Can J.D. Martinez Ride MLB-Best HR Pace to $200 Million Megadeal?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 14, 2017

Arizona Diamondbacks' J.D. Martinez smiles as he runs back to the dugout after hitting his fourth home run of the game in the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Monday, Sept. 4, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

'Tis the season for holiday wish lists. Little boys and girls wish for the hottest new toys. Bigger boys and girls wish for a little peace and quiet.

J.D. Martinez, meanwhile, wishes for $200 million.

Or, at least, that's what mega-agent Scott Boras is wishing for on Martinez's behalf. This is according to ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick:

Jerry Crasnick @jcrasnick

Teams that have reached out early on J.D. Martinez have gotten the impression Scott Boras is looking for something in the $200 million range.

After a 2017 season in which Martinez, 30, tallied a 1.066 OPS and 45 home runs for the Detroit Tigers and Arizona Diamondbacks, he's certainly in a position to aim high for his first big free-agent payday. Boras is just the guy to aim high for him, not to mention just the guy to sell him in appropriately glowing terms.

Take it from Boras himself, who channeled his inner Leonard Maltin in sharing his thoughts on Martinez with Jon Morosi of MLB.com:

Jon Morosi @jonmorosi

Scott Boras told me if J.D. Martinez’s free agency were a major motion picture, it would be called “King Kong of Slug.” His explanation: Martinez’s .690 slugging percentage was more than 50 points higher than anyone else in @MLB this year.

Beyond the slugging-percentage crown, Boras can also argue that his client was actually the best home run hitter of 2017.

Giancarlo Stanton (59) and Aaron Judge (52) may have hit more total homers, but Martinez hit his at a higher rate. He launched his 45 homers in only 489 plate appearances. Thus did 9.2 percent of his trips to the plate end in a long ball, the highest of any player who logged at least 400 plate appearances.

PlayerTotal HRHR%
J.D. Martinez459.2
Giancarlo Stanton598.5
Joey Gallo417.7
Aaron Judge527.7
Cody Bellinger397.1

Another thing that helps Boras' cause is that Martinez was barred from receiving a qualifying offer when he was traded from Detroit to Arizona in July. Because of that, he isn't tied to draft-pick compensation.

Of course, there's a world of difference between seeking $200 million and actually getting it.

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My projections have Martinez pegged for a five-year contract worth $145 million. That's roughly where other prognosticators—e.g. MLB Trade Rumors and FanRag Sports—have him ending up. Ditto MLB executives surveyed by Crasnick.

The reasons to take the $200 million idea seriously, however, are twofold: Neither the willingness of teams to spend big bucks in free agency nor Boras' determination to acquire said big bucks should ever be underestimated.

Most valuations of Martinez see him as a $25-million-per-year player. That's not an outrageous number by the standards of MLB free agency. Boras can aim to push that number higher while seeking a seven-year contract that would take the total value near or over $200 million. 

Signing Martinez for seven years is a stretch, given his age, but not too far of a leap. Just since 2010, Matt Holliday, Jayson Werth, Albert Pujols, Jacoby Ellsbury, Robinson Cano, Shin-Soo Choo and Chris Davis all got seven-year deals that started in their 30s. Boras secured five of those.

Each of those players was a well-established star at the time. The same is true of Martinez now. His 2017 season was the latest stop in a run of success that began when he emerged with a revamped swing in 2014. He's averaged a .936 OPS and 32 homers over the last four seasons.

PHOENIX, AZ - SEPTEMBER 27:  J.D. Martinez #28 of the Arizona Diamondbacks hits a solo home run in the ninth inning of the MLB game against the San Francisco Giants at Chase Field on September 27, 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Gett
Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Perhaps emboldened by a juiced ball, modern hitters aim to keep the ball off the ground and hit it as hard as they can. Martinez handles both but is particularly good at the latter. Since 2015, his average fly ball exit velocity of 96 miles per hour is tied for fifth among qualified hitters.

However, this is also where Martinez's $200 million dream begins to crack.

The best equation for a big-money contract is one in which a player with specific skills meets a market with a widespread need for his specific skills. Unfortunately for Boras, he's tasked with selling Martinez's power at a time when power is everywhere.

The 2017 season set a new all-time mark for home runs, with 3.3 percent of all plate appearances producing a long ball. The 5.9-percentage point gap between Martinez's home run rate and the league's home run rate is big, but below the biggest gaps (notably 8.1 percent by Barry Bonds in 2001 and Babe Ruth in 1920) ever recorded by 40-homer sluggers.

Granted, extreme environments aren't necessarily guaranteed to hurt players with extreme skills. A good example would be pitching aces Jon Lester and Max Scherzer getting $155 million and $210 million, respectively, following a 2014 season that was the best year for starting pitchers in decades.

But Lester and Scherzer didn't just boast talent. They also boasted durability and reliability, two things that are becoming less common even as pitching dominance is becoming more common.

As it happens, durability and reliability are two areas where Martinez falls short.

Injuries have limited him to 239 games over the last two seasons. In the meantime, his usefulness outside the batter's box is diminishing. Whether one consults defensive runs saved or ultimate zone rating at FanGraphs, or Statcast's catch probability metric, there's no avoiding the conclusion that he's been a well-below-average fielder since 2016.

Martinez isn't without red flags, even within the batter's box. It's good that he's steadily adding patience to go with his power, as his walk rate is trending further above average. But it's not really helping to fix his strikeout rate, which is stuck too high.

These things suggest that Martinez is far from a foolproof long-term investment. Maybe that won't hurt his average annual value, but it should create a big gap in the contract years that Boras is seeking versus the contract years that teams are willing to dish out.

Lastly, the elephant in the room is the Plan B that Martinez suitors can turn to: Stanton.

Acquiring him and the $295 million remaining on his contract in a trade with the Miami Marlins would be costly, to say the least. But relative to Martinez, a fellow right fielder, it would mean getting an equally powerful hitter who's also younger and more athletic. This is a route that some of the top suitors for Martinez—such as the Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants—can afford to go.

Not all the stars are aligned for Boras to bag a $200 million deal for Martinez this winter. A much more likely scenario is him starting there, teams countering much lower, and then, eventually, a meeting in the middle.


Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Contract data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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