Anthony and Chris Debate the Merits of Various Martinii

Bob Levey

In this article, TCB writers Anthony Boyer and Chris Perry debate the question that is tormenting Astros fans: who will be a more effective corner outfielder in 2013 - Fernando Martinez or J.D. Martinez? Read on for the gripping exchange of words.

A couple months back, I had the pleasure of debating clack over the American League MVP race. We emailed back and forth, arguing our positions, and what ensued was a fun dialog about the pros and cons of both viewpoints. Returning to that same format, I challenged TCB's Anthony Boyer to a new debate.

Rolling into 2013, the largest uncertainty regarding the Astros' roster construction centers on the outfield, particularly in the corners. In-house candidates for the positions include Justin Maxwell, Brandon Barnes, Jimmy Paredes, prospect Robbie Grossman, plus J.D. Martinez and Fernando Martinez, lovingly dubbed the "Martinii" here at The Crawfish Boxes. Right now, the Astros' web site lists J.D. as the Left Field starter and Fernando as the Right Field starter, but it is generally accepted that a time share of some sorts among those players is in the cards. But this raises the question: which of the two Martinii would be most effective as an outfield regular in 2013?

* * *

from: Chris Perry
to: Anthony Boyer

Hopefully both J.D. and Fernando Martinez get an opportunity to play this year and metamorphosize into All-Star outfielders, relegating this discussion to the category of 'academic exercise only'. But if we have to pick just one of the Martinii to contribute as an above-average regular in 2013, I'm going with J.D.

It's hard to make assumptions about a player (Fernando) who has only seen 250 plate appearances in the Major Leagues, so I won't insult you by centering my argument around his paltry .209/.274/.373 slash stats, even though that's so far below replacement level he would need an elevator just to climb back to respectability. But there is absolutely no doubt that J.D. has been the better player in his own first sip from the Major League mug.

2012 was a lost year for J.D. in terms of production, for sure, but his .274/.319/.423 line as a 23-year-old Rookie in 2011 was excellent for a first exposure to Major League pitching. Many things worked against J.D. in 2012, including the dreaded "sophomore slump", bad luck, and injuries that caused him to fall out of public grace as if he is already a burnt out has-been. For reasons I can't fathom, his struggles made a hero out of his replacement Fernando with many fans.

People cite Fernando's "excellent play" down the stretch, but I have trouble understanding how 130 plate appearances of .237 hitting with a 4.6% walk rate and 26% strikeout rate can be considered better than what J.D. was already doing (.241 BA, 9.1 BB%, 21 SO%). It's a case of "what have you done for me lately," and fans only remember the last thing they see: J.D. struggled through an injury at the end of the season, and F-Mart hit six home runs.

The home runs (or lack thereof) stick in the mind, and somehow that's made Fernando a better choice in the minds of some people. I don't agree, and neither do the stats. Fernando has not done enough to convince me that he would deserve playing time over J.D. in 2013.

from: Anthony Boyer
to: Chris Perry

Hey Chris,

I agree with you that the best-case scenario for the Houston Astros is that both of the Martinii become productive major leaguers with Hall of Fame careers, and both are inducted in 2037, side by side, wearing Astros caps. But a bit more realistically, we're hoping one becomes an above-average regular in 2013, and I can't help but think that Fernando is a better bet to make that happen than J.D. is.

As you mentioned, Fernando has just 275 big league plate appearances to his name, but I also think it's worth pointing out that he's a full fourteen months younger than J.D. is.

I'm glad you point out J.D.'s rookie season of 2011, because that's probably a more telling way to compare the two. J.D. reached just 226 plate appearances that season, which isn't far off from the 275 that F-Mart has seen at a similar age. And while the 274/319/423 line J.D. put up that year is on the impressive side, it came with a favorable BABIP of .325. Fernando was a bit on the "unlucky" side in 2012, with just a .278 average on balls in play.

But I don't want to continue this conversation by comparing one player's 2011 to another's 2012. Since we're trying to determine what will happen in 2013, let's look at their most recent performances, in 2012. This may help me from getting confused (it happens often.)

While it's true that Fernando strikes out more than J.D., and walks less, I don't think it's fair to look at those numbers and immediately say that that makes one more productive than another.

For starters, for all of J.D.'s lost time in 2012, he did put together 439 plate appearances, which is a reasonable enough number to judge his season. And though F-Mart's time in the majors was significantly less, he still managed to accumulate 0.7 fWAR in 2012, which may not be impressive by itself, but it dwarfs the -0.2 that J.D. compiled. Basically, J.D. Martinez was worse than replacement-level in 2012, and Fernando - in significantly less time (do remember that WAR is a cumulative statistic) - was almost a win better than replacement-level. You could almost make a case that J.D.'s injuries helped him from compiling more negative WAR over the course of the season.

