There are no simple answers to the questions about the Cubs’ inconsistent offensive performance, though one blunt solution came when they relieved Chili Davis of his duties as hitting coach. More than just the results the Cubs achieved under Davis, many pointed to the results the Red Sox achieved without him. As impossible as that truth is to summarily ignore, there’s another notable factor here.
The Red Sox didn’t have JD Martinez last season.
Joe Buck commented during Game 1 of the World Series that Boston’s decreased emphasis on launch angle made them a more potent offense than LA, at least in terms of how John Smoltz would be able to attack the two teams. Never mind how strange that sounds just considering Davis leaving and Martinez arriving — and the Dodgers’ incredibly solid lineup — it’s far too simplistic a view of what launch angle is really all about.
Hitters have embraced the idea that their best production is going to come through the air, which leads to the distillation of a big concept into a simple narrative broadcasters can pre-chew for their audience. Although to give some credit to Buck and his colleagues, there are some hitters who go up throwing haymakers with little desire or ability to fit their approach to the situation at hand.
I don’t care if you’re Jack Cust or Ronda Rousey, being unable to adjust and adapt is going to leave you over-exposed before long. Martinez, though, is a thinking man’s slugger who reinvented his career and became an elite power hitter by remaking his swing to blast the ball.
“People talk to me and I tell them straight up. I don’t bull—-,” Martinez told FanGraphs’ Travis Sawchik back in March of 2017. “In the cage, I talk about it all the time. I’m not trying to hit a f—ing line drive or a freaking ground ball. I’m trying to hit the ball in the air. I feel like the ball in the air is my strength and has a chance to go anywhere in the park. So why am I trying to hit a ground ball? That’s what I believe in.”
Martinez knew then what everyone seems to be talking about now, which is that pitchers were going to combat the strategy he and other similar practitioners were employing by going with more high fastballs. While he won’t share exactly what countermeasures he used this season, the stats tell you they worked. Despite a slugging percentage that dipped from .690 to .629, his wOBA dipped by a mere three points (.430 to .427) and his wRC+ actually went up by three (167 to 170).
Nowhere was his malleable approach more evident than in Game 2 of the World Series, when he dug in with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the 5th inning of a tie game. Ryan Madson’s first offering was a fastball middle-in, way in, that Martinez took for a ball. The next pitch was a good one, probably would have beaten a lesser hitter. And if you ask Madson, he’ll tell you it beat Martinez.
But ask anybody watching and all they saw was the two-run single Martinez inside-outed to right to give the Sox their winning margin.
“I said, this is the time,” Martinez told The Athletic’s Chad Jennings after the game (subscription). “I said, trust your eyes. Go up there and trust your eyes, and if it’s a ball, it’s a ball, but don’t go up there being passive.”
Some of that echoes the same message Davis and Joe Maddon preached heading into the season: Take what the pitcher gives you, hit the homers you’re capable of hitting, but be aware of the situation above all. So how is it that Martinez is 9-for-12 with 20 RBI with bases loaded this season and Cubs fans frequently lament the team’s inability to hit with runners in scoring position? How has he hit .583 with a 1.208 OPS in bases-loaded situations over the past two seasons (per Jennings article)?
It’s because, simply put, he looks at each plate appearance as a fight he intends to win by any means necessary. To be sure, his goal is to put the ball in the air and he’s not going to abandon what got him to this point. At the same time, he’s not so inextricably bound to a static approach that a pitcher can simply beat him by going up or in.
Martinez is also more than willing to share his secrets…unless you’re a journalist. He’s an extra hitting coach in the clubhouse, someone who understands and can verbalize the science of hitting in a manner reminiscent of a Red Sox legend whose observations laid the foundation for what today’s hitters are coming around to. Ted Williams knew a little something about hitting the ball hard and hitting it in the air, Martinez is one of the standard bearers of those teachings.
More than just pressing play and letting your swing do it’s thing, it’s about adjusting your approach mid-game or even mid-AB, something the Cubs appeared to be lacking. Or perhaps it’s more fair to say they weren’t always confident enough in their own individual approaches, that they were passive far too often. Kyle Schwarber taking called third strikes, anyone?
The Cubs can’t bring JD Martinez to Chicago next season, but finding a way to import or mimic his mentality would surely yield results similar to those the Red Sox experienced this season. When you get a guy like that who knows his stuff and then goes out and shows you how well it works, who is passionate about his craft, it’s infectious. So how do Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer make that happen?
Anthony Iapoce is a nice first step, what with his high energy and win-every-pitch approach to coaching. A healthy Kris Bryant will factor heavily as well, since having him injured or absent most of the season put a serious cramp in the Cubs’ power game. It’s also possible that being caught between philosophies hampered some young hitters’ ability to go up to plate feeling loose and confident.
Trust your eyes. Don’t go up there being passive. Sounds simple, huh? That’s because it is, though simple doesn’t mean easy. Maybe it’s bringing in their own uber-confident superstar this winter. Maybe it’s a greater sense of urgency from the top down. Whatever the case, the Cubs should see themselves playing deep into October once more if they’re able to copy that Martinez mentality.