When a player like Jose Martinez, who didn’t make his Major League debut until after his 28th birthday in 2016, puts up a season like he did in 2017, one in which he accumulated 307 MLB plate appearances and a sterling .309/.379/.518 triple-slash line, good for a 135 wRC+ (second only to Tommy Pham for the St. Louis Cardinals lead among players with multiple plate appearances), the word that tends to be floated around is “regression”.
A decade earlier, Martinez would have been uniformly dismissed as an inevitable regression candidate because what he did in 2017 was so unexpected. He shocked many observers by making the team in the first place over Tommy Pham (amazingly, Martinez managed to both wildly exceed even optimistic projections and not validate the decision to put him on the Opening Day roster, if viewed as a binary choice), and given his lack of Minor League Baseball track record, it seemed crazy to expect that 2017 Jose Martinez was not merely a beneficiary of small sample size luck. Surely, once more data became available, Jose Martinez would start to look more like the quad-A hitter that he seemed to be throughout most of his professional baseball life.
But next-generation baseball statistics not only did not believe Martinez to be a significant candidate for regression, they widely believed him to be a candidate to break out even further in 2018. While Martinez rated highly by weighted on-base average (wOBA), a catch-all number which weighs a player’s results at the plate (among the 287 MLB players with 300 or more plate appearances in 2017, he ranked 29th), expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), a sabermetric statistic which estimates a player’s expected offensive production given the hit probability of the contact he makes, held him in even higher regard. By xwOBA, among the same group of players, Martinez ranked fifth.
Aaron Judge, J.D. Martinez, Joey Votto, and Mike Trout. And then Jose Martinez.
Early returns in 2018 suggest that Jose Martinez is indeed what MLB’s Statcast data said he was last year–an elite hitter. Some retained skepticism about Martinez is understandable and arguably warranted, but xwOBA, while too new of a statistic to necessarily regard as gospel, is rooted in sound logic, and I feel reasonably comfortable in assessing that Jose Martinez is, at the bare minimum, a worthy MLB hitter, one whose presence is useful in some capacity on any MLB team.
Jose Martinez has, to many, been a surprise as a mainstay in the Cardinals’ starting lineup in 2018, starting 23 of the team’s first 24 games at first base, while incumbent first baseman Matt Carpenter alternated mostly between second and third base. His omnipresence was at least somewhat circumstantial–2017 third baseman Jedd Gyorko went to the Disabled List while the team’s much-hyped trio of outfielders (Marcell Ozuna, Tommy Pham, and Dexter Fowler) stayed relatively healthy (thus limiting opportunities for Martinez to play there). But with Martinez hitting like a superstar, it is impossible to remove him from the lineup.
But there is also something defeatist about seeing a great potential bench player and thinking that he is too good for that role. Even if he is, any team should be salivating at the chance for a player like Martinez to be a luxury, because that is a team which is positioned to make a World Series run.
In 2011, the Cardinals were that team, and Allen Craig was that player.
His sharp, dramatic decline in 2014 which led to him being traded to the Boston Red Sox, followed by an even sharper decline in the months and years which followed, have obscured Allen Craig’s initial greatness, but in 219 plate appearances in 2011, Craig produced a wRC+ of 154, meaning he was 54% above league average. That season, only eight qualified hitters (batters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the league’s rate-based leaderboards) were more productive at the plate. Allen Craig was an absolute behemoth at the plate, a player more than deserving of a starting role if not for the presence of Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, or Lance Berkman.
While Allen Craig was capable of playing first base or a corner outfield spot with reasonable competence, he was clearly out of place elsewhere. But he was such an offensive force that Tony LaRussa was willing to experiment: Craig started two games at third base (uh, maybe), five games in center field (wait, in center field? Are you…okay), and eight games at second base (sure, whatever, who cares anymore).
Allen Craig wasn’t much of a fielder, though his defensive mediocrity was fairly conventional. Jose Martinez has been a notoriously poor fielder at first base, left field, and right field by Ultimate Zone Rating, and by the eye test (which is obviously subjective, but giving too much credence to defensive metrics after such a low number of innings isn’t a great idea either), he has arguably been worse.
Martinez is probably closer to 2011 Lance Berkman defensively than he is to 2011 Allen Craig, and like Berkman, he will only be trusted at first base or a corner outfield spot. He will probably never be great at any of them, but because he can only even fake it at these spots, it hamstrings the team by forcing, say, Matt Carpenter to replace Kolten Wong or Jedd Gyorko in the field. Again, the offensive boost may make this a worthwhile move on the whole, but few would question that Wong and Gyorko are better fielders at this point than Matt Carpenter.
Allen Craig of 2011 was a good enough hitter that the team was not destroyed by his defensive inadequacies, but the team hit its peak efficiency when he could come off the bench, thanks to a hot and healthy David Freese, a settled-in Jon Jay, and an effective hodgepodge at second base (which included Nick Punto having one of the most bizarrely effective small sample size seasons in Cardinals history this side of Cesar Cedeno).
And for the 2018 Cardinals to be the best team they can be, they need Jose Martinez to not be playing every day. Which is not to say that the Cardinals should bench Jose Martinez–at this point, even with his defensive inadequacies, he helps the team win. But a world in which Martinez can reasonably sit is a world in which Matt Carpenter is once again a substantially above-average hitter, in which Jedd Gyorko is healthy and well-rounded at the hot corner, and in which Kolten Wong is at least an average-ish hitter, perhaps offensively weaker than Martinez but good enough at the plate to justify fortifying the infield’s defense. It is a world in which Marcell Ozuna and Dexter Fowler bounce back from early offensive struggles and justify their spots as corner outfielders.
Perhaps it is asking too much, but if the Cardinals can get so lucky with their solid-hitting pseudo-utility player again, they will be in terrific position going forward in 2018.