There are several reasons for Fernando's success and J.D.'s lack thereof, but the most glaring may be defense. Pick a defensive metric, and Fernando excels by a long shot over J.D. In left field alone, J.D.'s UZR in 2012 was -5.6, while Fernando's was 0.7. In short, that means that Fernando Martinez saved more than 6 runs more than J.D. Martinez - and that's just in left field. In right field, Fernando played even better.

We've seen all-bat, no-glove left fielders in Houston before, and while I won't insult you by saying that J.D. Martinez is the poor man's Carlos Lee, the comparison is there to be made. Because while J.D. Martinez isn't quite as bad a defender as Lee was in left, he's also not quite the hitter that Lee was.

Like it or not, every hitter (except one, with the move to the American League) also has to put on a glove at some point and try to help his team. J.D. Martinez was pretty bad at doing that in 2012, whereas Fernando was much better at it. If we were talking about someone who was an exceptional hitter, who could make up the difference with his bat alone, then maybe a case could be made for J.D. But for a team with such a small margin of error, giving up runs in the field hurts as much as giving up runs at the plate. Which is one of the reasons why I think F-Mart is a much more valuable piece to the Astros than J.D. Martinez is.

from: Chris Perry
to: Anthony Boyer

Hi Anthony,

I can see already that this will be a good debate, because you raise a valid point about defense. Unfortunately, it's a point I don't entirely agree with. Defense is important - extremely important - for Center Fielders, Infielders, and catchers. For the Astros, with a tiny Left Field for at least half of their games, defense is secondary to offensive performance from that position.

It's one of the beefs I have with WAR, which seems to overvalue defense for non-defensive positions. Saying that Fernando was a better player last season despite a vomit-inducing offensive output just doesn't smell right. Besides, Fernando's UZR/150 was only 5.4...it's not like he was Willie Mays out there.

I don't think comparing a healthy 2012 Fernando to an unhealthy 2012 J.D. is a good way to look at things. J.D. battled wrist problems for a large portion of the season, and there has been plenty of research showing that bum wrists can significantly impact the hitting ability (particularly power) of a player. Just check out this article at Baseball America. Read about Brad Nelson's story - it is identical to J.D.'s 2012.

"The wrist is a relatively simple joint, and doctors can address most problems surgically and get players back on the field quickly. Getting them back with their usual swing and power, though, takes time...not for a player to get back on the field but for his swing and power to return to pre-injury form."

J.D.'s excellent 2011 and beginning of 2012 (.282/.411/.449 in April) point to a player who was on track to be a good major league outfielder before his injury problems. It is easy to forget how successful he was before then because it seems so long ago during a dismal collective year for the Astros, but one can't dismiss the effects that a hamate injury can have on a player's ability to drive the ball. J.D.'s surgery in September should have him back near full strength for Spring Training and we should see a return to the path to success he started down in 2011.

I'm glad you brought up BABIP. In my recent look at J.D. and why he had such a lousy 2012, I found that his 2012 peripherals actually had improved over 2011, making his lack of production extremely odd. I also noted that J.D.'s 2012 BABIP of .290, while within normal range for a player like Fernando, was actually extremely lower than J.D.'s career and expected values. I used a quick utility to calculate J.D.'s xBABIP (or expected BABIP, which has been proven pretty accurate), which said his BABIP should have been 0.319 in 2012, or very close to what it was in 2011.

The fact is, J.D. can sustain a high BABIP because his counting stats (Low Strikeout numbers and ability to take walks, primarily) work in his mathematical favor. Keep in mind that an xBABIP.319 is with his .250 batting average. If he had hit .275 as in 2011, his xBABIP could have been in the .330 range. J.D.'s ability to sustain a high BABIP is held up by his minor league stats, which was an incredible .384 over 1,356 Plate Appearances (not a small sample size).

You can't compare BABIP's between lower strikeout players like J.D. and high-strikeout guys like Fernando. J.D.'s BABIP was significantly lower than his career and expected values, indicating extremely poor luck. Given J.D.'s power-sapping injury and brutally low BABIP (compared to what he can easily sustain), I'm predicting he will bounce back in 2013 in a big way, providing better offensive output than Fernando at a position where defense matters the least.

from: Anthony Boyer
to: Chris Perry

Hey Chris,

It's interesting that you point to that article about Brad Nelson. In case anyone doesn't have time to read it, it's a 2004 article about a Brewers prospect who suffered an injury not unlike J.D. Martinez's 2012 injury. The article mentions that it takes about a year for players to return to their pre-injury form in terms of swing and power.

