January 30, 2023

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Why Red Sox have 'never seen' J.D. like this

4 min read
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J.D. Martinez is in the Goldilocks zone of hitting. He’s squaring up the ball just right.

With Rafael Devers, Trevor Story and the rest of the Red Sox offense firing around him — Boston has been the best hitting team in baseball in May — Martinez is hitting like vintage J.D. Martinez. Or maybe even better.

Martinez is leading the MLB batting race, hitting .372 entering play Thursday. His 193 wRC+ makes him the third-best hitter in the Majors right now, behind only Mike Trout and Aaron Judge. In the final year of his contract before free agency, the 34-year-old looks as good as he ever has in Boston. Manager Alex Cora even said Thursday: “I’ve never seen him like this.”

The Statcast data shows why. Let’s dive into it.

No one in baseball is hitting more hard line drives and fly balls than Martinez. Nearly a third of the balls he’s hit this season are both hard-hit (95-plus mph exit velocity) and in the launch angle sweet spot (8-32 degrees, which covers both line drives and fly balls).

Highest hard-hit + sweet-spot rate, 2022
Min. 100 batted balls
1) J.D. Martinez (BOS): 32.0%
2) Aaron Judge (NYY): 29.8%
3) Bryce Harper (PHI): 28.3%
4) Freddie Freeman (LAD): 27.3%
5) Trey Mancini (BAL): 26.6%
Hard-hit: 95+ mph exit velocity. Sweet-spot: 8-32 degree launch angle.

Over one out of every five of his plate appearances (21.7%) has ended in hard-hit, sweet-spot contact, the highest rate in the Majors. Hard line drives are base hits. Hard fly balls are extra-base hits and home runs. If you are hitting both of those things in a large portion of your plate appearances, you are going to have great hitting stats.

For Martinez this season, finding the sweet spot has been the key. His hard-hit rates have been very consistent under Statcast tracking, and his 45.6% mark in 2022 is in line with the rest. But he’s had a big jump in sweet-spot contact — to the very top of the league.

While Martinez’s sweet-spot rate usually sits around 40% — which is very good already — this year it’s up to 51.5%. Over half his contact is either in the line drive range that’s good for batting average, or the fly ball range that’s good for slugging.

Highest sweet-spot rate, 2022
Min. 100 batted balls
1) J.D. Martinez (BOS): 51.5%
2) Trey Mancini (BAL): 48.4%
3) Freddie Freeman (LAD): 47.6%
4) Alec Bohm (PHI): 44.4%
5) Nick Castellanos (PHI): 43.4%

For Martinez, the sweet-spot contact right now is line drives. Lots and lots of line drives. That explains the .372 batting average. Line drives are always the type of contact most likely to be hits. Fly balls have to be hit hard enough to get over the outfielders, otherwise they’re outs. League-wide this season, the batting average on line drives is .631; the batting average on fly balls is .254.

Martinez is launching line drives 35.9% of the time this season (compared to 25.2% fly balls). That’s the third-highest rate in the Majors.

Highest line drive rate, 2022
Min. 100 batted balls

  1. Alec Bohm (PHI): 36.8%
  2. Bryce Harper (PHI): 36.7%

3) J.D. Martinez (BOS): 35.9%
4) Keibert Ruiz (WSH): 32.7%
5) Wander Franco (TB): 32.2%

When he hits a line drive, Martinez is batting .784. The average exit velocity of Martinez’s line drives is 97.1 mph. He has 29 line drive hits this season — that’s well over half of his 51 total hits. Only Harper (30) has more.

And, as is his signature, Martinez is spraying those line drives all over the field, making him very difficult to defend. His spray chart is nearly even — 31.1% of his contact has been pulled, 33.0% has been to straightaway center and 35.9% has been to the opposite field.

Not a lot of hitters hit the ball to all fields like that. Martinez is one of only nine players this season with at least 100 balls in play who’ve hit over 30% of them to each direction, pull, straightaway and oppo.

Hitters with over 30% of contact to pull/straightaway/oppo in 2022
J.D. Martinez, Red Sox
Bo Bichette, Blue Jays
Yuli Gurriel, Astros
Nelson Cruz, Nationals
Steven Kwan, Guardians
Ryan McMahon, Rockies
José Iglesias, Rockies
Nicky Lopez, Royals
Nathaniel Lowe, Rangers

That makes him hard to shift, for example. Martinez has faced an infield shift on about one in five plate appearances this season. He’s batting .556 against the shift. That’s the best in baseball among hitters who’ve faced a comparable number of shifts. Six of his 15 hits against the shift have been to the right side of the field, and two more have been up the middle.

Martinez has the ability to drive the ball to the pull side — 17 of his 21 extra-base hits have gone to the left side of the field this season. He has the ability to knock base hits the other way — 17 of his 30 singles have gone to the right side of the field. And no matter where he hits the ball, he’s hitting it on a line. That’s why he’s one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball today.

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