The stretch run of the abbreviated 2020 MLB regular season has arrived. There are six days remaining in the season, then 16 clubs will venture into the postseason. The best-of-three Wild Card Series will be followed by the LDS and LCS in bubbles in Southern California and Texas. The World Series will take place at Globe Life Field in Arlington.
With that in mind, it's time for our weekly look at various trends around the league. Last week we examined the White Sox's recent hot streak, among other things. Now here are three other trends to keep an eye on.
Martinez's season-long slump
Countless star players have struggled during this unusual, short season full of complications and stresses. Christian Yelich is hitting .214. Javier Baez is slugging .355. Jose Altuve owns a .596 OPS. Weird things happen in small samples -- yes, 60 games is still a small sample in baseball -- then add all the COVID-19 protocols on top of that, and you have a recipe for down years.
Still, it is jarring to see Boston Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez, one of the most devastating hitters of the last half-decade, sitting on a .216/.294/.389 batting line with five games to play. I repeat: .216/.294/.389. For reference, Athletics slugger Khris Davis hit .220/.293/.387 en route to losing his DH job last year. Among the 1,278 position players to appear in a game this year, Martinez ranks 1,269th in WAR. Ouch.
Martinez's decline is most obvious against fastballs. Everything in the game revolves around the fastball. If you can hit it as a position player and command it as a pitcher, you have a chance to hang around awhile. Martinez annihilated fastballs the last few years, as you'd expect. This year though, he's been among the worst fastball hitters in the game. His numbers against heaters:
|Batting average||Slugging percentage||Swing and miss rate||Exit velocity|
"He's worked and been diligent the same way he's been in the past. I know this kind of sounds like an excuse, but he fell into some bad habits," Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers told reporters, including MLB.com's Ian Browne, this past weekend. "Right now, he's trying to deal with his back side. We call it his back hip. He just jumps off his back side and he's creating some length in his swing on the back side, and he's just late to fastballs. I know he's working on it."
Here is Martinez swinging through two fastballs in one at-bat this past weekend. The bases were loaded with one out, and he swung through a 2-0 fastball (!) and later a 2-2 fastball to strike out. In the past, Martinez was as close as it gets to an automatic RBI in these situations.
Those swings do not look like J.D. Martinez swings. He was overmatched, including by a fastball in an extreme fastball count (2-0 with the bases loaded). Those swings look like the Astros version of Martinez, the guy who got released before he revamped his swing and broke out as a superstar with the Tigers.
Martinez is extremely studious and renowned for using video to break down and make adjustments not only to his swing, but his teammate's swings as well. Players are banned from watching in-game video as a result of the Astros and Red Sox sign-stealing scandals (also, MLB doesn't want the video room crowded amid the COVID-19 pandemic) and Martinez has lamented the lack of access to live video. He's been unable to make adjustments on the fly.
Here's what Martinez told reporters, including WEEI's Rob Bradford, about the lack of access to video last month:
"Guys are struggling and trying to work. It's tough when you don't know what to work on or what to do so everyone is feeling for stuff and it's a tough situation," he said. "We're only allowed to be here five hours before game time, that doesn't leave a lot of time for guys to go in the cage and grind it out and figure it out with the hitting coach. It's tough. I mean it's a tough hand. We've got to find a way to make it work though. I told my guys anytime they know they have anything they know they can come up to me and ask me questions and stuff like that. It's just different. I don't have that time to go in and break down guys' swings and look at guys' stuff and really dive into it.
"For certain people, they don't get the video until the next day and at that point they're already trying to get ready for the game. For me, I usually get my video probably in an hour from now and then I stay up until two in the morning trying to break it down, line it up and get going. But a lot of guys don't do that. Fortunately, for me, I have my laptop which has every swing I've taken in the big leagues since 2015, so I can kind of line it up and do my own analysis. But most guys come to the park and line it up and look at the computer and look at what they're doing versus what they're doing now. But we don't have anything with that."
The lack of video access may sound like an excuse but Martinez is not alone here. Baez recently complained about not being able to watch video and make adjustments during games -- "I'm really mad that we don't have it," he told reporters, including Tim Stebbins of NBC Sports Chicago -- and I'm sure other players feel the same way. That said, the video restrictions apply to every player, and some are doing better without it than others.
Martinez can opt out of the final two years and $38.75 million remaining on his contract after this season but there's little chance that happens. He could have opted out last offseason but didn't -- the case can be made Martinez's decision led directly to the Mookie Betts trade so the Red Sox could meet ownership's payroll mandate -- and now he's coming off a terrible season after team revenues have been wrecked by the pandemic. Hard to believe he could top $38.75 million in free agency at this point.
Martinez turned 33 last month, so while he's in or entering what you'd expect to be his decline phase, he's not so old that a rebound in 2021 is unrealistic. He's a hard worker and an incredibly smart hitter. Give him an offseason to adjust his preparation routine and a normal spring training, and I would bet on Martinez bouncing back nicely next year. The Red Sox have to hope that's the case, anyway, because Martinez is likely to remain with them through 2022.
"We've worked on just trying to be shorter and finishing off this last week. It's just trying to kill some of those habits and not trying to do too much," Hyers told Browne. "... (That's) what we've been grinding on, is him just to shorten up and not have that length in the back with his hands, to create length and catch up to the fastball. That's what he's working on, and obviously to go into the winter trying to improve."