We're almost nine years past that article, though, and Nelson has barely scratched the majors. In his 31 big league plate appearances, Nelson has an ISO of .071. ISO, as I'm sure you're aware, is a measure of a player's pure power. Fangraphs lists .080 ISO as the beginning of their "awful" category. So what does that make .071?

The article mentions that the Brewers were hopeful Nelson could hit "like he did in 2002." In 2002, Nelson had an ISO of .223 in Class-A Beloit. In 2004, the year after the article, it dropped to .181 in AA Huntsville. To say that his case is identical to J.D. Martinez's case may not be the best precursor to J.D.'s 2013 season being a resounding success, particularly when J.D.'s ISO during his 2011 season was just .149. Sure, there are numerous success stories, but Nelson himself is proof that you can never be 100% certain that a player will recover from a surgery, no matter how small.

Comparatively, Fernando Martinez posted a .229 ISO in 2012 in Houston, and has a .165 ISO during his entire major league career. Even just looking at their slugging percentages, Fernando had a .466 in 2012, compared to the .423 that J.D. put up in his healthy 2011 season. That, to me, implies that Fernando hits for more power than J.D. did, even before his wrist injury (speaking of hamate injuries, you might remember that Fernando had surgery on his own hamate back in 2007.)

If defense doesn't matter for a left fielder, then certainly power does. In addition to being significantly better in the field, Fernando Martinez has been a better power hitter as a major leaguer, as well.

While we're on the subject of pure offensive output, it's worth pointing out that Fernando's .330 wOBA in 2012 not only bests J.D.'s .303, but it also ekes out the .323 that J.D. had in his (healthy) 2011. wOBA, or weighted on-base Average, is a Tom Tango statistic predicated on the idea that not all hits are created equally. It's a metric considered by many to be one of the most important measures of offensive output.

Another useful tool we can use to look at offensive value is wRC+, or weighted Runs Created. This attempts to measure how many runs a player is worth to his team, relative to league average. In 2012, Fernando Martinez had a wRC+ of 107, or 7% better than league average. J.D. Martinez had a wRC+ of 85 in 2012, or 15% less than league average.He fared better in his healthy 2011, but still only managed a wRC+ of 103.

So not only did J.D. Martinez cost runs in the outfield, he cost them at the plate, as well. Fernando Martinez, on the other hand, saved runs in both areas. One could make an argument that this makes him more valuable offensively and defensively than J.D. Martinez thus far through his career.

from: Chris Perry
to: Anthony Boyer

My head just exploded. Please tell me you didn't draw conclusions based on Nelson's 31 Major League plate appearances split between 2008 and 2009. The point that I was trying to make with that article was about the wrist injury, what it does to a player's ability to drive the ball, and that it's a relatively routine surgery with a good expectation of full recovery.

Along those lines, the data you provide is misleading. In over 1,500 plate appearances over the past 3 seasons, Nelson's ISO has been over .200, which Fangraphs lists as "great". So he HAS recovered his power stroke after wrist surgery, though it took a while, and that bodes extremely well for J.D. Martinez, as does the long list of successfully recovered players with wrist injuries.

The article points out that every player's recovery time is different, and until J.D. shows that he can't drive the ball post-surgery, it should be assumed that he can. The major point I was trying to make is that one can't draw any long-term conclusions from J.D.'s offensive output in 2012 because that wrist injury definitely sapped his strength and affected his swing.

Moving on...

Fernando has a decent power stroke, no doubt, though I would argue it's not a large enough advantage to overlook J.D.'s plate discipline advantage. Besides, your whole argument so far has been based on Major League performance, and Fernando's 275 total plate appearances is such an incredibly small sample size to base any sort of projection on that seems flimsy. For that reason, I find it difficult to swallow the conclusions you draw about wRC+, particularly where it applies to J.D.'s 2012 season, which as I've pointed out was suppressed due to injury and low BABIP.

So let's look at the minor leagues instead, where J.D. has 1,300 plate appearances and Fernando has 2,100. Before you can bring it up, I'll say it first: Scouts thought Fernando was the better prospect, and he was on BA's top 100 four times. And I say, "pish to that". Want to talk power? J.D.'s minor league ISO was 198. Fernando's was 173. J.D.'s walk rate was 8.4%. Fernando's was 6.5%. J.D. was a .334 hitter. Fernando hit .280.

It's worth noting that until last season at OKC, Fernando's offensive statistics actually worsened as he climbed to higher levels of the minor leagues. That's not to say he hasn't gotten it figured out (he had a big year in AAA last season), but his career progression has been flat at best.

Contrarily, until this season (the injury), J.D. never finished a season with a Batting Average below .338 or an OPS below .937.

