State of the Sox: Designated Hitter
Over the next ten days I will be posting an overview of every position on the Red Sox. Today we will be looking at designated hitter. Read the others here: First base, Second Base, Third base, Shortstop, Left Field, Center Field, Right Field, Catcher
Designated hitter in 2019:
Designated hitter was a very productive position for the Red Sox in 2019, primarily due to the bat of J.D. Martinez. Martinez compiled 485 plate appearances as DH in 2019, and was once again one of the best offensive players in baseball. He hit .304 with a .383 on-base percentage, a .557 slugging percentage, and a .939 OPS. He launched 36 homers to go along with 33 doubles and had a 139 wRC+. He was the main reason why Boston designated hitters were worth 2.4 bWAR, good for 6th in baseball.
Depth chart for 2020:
Martinez opted into the third year of his contract, meaning he will once again be the team’s DH in 2020. As always, many players will slot in at DH at one point or another throughout the season, either to give them a little bit of rest or to ease them back into the lineup as they return from injury. Martinez is, however, the only player on the Sox for whom DH is his primary position. Barring injury, DH for the Sox in 2020 will be mostly Martinez, with many other players getting a small number of at bats at the position.
How designated hitter can be better than 2019:
Despite his fantastic numbers last year, Martinez actually had his worst season since 2016. His average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, wRC+, and home run total were all lower in 2019 than in 2018, and his slugging percentage, OPS, wRC+, and homer total were lower in 2019 than in 2017. This is not a trend that we will necessarily see continue in 2020. He set a career high in walk rate and career lows in strike out rate and soft-hit rate in 2019. His rates of line drives, fly balls, and ground balls were almost identical to 2018. There are two statistics that seemingly explain his slight dip. In 2017, 33.8%(!!!) of Martinez’s fly balls carried over the wall for a home run. In 2018, it was 29.5%. Last season, it dropped to 23.4%. This looks to be something of an anomaly, as Martinez had fewer soft-hit balls and more hard-hit balls in 2019 than he did the previous season. Furthermore, Martinez had a .342 BABIP in 2019, down from .375 in 2018. A .375 BABIP is otherworldly and almost definitely unsustainable, but the drop in BABIP does provide evidence that the decline in Martinez’s offensive statistics does not in any way demonstrate a decline in Martinez’s offensive abilities. If Martinez can replicate his batted-ball profile from last season and get slightly luckier with regards to how many of his fly balls carry out of the yard, it is easy to see him having an even better season in 2020 than 2019.
How designated can be worse than 2019:
It is also possible to envision the DH position being less productive in 2020 than it was in 2019. Obviously, Martinez could get hurt for an extended period of time, which would almost inevitable lead to a steep decline in production from the position. Additionally, Martinez may have had a slightly less awesome season in 2019 than either of his other two seasons, but he was still one of the greatest hitters in baseball. It should come as a surprise to nobody that a player may have a slightly worse season than .304 with 36 home runs. Martinez should not be expected to see a decline in ability in 2020, but it is possible that he might have a slightly less prolific season due simply to the random variation of baseball.
I think that J.D. Martinez will be essentially the same hitter that he has been for the past several seasons. His batting average should be somewhere around .300 or slightly higher, and he should hit anywhere from 35 to 45 home runs. The production the Sox get from whoever else fills in at DH on occasion is extremely difficult to project, as so much of who plays DH depends upon who needs rest and who is coming back from injury, but as long as he stays healthy, Martinez will once again be a fixture in the middle of Boston’s lineup and will provide the Sox with fantastic production out of the designated hitter position.