Entering this week’s series against the San Diego Padres, St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Jose Martinez was easily the team’s best hitter throughout the 2018 season. While he did have a mediocre month or so in the middle of it, Martinez had an OPS+ of 147. For those unfamiliar with the stat OPS+, it is a statistic which measures a player’s offensive contribution to a team relative to his environment. In layman’s term, how good was a player compared to his peers at the plate, adjusting for the total offense of his league and how easy it is to hit in the ballparks in which he played? A 147 OPS+ is very good–in back-to-back seasons in the late aughts, a position player won a league MVP award with a lesser OPS+. In 2007, Jimmy Rollins of the Philadelphia Phillies had an OPS+ of 119, and in 2008, Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox had an OPS+ of 123.
Rollins and Pedroia were each unexceptional if more or less deserving MVPs (one could make a case against Rollins, but he, to say the least, belonged on MVP ballots). Jose Martinez will almost certainly receive zero MVP votes, even if he maintains his current offensive numbers over the course of a full season. In fact, if one’s sole criteria for MVP awards is Wins Above Replacement (if you insist on having one and only metric by which to base your votes, this is probably the correct one), Martinez is barely a top ten MVP candidate on the Cardinals.
Even for those who believe that pitchers should not be MVPs because pitchers have their own award, Martinez ranks just seventh among position players. None of the players ahead of Martinez were superior hitters, and some, such as Kolten Wong (63 OPS+), lagged laughably behind him at the plate.
For those with even a passing knowledge of Wins Above Replacement and of the 2018 St. Louis Cardinals, it shouldn’t be a huge shock that Jose Martinez’s WAR has him as an inferior player than just his offensive numbers. Martinez has been a notoriously poor fielder, making seven errors at first base (the Live Ball Era for errors in a season by a first baseman was 29, by Dick Stuart in 1963 for the Boston Red Sox–this mark may be a bit ambitious of a record for Martinez to top), and while his base running is more run of the mill mediocre, the cataclysmically poor defense which Martinez has displayed in 2018 has canceled out the positive effects of his excellent offense. The aforementioned MVPs Rollins and Pedroia were assisted by being excellent defensive middle infielders–that Martinez is a very poor fielder at a position with decidedly less of a defensive premium is nearly destroying his value.
Jose Martinez entered Saturday on pace for a 2.1 WAR season–basically average. If his paces hold, both in terms of Martinez’s offensive and overall value, he would have the second-least valuable 140+ OPS+ season in Cardinals history. Here is the current top five from the National League era (limited so that the results aren’t cluttered with a bunch of qualified seasons of 50 games or so games):
- Pedro Guerrero, 1989: 1.9 WAR, 145 OPS+
- Dick Allen, 1970: 2.3 WAR, 146 OPS+
- Matt Holliday, 2013: 2.6 WAR, 142 OPS+
- Jack Clark, 1985: 2.6 WAR, 149 OPS+
- Ripper Collins, 1936: 2.6 WAR, 144 OPS+
Unsurprisingly, four of these five players primarily played first base, the defensive position (besides designated hitter, which obviously the Cardinals haven’t used to a material degree) most punished by positional adjustments by WAR calculations. The fifth, Matt Holliday, was the oldest of the group while playing the second-most punished position, left field.
Ironically, Pedro Guerrero’s 1989 teammate Ozzie Smith had the Bizarro version of Guerrero’s season. Smith led the Cardinals in WAR despite being a below-average hitter–not dramatically below-average, as he finished at a 97 OPS+, but below-average nonetheless. Guerrero finished seventh on the Cardinals. At 7.3 WAR, Smith had the second-greatest season in MLB history with an OPS+ of under 100 (#1 is 2015 Kevin Kiermaier, who had a 99 OPS+ and 7.5 WAR).
But at the time, it was Guerrero who received public attention for his season. Guerrero finished third in NL MVP voting (inexplicably receiving a first place vote that didn’t go to winner Kevin Mitchell, a quantifiably better hitter, nor Will Clark, the runner-up who was a more valuable player by WAR–though it should’ve gone to 11th place finisher Lonnie Smith), while Ozzie Smith, in his age 34 season and not exactly an obscure player at that point in his career, did not receive a single down-ballot MVP vote.
Jose Martinez won’t get this benefit of the doubt. Dick Allen was an All-Star in 1970 despite being a minus fielder. Jack Clark, a poor defender who was famously switching from right field to first base when he joined the Cardinals in 1985, finished 10th in MVP voting while finished 7th in WAR on his own (granted, very successful) team.
Martinez has a reasonable chance to eclipse 2000 Moises Alou as the least valuable hitter with a 147+ OPS+ since 1996 (a semi-arbitrary mark I’m choosing because every season since it has played 162 games). In 2000, Alou produced 2.6 WAR as a poor-fielding corner outfielder (I scream in general defense of Steve Bartman). He does, however, have a long way to go to eclipse the legacy of the most notably one-dimensional player in modern baseball history–2009 Adam Dunn. In that season, the mostly-first baseman for the Washington Nationals had a 144 OPS+, not materially below that of Jose Martinez, and was, unimaginably, a below Replacement Level player. Dunn was a bad fielder throughout his career, but 2009 was a whole different level of lousy–he cost himself 5.2 wins defensively, two full wins more than in his next-worst season.
It’s hard to know what to make of Jose Martinez. How do you sit a player who is as good at hitting as Jose Martinez? How do you start a player who is such a defensive liability? For all of the very warranted criticism of Mike Matheny, I don’t envy that he has to weigh these very strong pros and cons when it comes to Jose Martinez, the most one-dimensional St. Louis Cardinal in recent memory.