At some level, we have to look past what the scouts say a player SHOULD have been, and look at what he has actually done. Fernando's production has nowhere near matched his pedigree, in either the minors nor the majors. Meanwhile, J.D. flew under the scouts' radar and raked his way through the minor leagues before putting up a rookie season that would make many 10-year journeymen ecstatic.

Both of these guys could wind up being good outfielders for the Astros in 2013, but if I'm betting on one of them, I'm betting on the guy who has had more success during every stop of his professional career, and that's J.D.

You get the last word!

from: Anthony Boyer
to: Chris Perry

I spent more time on the Nelson analogy than I had initially meant to. All I meant is that he is proof that recovery from surgery - any certainty - is never a sure thing. We won't get into non-prospect finding power in the PCL, because it's not necessarily germane to our conversation about the Martinii. I'll help you patch up your head now.

Last night, while reading through our email exchange, my girlfriend gave me just one note: "Too many numbers."

It was a reminder to me that baseball - and baseball players - aren't just a collection of numbers. There's more to them than that.

So let me throw just one number at you: 503. That's the number of times Fernando Martinez stepped into a batter's box in 2012, between Oklahoma City and Houston. That number is significant because it's the most plate appearances he's put together in any season of his career, at any level. I can sympathize with J.D.'s lost time, because if anyone knows about losing time to injuries, it's Fernando Martinez.

F-Mart was a Top 30 prospect as recently as 2009. On some lists, he was a top 10 prospect as recently as 2010. A series of injuries - the most severe perhaps being a hamate injury like J.D.'s and a torn meniscus - have whittled away both his tools and his development. The Mets rushed him through the system, and the usual argument in his favor was that he wasn't hitting well because he was playing way ahead of his age bracket. But you're right - at some point, a player has to hit.

The most amount of time that Fernando Martinez spent at any one level, on any one team, was in 2012 with Oklahoma City. He hit 314/367/507 as a 23-year-old, and more importantly, he finally stayed healthy, for the most part. A DL stint because of a concussion sustained while being hit by a pitch shouldn't be counted against him. A few days here and there with knee inflammation or a boil. Fine. But he finally put together 500+ plate appearances, and he played well during them.

J.D. Martinez has out-performed expectations at every level. He's shown that he can hit. But his swing broke down last year, at least partially as a result, no doubt, of the hamate injury. He aggravated that injury in November 2012, and we've yet to see if - or when - he'll recover.

The article we discussed said it takes about a year for the power and the swing to return to pre-injury form, but he didn't have surgery until September 2012, which seems to indicate that while he will be able to work the count and get on base, his power may not return until late in the season. In the meantime, you'll have a left fielder who plays subpar defense and doesn't hit for a ton of power.

On the other hand, you've got Fernando Martinez, a former prospect who played most of his minor league career against players older and more experienced than him, and held his own at least to some degree. A guy who has battled through some injuries, but who seems to finally be able to stay healthy. He's still just 24 years old, though, and while there may not be a ton of room for improvement, he showed in 2012 that, when healthy, he can flat-out mash the ball. His September numbers (speaking of small sample sizes) were MVP-caliber.

I don't expect him to continue his torrid September hitting through 2013, but I do expect the power to remain. Sure, he's going to strike out, but that's a trade-off I'm willing to accept. Overall, I believe there's still room for improvement with Fernando Martinez, but I feel like we've seen the ballplayer that J.D. Martinez is.

And while he's a solid ballplayer with good on-base skills and a little power, his bat isn't enough to scare anyone from the corner outfield, and doesn't entirely make up for his lack of defense. His ceiling doesn't scrape F-Mart's. I believe the best is yet to come for Fernando, and I think 2013 is the season we'll see him put it all together and stay healthy.

Thanks for the chat, Chris. I hope both of these guys come out of the gate in 2013 mashing the ball and we can look back on this debate as an academic exercise. It's sure been educational for me - and fun!

* * *

Well, that was fun! Both candidates have strong arguments for why they are the better choice than the other. We welcome your opinion on the subject in the comments.

Glossary:
BABIP: Batting Average on Balls in Play - The percentage of balls that are put in play that actually fall for hits (does not include fouls). It's a decent measure of how lucky or unlucky a player has been. League average is close to .300.
ISO: Isolated Power - Slugging Percentage minus Batting Average. It's the percentage of extra bases earned. So on a double, only the second base would count. 100 is bad, 200 is great.
xBABIP: Expected BABIP. A method of calculating what a player's BABIP should
wRC+: Weighted Runs Created - a measure of a player's offensive value in runs created for his team, compared to a league average of 100.
UZR/150 - Ultimate Zone Rating - A measure of a players' defensive value in runs saved for his team, normalized to 150 innings.
fWAR - Fangraph's Wins Above Replacement - A measure of a player's value in wins, where a typical replacement player is 0.0.
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