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2017 Tigers player preview: What happened to J.D. Martinez’s defense?

After a strong defensive showing in 2015, the right fielder took a massive step backwards.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Minnesota Twins Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

There are not many free gifts in baseball, but J.D. Martinez counts as a huge present snatched up by the Detroit Tigers before the 2014 season. Since joining the Tigers, Martinez has simply been one of the league’s deadliest hitters, totaling 143 wRC+ over the past three seasons. He has ranked in the top 20 in that stat each year among batters with at least 450 plate appearances. Only Miguel Cabrera has fared better at the plate since Martinez joined the club, which is probably all that needs to be said.

The Tigers have been notorious for sacrificing fielding for offense, but Martinez was not too bad with the glove for being such a slugger. An average 2014 season defensively gave way to a career-best year in 2015 that came with being a Gold Glove finalist. Martinez led the Tigers with 5.0 wins above replacement (fWAR) that season.

However, that fielding fell apart in 2016. Martinez regressed horribly, posting terrible defensive numbers across the board. He was worth -22 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), with his UZR numbers in agreement that it was a bad, bad season in right field. Coming off consecutive seasons of average play, it was a dramatic collapse of his defensive abilities. Though he probably experienced some good fortune in 2015, last season was even more unexpected. While he was still dominant at the plate, his overall value took a major hit because of his poor fielding and left him with just 1.8 fWAR.

To be fair, Martinez did have one major disadvantage last season: he broke his right elbow in June, missing six weeks of the season. Knowing how much this affected his defense is hard to measure, but it surely played some factor. Still, such a dramatic slide in his metrics makes it difficult to believe that injury alone caused all of his struggles. After all, over half of his games were played before his crash into the wall.

Advanced metrics were not a fan

Season Arm Range DRS Arm Range UZR
Season Arm Range DRS Arm Range UZR
2014 1 -2 0 -1.7 1.5 -1.6
2015 5 -5 4 8.8 -1.6 7.7
2016 -4 -18 -22 -2.7 -12.1 -17.2

Defensive metrics are imperfect, but they help tell pieces of the story. The two best tools for measuring a player’s value in the field are Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), metrics that are comprised of many individual pieces (two of which are listed in the table above). Not only did Martinez regress in both total DRS and UZR from 2015 and 2016, but he took a step back in key component of both stats.

Both stats hated Martinez’s arm in 2016, ranking him near the bottom among all qualified outfielders. This may be slightly excusable due to his injury, but represents a shocking fall from top-10 numbers in the arm component from both metrics in 2015.

The bigger issue, however, was Martinez’s range. Only one player ranked behind him in the range portion of both DRS and UZR and he slipped from slightly below-average in 2015 to abysmal in 2016. Rebuilding arm strength is a possible task, but Martinez needs serious help with his range.

Was it a fluke?

JD Martinez 2016 Misses

At the top of the graph above, you can see five plays graded “easy” that Martinez wasn’t able to make last season, and they largely seem to be flukes. Fly balls with a hang time of five seconds or more are almost always caught. The one furthest to the right is in the air for six full seconds, and while it landed almost 95 feet from Martinez’s starting position, six seconds is plenty of time to run under that ball, pound the glove, and put what is essentially a long pop-up in his back pocket. Of course, it didn’t go like that, or we wouldn’t be talking about it. Take a look at this play from the “Brad Ausmus flips out game” back in May against the Minnesota Twins.

That’s not the result of declining skills. It’s just a momentary loss of concentration, not something you would typically ascribe to a player with Martinez’s focus and cerebral preparation. It’s pretty difficult to see the plays ranked easy as being anything beyond mental mistakes on Martinez’s part. That doesn’t excuse the mistakes, but is rather to point out that there are correctable issues at play, not simply a diminished ability to cover ground.

Striking no fear

Martinez’s 15 assists in 2015 grabbed a lot of attention, but he was unlikely to repeat that total for a variety of reasons. A lack of assists in 2016 was therefore not as much as a problem as it was an indication of a bigger issue. Not only did Martinez’s rate of throwing out base runners cut in half from one season to the next, but his ability to stop runners from attempting to advance significantly fell as well.

In 2015, 52.6 percent of runners with the choice to advance on balls hit to Martinez wound up staying at their base. Given the amount of assists he accumulated, there seemed to be a level of respect for his lethal arm in right field. But in 2016, this fear completely disappeared. Runners only held up 38.3 percent of the time and were much more likely to challenge — and often succeed against — Martinez’s arm.

It was not just the ability to run against Martinez that opponents took advantage of. He also had a rough time making even the easy plays. Per Fangraphs’ Inside Edge Fielding data, Martinez was the second-worst qualified outfielder in all of baseball when it came to successfully fielding “routine” balls in play.

His real weakness, however, seems to be on balls hit on a line but close enough to Martinez to be considered in range. In the total base hits allowed chart (the first one above), you can see that Martinez struggled on balls that were in the air three seconds or fewer, but within 50 feet of him. Those are hard plays, typically line drives, but faster outfielders with better jumps tend to pick some of those balls, whereas Martinez made only one play that would qualify. Martinez just isn’t able to break on that type of hit quickly enough to score some real defensive points to balance the big mistakes. The key for him is going to be eliminating those easy blown catches.

JD Martinez Fielding 3

This is another look at the hits that dropped in Martinez’ zone of responsibility last season. Those red dots are nearly impossible plays to make, and generally represent balls that are smoked on a line. We don’t know where Martinez was playing from hit to hit, but it’s a safe assumption that he was a bit deeper than normal to make up for his lack of speed. As you see, Martinez could perhaps play shallower and probably save a few more singles this season, but then you risk balls getting by him to the wall.

Hope for the best

Even if Martinez suffered from some bad luck, both from batted balls and injury, in 2016, it looks like his 2015 was fueled by even more luck. Last season’s numbers show that he has horrible range in the outfield and that he cannot be counted on to make many tough plays, let alone the less sophisticated ones. When healthy, he can overcome this with his strong arm, but this deficiency will always be part of his game.

A healthy Martinez will see better defensive numbers in 2017, but they are still likely to be on the wrong side of zero. The goal for Martinez should be to avoid being a liability in right field and just find a way to make the plays he needs to make. A lot of this will come down to positioning, as he lacks the range and mobility to do anything spectacular.