ahead of both Betts and Trout, and his 10% soft contact rate is 4th best, comfortably ahead of the other two. So he hits the ball hard, which we can see if we take a look at the most cutting edge information we have access too.
Statcast really likes J.D. Martinez.
No one has a higher Brls/PA. Brls/PA is a metric which measures something called a barrel. A barrel is a ball in play that leads to at least a .500 batting average and a 1.500 SLG. In short, it’s really high quality contact. The next best hitter so far this season is Joey Gallo at 11.7, followed by Mookie Betts at 11.5. No one makes high quality contact more often than J.D. Martinez. He also has the third highest percentage of balls hit at 95 MPH or higher. Betts is 8th, Trout is 31st. Quality contact is about more than hitting the ball hard, of course, but hitting it hard consistently is typically going to lead to good results. And if we’re going to look at exit velocity, it’s worth pointing out that J.D. Martinez’s average exit velocity of 93.5 MPH is 6th best in the majors, while Betts sits 13th and Trout sits 25th.
But there’s another component to consider, and that’s launch angle. Thankfully, because of the work of Andrew Perpetua, we know that balls hit between 19 and 26 degrees are the most productive in baseball. After that, it’s balls hit between 10 and 19 degrees. When we combine these launch angles, J.D. Martinez ends up with 40.7% of his batted balls in that range. Betts comes in a 39.1% and Trout at 37% even. These ranges can be found at xStats.org if you are curious. So Martinez is hitting the ball harder that Trout or Betts, and in the most productive ranges of launch angles more often than those two. That’s a long way of explaining why he has the highest Brls/PA, but it’s illustrative if we’re arguing that he’s the better hitter of the three.
Is there an argument for Betts or Trout over Martinez? Of course there is. But we’re going to stick with picking J.D. as the best bat in the game right now. Who do you have at the front of the pack? Let us know in the comments!