J.D. Martinez, the perfect outfield fit for the Dodgers

Despite the Dodgers publicly saying they aren’t looking for a left fielder, it might be one of the easiest positions to upgrade in 2017 — you know, after second base.

Eric Stephen caught up with Dodger general manager Farhan Zaidi late last week, and Zaidi had some things to say about the Dodgers’ left field situation.

“‘Right now we actually feel good about the group of guys we have,’ Zaidi said. ‘With Toles and the way he played down the stretch and in the playoffs and the guys who I mentioned that had some injury issues, it’s not a position that we are targeting right now in terms of bringing another guy in.'”

Those guys include Andre Ethier, Enrique Hernandez, Trayce Thompson, Andrew Toles and Scott Van Slyke. Van Slyke is a non-tender candidate (but he’ll likely be retained), but the other four are firmly under contract for 2017 and beyond (save Ethier).

While a left-field platoon is not a novel concept — the Dodgers have not had a 1,000-inning left fielder since Brian Jordan in 2002 — and while Ryan Braun is intriguing on the trade market and Yoenis Cespedes is on the open market, there’s a cheaper option that might be available who hails from Detroit.

Let me introduce you to J.D. Martinez, the best hitter many have never heard of. Martinez, 29, has been a classic late-bloomer. He was drafted by the Astros in the 20th round in 2009, and after making the majors he had three subpar seasons with the Astros that resulted him being released in March of 2014. The Tigers subsequently scooped him up and he has been one of the best hitters in all of baseball since that time.

The right-handed slugger has a 143 wRC+, 83 home runs (including 38 in 2015) and a .299/.357/.540 triple slash in that time. Against lefties in the same time frame, he has a 150 wRC+ and a slash line of .293/.363/.563. Seeing as the Dodgers were historically bad against lefties last season, Martinez seems like the type of player this front office would target. His strikeout rate is a bit higher than I’d prefer (26.1% in the last three years), but it comes with a lot of power (.270 ISO) and an improving walk rate (8%).

What’s interesting is the fact he has been able to hit for a relatively high average with a poor strikeout rate and a below-average (80 percent) contact rate. He has done that with an abnormally high BABIP the last three seasons of .366, which is second-highest in the majors behind Paul Goldschmidt. Here’s are his exit velocity numbers from the last two seasons and where he ranks in baseball (minimum 200 ABs):

  • 2015: 91.8 MPH, 27th
  • 2016: 91.9 MPH, 32nd

So Martinez hits the ball hard. At last check, that’s still a good thing for hitters and leads to success more often than it doesn’t. He has also reduced his chase percentage and swinging strike rate in three consecutive seasons. That all bodes well for him continuing this upward trend of being a borderline elite hitter.

He also elevates the ball, as you can see in this GIF.

His average launch angle fell by almost 3 degrees from the 2015 season (16.6 degrees down to 13.8), but that would still rank in the Top 5 on the Dodgers. For a guy without a lot of speed and a lot of power, hitting the ball in the air is a good thing.

On defense, he isn’t much to write home about. He was fine in 2014 and 2015, but he fell off a cliff this season in right field, ranking as the worst in baseball by UZR/150 (-21.5) and DRS (-22). Martinez was average the previous two seasons, so maybe we shouldn’t put so much stock in 1-year defensive metrics, but damn, that’s hard to overlook. Odds are he’s below-average out there at best, and he might fare a little better in left field, where the Dodgers should be looking for an upgrade. If not, maybe he is an option to replace Yasiel Puig if/when he’s traded.

Martinez going into the last season of his deal and will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2017 season. That helps make him cheaper to acquire, but there’s a bigger deal to be made with the Tigers that could involve the likes of Ian Kinsler or Justin Verlander which could skyrocket the cost anyway. Any deal could also involve taking on a bad contract like Anibal Sanchez, seeing as Martinez is set to make just $11.8 million for the 2017 season. If it’s a deal with Martinez as the centerpiece and not a lot of salary coming back, the cost would probably be higher than some may like. It wouldn’t take Cody Bellinger, but a headliner of Jose De Leon or Alex Verdugo wouldn’t be terribly surprising.

—–

Regardless of what happens, the offense could use a shot in the arm. There is no way the Dodgers can go into the season and gamble on guys like Hernandez, Justin Turner and Van Slyke to simply bounce back against lefties. Martinez would be a great addition to the middle of the lineup, despite having a plethora of outfielders on the roster.

About Dustin Nosler

Dustin Nosler
Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosts a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He does contracts and depth charts for FanGraphs and is a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a one-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, California, and has yet to be shot.