When the offseason began, the Cardinals' Jose Martinez looked like one of baseball's most obvious trade candidates, perhaps headed to an American League team that could take full advantage of his bat while mitigating his defensive shortcomings.But with Spring Training fast approaching, and Martinez still on the St. Louis roster,
When the offseason began, the Cardinals' Jose Martinez looked like one of baseball's most obvious trade candidates, perhaps headed to an American League team that could take full advantage of his bat while mitigating his defensive shortcomings.
But with Spring Training fast approaching, and Martinez still on the St. Louis roster, the chances seem to be increasing that on Opening Day he will stay and serve as MLB's most overqualified pinch-hitter.
In such a scenario, Martinez would be valuable insurance in case William Fowler can't put last season's struggles behind him, giving the club depth and pop off the bench along with Tyler O'Neill. Martinez also won't be eligible for arbitration until next offseason, which makes him a bargain. For those reasons, St. Louis' willingness to deal him may have been overblown all along, and could be even lower now, MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal wrote recently at The Athletic (subscription required).
But what is it, exactly, that makes Martinez's bat so desirable in the first place? Why might the Cardinals continue to overlook his shaky glove, beyond the practical roster considerations?
You could point to the 30-year-old's impressive slash line (.309/.372/.478) over two-plus MLB seasons, or the fact that his 130 wRC+ during that time is tied for 25th highest in MLB. As MLB.com's Matt Kelly showed earlier this offseason, Martinez possesses a rare ability to both put the bat on the ball and hit it hard when he does.
Martinez's appeal really comes down to this: No matter how opponents pitch him, he has the ability to win the battle.
Consider this list of five hitters: Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor, Martinez, Anthony Rendon and Christian Yelich. Besides Martinez, those are the two league MVPs from 2018, plus two other well-known stars who received votes. What do they all have in common?
For the answer, let's turn to expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), a Statcast-based metric that incorporates quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle), walks and strikeouts. For context, the xwOBA across MLB last year was .311, and Martinez's overall mark of .380 ranked 12th among qualifiers, just behind current teammates Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt.
The five aforementioned hitters -- Betts, Lindor, Martinez, Rendon and Yelich -- were the only ones last season to reach each of the following xwOBA benchmarks:
• At least .340 vs. pitches in the top third of the zone (minimum 50 plate appearances) -- Martinez .418
• At least .340 vs. pitches in the bottom third of the zone (minimum 50 PA) -- Martinez .364
• At least .340 vs. pitches in the left third of the zone* (minimum 50 PA) -- Martinez .407
• At least .340 vs. pitches in the right third of the zone* (minimum 50 PA) -- Martinez .355
• At least .380 vs. pitches in the middle of the zone (minimum 30 PA) -- Martinez .495
• At least .300 vs. pitches out of the zone (minimum 100 plate PA) -- Martinez .322
*From the catcher's perspective
In other words, Martinez can hit the ball hard, just about wherever it's pitched. Really, the only place for pitchers to attack with any confidence is his low-and-way corner or the area outside it. But even there, his numbers are well above the MLB average for a right-handed batter (.241 xwOBA).
Here is Martinez fighting off a 97 mph fastball to that spot for a two-run double. And here he is homering off a high pitch from Zack Greinke, a low pitch from Josh Hader and an inside pitch from Corey Kluber.
Those pitches all were fastballs, but Martinez isn't just a dead-red hitter.
Here is another highly accomplished group of hitters to consider: Betts, Alex Bregman, Aaron Judge, Martinez, Anthony Rizzo and Michael Trout. Those six are the only ones last year who reached each of these expected wOBA benchmarks:
• At least .380 vs. fastballs (minimum 200 PA) -- Martinez .397
• At least .330 vs. breaking balls (minimum 100 PA) -- Martinez .344
• At least .330 vs. offspeed pitches (minimum 30 PA) -- Martinez .364
So not only did Martinez handle every possible pitch location, he also handled every pitch type. Here he is jumping on a 98 mph heater from Luis Castillo for a home run, staying back on an 83 mph changeup from Brandon Finnegan for a run-scoring double, and waiting long enough to rip an RBI single off a 72 mph curveball from Hyun-Jin Ryu.
There is still time for a team, especially one in the AL, to seek exactly that sort of well-rounded offensive player to add to its lineup before Opening Day. While the options seem to be dwindling, it's not too difficult to imagine a fit with a club such as Cleveland, which needs a corner/DH bat and wouldn't need to inflate its payroll.
Such a trade would offer the Cardinals the opportunity to address another area of the roster or bolster their stable of prospects. But if Martinez indeed stays put, his unusual and enviable skills at the plate could continue to make an impact in St. Louis -- even in a reduced role.
Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.