Upton's in-season turnaround
Barring a miracle, the Los Angeles Angels will miss the postseason for the sixth consecutive season this year. They have played three postseason games -- all losses in the 2014 ALDS -- in the Mike Trout era. Just a stunning waste of historical greatness and it makes me mad. It really does. MLB needs Trout in the postseason and the Angels have failed to deliver year after year.
There are many reasons why the Angels will miss the postseason this year, including veteran outfielder Justin Upton. Upton, the fourth highest paid player on the team ($22.7 million full season salary) is hitting a weak .199/.290/.390 through 56 team games. He started the season in a hideous 7 for 71 (.099) slump, which led to him being benched at times in mid-August.
"I wasn't helping the team win, so you have to put your ego aside and understand that the team is trying to win," Upton recently told reporters, including Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times. "It's not about you, so I had to look in the mirror. That actually helped me, knowing we were putting our best (team) on the field. Then behind the scenes, I had to continue to work."
Upton attributed his slow start to the unusual ramp-up period leading into the regular season -- "I'll just admit I adapted poorly to the second spring training. That's definitely on me," he told DiGiovanna -- and he spent his time on the bench making adjustments and working on his swing. As a result, he's been one of the best hitters in baseball the last few weeks:
First 20 games
Last 19 games
Weighted runs created plus, or wRC+, is a catch-all statistic that adjusts for era and ballpark, and presents offensive output relative to the league average, where 100 is average. Anything higher than 100 is above average (a 125 wRC+ is 25 percent better than league average, for example) and anything below 100 is below average.
By wRC+, Upton was the worst hitter in baseball in those first 20 games (min. 75 plate appearances). In his last 19 games, he's been the 12th best hitter in the game (again, min. 75 plate appearances). That's quite the in-season turnaround, going from the worst hitter in baseball the first month of the season to one of the very best the last month.
"I had to make a little adjustment to shorten the swing," Upton told DiGiovanna. "I think with my timing being off, I was just under a lot of baseballs and under a lot of pitches, and that never goes well ... I finally came to the conclusion that it's timing and finding the top of the baseball was a key for me."
Alas, Upton's hot streak has come too late to save the Angels' season. He is under contract another two years though, and even with organizational changes expected this winter, Upton is a safe bet to remain with the team in 2021. To get back to the postseason, the Halos need him to be a reliable middle of the order bat, something he's been most of his career and especially of late. They need this late-season hot streak to carry over to next year.
Buxton's increased aggressiveness
Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton is on the short list of the most exciting players in the game. He's a freak athlete with outrageous speed, Platinum Glove level defense, and sneaky huge power. Buxton has 13 home runs this season and they've averaged 409 feet, tied with Freddie Freeman and Kyle Schwarber for 16th longest among the 56 players with at least 10 homers.
The long homers are cool but I think the walk-off infield singles are much more exciting. Buxton gives you both:
Beyond the speed and defense and long dingers, there's another part of Buxton's game that stands out: his walks, or the lack thereof. Buxton has drawn two walks in 123 plate appearances this season. His 1.6 percent percent walk rate is easily the lowest among the 279 players with at least 100 plate appearances this season.
The lack of walks mean Buxton's solid .268 batting average and stellar .610 slugging percentage come with a ghastly .276 on-base percentage. A .276 on-base percentage is objectively bad. It is. From 2015-19, Buxton posted a 6.5 percent walk rate that was comfortably below league average but not low enough to rank near the bottom of the league. This year his walk rate has cratered.
Plate discipline and on-base percentage became mainstream when Moneyball was published in 2003 but can still be misunderstood. Walks are not the goal. They are a byproduct. For a disciplined hitter, the goal is putting yourself in position to get a good pitch to hit, and if nothing comes, you take the walk. The goal is to drive hittable pitches, first and foremost.
To that end, Buxton's lack of walks comes with a corresponding increase in swing rate, especially against pitches in the strike zone. The league average hitter swings at 64.6 percent of pitches in the strike zone. Buxton's swing rate on pitches in the zone has gone from 61.5 percent to 63.4 percent to 67.0 percent to 73.0 percent to 76.4 percent to 80.7 percent from 2015-20.
Buxton is drawing fewer walks in part because he's more aggressively attacking pitches in the strike zone. Taking fewer pitches equals fewer opportunities to draw walks. Buxton is also swinging at more pitches out of the zone this year -- his 50.9 percent chase rate is second highest in baseball -- though that's an outlier compared to the rest of his career. His chase rate hovered in the 32-39 percent range prior to 2020, which is fairly normal.
More swings at pitches in the zone equals fewer walks and it also equals fewer strikeouts. From 2015-18, Buxton struck out in nearly one-third of his plate appearances (31.7 percent to be exact). This season he's cut his strikeout rate down to 24.4 percent, which is more or less league average. Given his power and speed, more contact equals more damage and more excitement.
Surely there is a middle ground somewhere. A middle ground between being aggressive in the strike zone and a sub-2.0 percent walk rate. It is unlikely Buxton will ever be a high on-base player, but an on-base percentage in, say, the .310s or .320s is preferable to one in the .270s. He is still only 26 and gaining experience though, so maybe finding that balance is the next step. For now, Buxton is providing huge impact for the postseason bound Twins, even if he's rarely taking walks.