The Red Sox should consider trying J.D. Martinez at first base
Photos courtesy of Zimbio.com: (Aug. 19, 2017 – Source: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images North America)
This is certainly the most subjective thing I have written on this blog. I do not have substantive quantitive analysis to support this question. I am quite simply posing an inquiry which has been nagging me since the Boston Red Sox signed J.D. Martinez. Can the career-outfielder play first base?
When this first came into my brain, I buried the thought. The answer to the question lied beyond statistical deduction. It seemed futile to spend valuable time thinking about. Days went by and I was untroubled by the burden until, of course, came this concerning Tweet.
Martinez said “part of the deal” is playing the OF with DH “at times.” We’ll see how that works. pic.twitter.com/mygW6fJNU2
— Pete Abraham (@PeteAbe) February 26, 2018
This is when I really got curious about it. From my interpretation, Martinez wants to play the field, specifically in the outfield. He is the perfect fit for designated hitter but choosing the words “at times” implies it is probably not his preference. Considering his leverage and the additional time it took to negotiate the intricacies of the contract, perhaps playing the outfield was a demand of his.
Again, speculation. Stupid, subjective speculation. This, however, is not speculation: J.D. Martinez should not be an outfielder for the Red Sox.
Among outfielders last year, Martinez posted the fifth-worst UZR (ultimate zone rating) in baseball at -7.7 and his -5 DRS (defensive runs saved) did notaspire much confidence either. For those who wish to know more about UZR and DRS, you can click on the respective acronym in this sentence and they will take you to their Fangraphs’ library page for more comprehensive details. Basically, below is what you need to know, via Fangraphs.
This isn’t the right place to debate DRS versus another similar metric, but you should use a metric like DRS or UZR because it is a better representation of defensive value than something like fielding percentage.
Now that we hopefully have a better understanding of the stats I am referencing, let’s look at where Martinez places among outfielders in the same categories over the course of two years (2016-2017). Among qualifiers, his -25.0 UZR is the worst in baseball and his -27 DRS is fourth-worst. Regardless of the objective fielding measures used, there is an indisputable agreement that Martinez is a really bad outfielder.
For this reason alone, he should not be put in the outfield but this reason is just as, if not more, important. Basically, the Red Sox have three terrific outfielders in Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi. In order for the newly-acquired Martinez to play the outfield, he would obviously have to displace one of them.
For an occasional rest day, sure that is fine. What is not fine is the practice of Benintendi or Bradley appearing in the lineup 50+ times as a DH. These are two quality defensive outfielders and the team is at its best when Martinez sticks to hitting and the Killer B’s are playing on both sides of the diamond. This is irrefutable. They probably do not have a binding agreement that Martinez has to play the outfield but to maintain goodwill with the player you just spent $110 million on, there likely has to be some sort of concession being made on the Red Sox’ part.
I do not even know if Martinez would consider trying first base. As far as I can tell, he has played two games in his professional career, both of which came in 2009 between Rookie Ball and low-A with the Houston Astros organization. Two games is better than none, though!
Further, we cannot even be sure playing first base would satisfy Martinez’s desires to be a defensive contributor (liability). So, for the rest of this post let’s pretend it would.
You can hide a defensive liability at first base much easier than at a corner outfield position. The Fangraphs positional adjustment for a first baseman is -12.5, compared to -7.5 for a corner outfielder.
It is probably logical to assume he would not become a Gold Glove-caliber defensive first basemen but maybe he could better than he was as a corner outfielder? That is really unfounded in objectivity. Truthfully, it is impossible to tell how his defense would translate to an entirely new position.
We did, however, witness fellow Red Sox Hanley Ramirez go through the same positional change and it has nor been a total disaster. He is certainly better suited as a first baseman than as an outfielder. No one would disagree with that. Ramirez is also probably going to be a free agent after this season. With him gone, Martinez having the ability to play first would allow increased roster flexibility for the Sox. There is obvious value in that.
Anyway, it would be a lot less controversial if Martinez were to supplant Hanley Ramirez or Mitch Moreland from the field and/or lineup. They are simply not even remotely close in value as Bradley Jr., Betts and Benintendi are. If it takes Martinez taking away at-bats and fielding chances from Moreland in order to be satisfied, I am willing to bet most Red Sox fans would be okay with that tradeoff.
We have watched new Red Sox manager Alex Cora tinker with positional changes this spring training. Blake Swihart is playing games at first and Tzu-Wei Lin at center. Admittedly, both have had some minor league experience at these respective positions before the spring. Everyone has to start somewhere, though.
Martinez will have a lot on his mind when he suits up for spring games next week, adjusting to the rigors of a new season and a new team. Learning a whole new position on top of that would be asking quite a lot. With that said, this probably should be something Boston considers if J.D. Martinez is adamant about playing the field.
We have no clue if he would even be open to the idea. We also have no clue if Boston has already exchanged dialogue with him about this. That could have realistically already happened.
If he were willing, though, it seems pretty apparent that the Red Sox should carry out the experiment. Jackie Bradley Jr., Andrew Benintendi and Mookie Betts should not lose playing time to Martinez so he can hurt them with his defensive ineptitude. Meanwhile, designated hitter is literally open and available for him.
In a perfect world, Martinez would be content being the Red Sox regular designated hitter. We do not live in a perfect world and sacrifices may have to be made. Those sacrifices would be much less sacrificial if the 30-year-old was willing to play first base. Positional changes are seemingly becoming more mainstream and J.D. Martinez converting to first makes a whole lot of sense.