Opinion

Is Jeremy Barfield the next J.D. Martinez?

Jeremy Barfield has completely changed his batted ball profile

Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (Feb. 19, 2018 – Source: Elsa/Getty Images North America)

The casual Red Sox may not have heard of him. I wouldn’t blame you if you haven’t. The 10-year minor leaguer hasn’t done anything spectacular in the big leagues. He only has played three spring training games for Boston, going 2 for 7 with a home run. Spring training statistics are usually worthless indicators of future success, let alone seven at-bats. So, why is the title of this post mentioning Jeremy Barfield in the same breath as the newly-acquired J.D. Martinez? The comparison is made when we remind ourselves of how Martinez became who he is today.

Have you heard about the fly ball revolution in baseball? How about the major swing changes undergone by players like Jose Bautista, Daniel Murphy, Justin Turner and, obviously, J.D. Martinez to resurrect their playing careers? You probably have. If you need a refresher, let’s talk about what the newest Red Sox did to become a $100 million man.

The year is 2013 and his third straight season with the Astros has come to a finish. He has  compiled a -2.2 fWAR in the last two years, posting offensive numbers very much below league-average. He is on his way out, the upper-levels of the minors seemingly his likely destination for the foreseeable future, unless something drastic were to change. Of course, something drastic did change. The right-handed slugger completely revamped his swing, the one he had been accustomed to for years.

Here’s a quote courtesy of Martinez, himself, about his new swing from Eno Sarris’ piece titled “J.D. Martinez on His Many Adjustments” on Fangraphs.com:

“The new swing almost feels like an uppercut. Hands drop down to the zone instead of coming up before the pitch.

“I had to change my step because it was kind of causing me to do other things. When I figured out how I wanted my path to work, I had to be in the zone as long as possible. If I get my foot down earlier, I’m going to send the bat earlier.

“I have my hands so high, they have to come back down. If I bring my hands down a little more, I can be more into that slot that I need to be. Trickle effect. You fix one thing, it’s a ripple effect. You have to fix other things so that things line up.

Most people are aware of Martinez’s conspicuous adjustments with his swing because it led to such improved results. He may have not taken the same path as players in the “legion of launch angle” — pretty rad name, right? — but he nevertheless transformed himself through major changes with his swing.

Circling back to the “legion of launch angle” or the “fly ball revolution,” players such as Justin Turner, Daniel Murphy and Jay Bruce have completely changed their batted ball profile. In other words, their focus has been on hitting the ball in the air, instead of on the ground, leading to more fly balls and less ground balls. This strategy has worked to their favor, increasing their offensive productions.

Jeremy Barfield may be trying to be one of those guys. Now, this isn’t confirmed. I’ve never talked to Barfield in my life. In fact, I didn’t know he existed until maybe a week ago. What I do know is something changed in his batted ball profile and it, too, was something drastic.

Last season, Barfield burst onto the scene with his production in Double-A Portland. In 384 plate appearances, the career minor-leaguer blasted 27 homers with a robust .288 AVG/.355 OBP/.584 SLG clip, translating into a 157 wRC+. To put it another way, his offensive production was 57% above league-average.

Now, if it hasn’t been previously established, the outfielder has a lot of seasons (data) in the minors. He has partial and full seasons in the minors. He also has a partial stint as a pitcher but you can read about that in many other articles. Anyway, this was the highest wRC+ in his career, outside of the really partial season he had in Triple-A Pawtucket last year (15 plate appearances). Basically, before last season, he was an average-to-below-average minor league hitter, which is certainly far from the 57% above-average hitter we saw in ’17.

It’s simplistic and easy to ascribe it as luck, an aberration that was perhaps inevitable. With that said, to hit as well as he did last year, coupled with a complete shift in his batted ball profile, leads me to believe there is something new to Barfield, something potentially impactful at the major league level.

What I have below is a table. It’s a table that perhaps tells a story. Within it, I have Barfield’s seasons in which he compiled at least 150 plate appearances at a specific level. Pay close attention to the ground ball and fly ball percentages, especially the discrepancy between his 2017 season to the rest of his minor league career.

Season PA GB% FB% wRC+  Pull%
2008 (A-) 281 51.5% 32.0% 99  43.3%
2009 (A) 460 46.9% 36.8% 108  46.5%
2010 (A+) 578 50.4% 38.7% 96  49.7%
2011 (AA) 547 46.1% 34.9% 88  54.4%
2012 (AA) 528 49.7% 37.4% 103  52.1%
2014 (AA) 173 41.6% 32.7% 131  42.2%
2017 (AA) 384 27.6% 52.0% 157  57.0%

Barfield did not accumulate a viable sample size at a level in 2015 to appear on this table and did not play at all in 2016. Whatever happened in between, must have been a good thing. We are not just talking about a minor change in batted ball outcomes, here. This is significant. He essentially went from hitting ground balls upwards of 40% of the time to  literally under 30% in ’17.

For purely referential purposes, if his stats qualified last year at the MLB level, he would have had the second-highest fly ball percentage in the league and the second-lowest ground ball percentage in the league. Joey Gallo would have been the only one to best him in the FB% category (54.2%) and Matt Carpenter in the GB% category (26.9%). Unfortunately, he did not do this in the majors, otherwise we would be talking about one of the best hitters in the game right now.

He also would have had the highest percentage of balls hit to the pull side by far. His 57.0% is quite a stretch from the league-leading 51.6 Pull% Gary Sanchez compiled in 2017.

His batted ball profile was extreme. Like, really extreme. More extreme than I thought when this post started.

Something has changed. I don’t know how to get launch angle data for minor league players (I’m pretty sure it doesn’t even exist) but I think it is probably safe to assert his launch angle has increased. The ball is going in the air, the pull side specifically, at an insane rate, especially relative to what he was. If this MLB thing works out, which is far from a guarantee, he may be the best success story of the “legion of launch angle.”

Can his assumed swing change transform him into a quality big-league hitter like it did with J.D. Martinez? The odds are stacked against him. When Martinez underwent his swing-change journey, he already had three seasons of MLB experience. Plus, he was a lot younger than Barfield, who will turn 30 halfway through the season.

Regardless, Barfield has altered his approach and it has corresponded with significantly better results. Further, it will be harder to have the opportunity to breakout with the Red Sox than, say, the Marlins because they have so many All-Star caliber outfielders at present.

I can’t lie to you, though. We are less than a week into spring training and I am already rooting damn hard for Jeremy Barfield.

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