Martinez Bats Cleanup; Is There Cosmic Significance?

Scott Halleran

J.D. Martinez is hitting cleanup on Tuesday, and CRPerry13 searches for cosmic significance. Is this all part of a greater plan?

Scene: Before Astros Game, May 7, 2013.

Setting: Clubhouse at Minute Maid Park, Houston TX

(Astros Manager Bo Porter enters, holding sheet of paper, railroad spike, and sledgehammer. Team watches silently as he makes his way across the room. Porter seems to consider the empty lockers of outfielders recently designated for assignment before placing the paper and spike against a bare wall. With a mighty swing of the sledgehammer, he drives the paper into the wall. He steps back. Players gather around, curious as to their nightly role.)

Jordan Lyles: Hey, how come I'm not in the lineup?

Porter: We're in the American League now. You don't have to bat.

Lyles: Sweet!

J.D. Martinez: Uh, Skip, I think I see an error. You have me batting cleanup tonight. I just got off of DL, remember?

* * *

A few hours ago, when the Astros posted their lineup for tonight's game, a lively email discussion was sparked amongst the TCB writers. Names are withheld to protect the innocent, but suffice to stay the conversation started with "WTF" and ended with "That's hot."

In between, we tried to figure out how Martinez, a guy who was on the DL as of the time of this writing and carried a .244 / .271 / .444 (AVG / OBP / SLG) slash line into this game could possibly be hitting cleanup in a lineup that is far from the worst in the American League.

On the surface it makes no sense, but here for your entertainment is some speculative percipience for you to excogitate. The cleanup spot, or the fourth hitter in the lineup, is the player most likely to be hitting with players on base in front of him. wRC+ is a metric that determines a player's offensive value compared to league average (anything over 100 is above league average).

Armed with these two declarations, I looked at the 2011 to 2013 Astros to see who has been most effective hitting with men on base in terms of wRC+ (minimum 50 plate appearances). Here's what I found:

# Name PA OBP SLG OPS wRC+
1 Hunter Pence 208 0.394 0.51 0.905 150
2 Justin Maxwell 185 0.346 0.558 0.904 143
3 Matt Downs 196 0.344 0.517 0.861 135
4 Michael Bourn 156 0.416 0.419 0.835 135
5 J.D. Martinez 336 0.343 0.49 0.833 126
6 Jed Lowrie 161 0.354 0.449 0.803 121
7 Carlos Lee 459 0.351 0.455 0.806 117
8 Jason Bourgeois 97 0.355 0.416 0.771 115
9 Chris Johnson 348 0.325 0.441 0.766 106
10 Fernando Martinez 66 0.303 0.456 0.759 105

From the top 10, only two players are still with the Astros. Justin Maxwell is hurt, meaning that over the past two seasons the available player who has been most effective hitting with runners on base has been J.D. Martinez. Other guys who could be considered "traditional" four-hole hitters are lower on the list. Carlos Pena (#16 - 87 wRC+), Chris Carter (#17 - 83 wRC+) and even Burnin' Brandon Barnes (#15 - 89 wRC+) have all been below league average with runners on base. In this sample, only Jose Altuve ranks above average, with 102 wRC+.

...apparently Martinez' brain kicks into high gear when he has teammates languishing on the basepaths waiting for a chum to bring them home with a well-placed knock.

Martinez' numbers have been downright good in those situations. For his career, he's hit .291/.343/.490 with men on base (336 plate appearances). His numbers with the bases empty are a pitiful .217/.281/.312. Some guys need motivation to perform their best, and apparently Martinez' brain kicks into high gear when he has teammates languishing on the basepaths waiting for a chum to bring them home with a well-placed knock. Based on his numbers, Martinez' just might be that type of guy.

It begs the question, though: are we seeing more of the Astros' front-office analytics at work? Prior to the season, Porter said all the right things about using statistics to make game decisions, but then, many managers have said that in the past and then put together head-scratching lineups. Already, the Astros are using extreme defensive shifts against certain batters, proof that they are processing available information and putting it into action. But I've not heard of a manager who will admit to using batter splits to set his lineup before. Perhaps that is exactly what is happening here.

How would a manager go about using splits to make his lineup? Here's one way:

  1. Who needs a night off?
  2. Who has the best splits versus pitcher handedness?
  3. Who has the best splits based on lineup order, men on base, runners-in-scoring-position?
  4. HAL or UNIVAC or Deep Thought to spits out a lineup based on those factors.

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