There’s no way the Royals knew what was still to come from José Martinez when they gave him away to the Cardinals in exchange for cash considerations in May 2016. If they had known this career minor leaguer would carry a .320/.394/.523 batting line into his 400th MLB plate appearance not even two short years later, it’s safe to say they never would have made the deal.
The Cardinals lost the 1985 World Series to the Royals in seven games following one of the worst blown calls in sports history in Game 6; might this, perhaps, be an appropriate payback? Can we clear the ledger yet?
For fans of a certain age, the sting of that stolen World Series will probably never heal, but if the baseball universe abides by karma, José Martinez very well could be that long awaited reparation for what Denkinger did those many years ago. Because while the Royals are plugging their Eric Hosmer-sized hole at first base with Lucas Duda, the Cardinals appear more than content to roll with Martinez at the most important offensive position there is on a National League team.
Batting third in the St. Louis lineup Friday, Martinez rapped another three hits, including a double, an RBI and a run scored, as the Cardinals beat the Reds 4-2 at Busch Stadium. It's more of the same from Martinez, who started hitting when St. Louis called him up in September 2016. He hasn't stopped since.
Still, the addition of Marcell Ozuna meant the 2018 outfield was pretty well set without Martinez, who had spent the majority of his career as an outfielder. If he planned to keep doing that hitting thing, though, the Cardinals would have to find a spot for him. But handing him the reins to first base, the biggest power position on the diamond? Could he really put up the kind of numbers to justify that?
The Cardinals’ inability to find a long-term answer at first base since the departure of Albert Pujols has been much maligned, and for good reason. In 2017, St. Louis ranked 8th of 15 NL teams in OPS by first basemen. All five NL teams to reach the playoffs got better production from the position, as did the Reds and Braves thanks to Joey Votto and Freddie Freeman, respectively.
Without a DH in play, successful NL teams typically rely on a big bopper to produce at first. For postseason contenders, that’s where your All-Stars, your MVP candidates tend to reside. The Cardinals haven’t really had much in the way of MVP candidates in recent years. That’s no coincidence.
But then there’s José Martinez.
It’s a little early to be talking about Martinez in the MVP context, but his name involved in such conversations would be well deserved if he keeps this up. After Friday, Martinez is slashing .358/.443/.567 as he continues to rake regardless of the circumstances.
“He can hit,” Mike Matheny said Friday. “I keep saying it. I say it on the bench as soon as he smashes a ball. He killed that ball to left field. That ball… Somebody usually tells me what we had, ball off bat, but that ball was hit. He finds a way to get it done. Early on, he did that to them over at their place too, man in scoring position, he fists a ball over the infield, kind of finds a way to get it done. He’s a tough out.
“I think everybody’s seeing firsthand, people that haven’t been paying attention around the league are realizing this guy’s legit.”
Matheny was onto something when he implied someone might should have relayed the exit velocity of that Martinez hit his way. Luckily, we can look it up after the fact to find that the RBI double was rifled into left-center field with an exit velocity of 109.9 mph, per Statcast. Martinez later had a single to center that registered over 105 mph off the bat. And as Matheny also mentioned, a bloop hit Martinez fisted into right field was key to the Cardinals three-run first inning, as well.
Regardless of the situation, José Martinez is simply a hitter. Though he struck out once Friday, that’s only happened to him seven times this season. He’s a rare breed in 2018; in an era of baseball when guys openly admit they aren’t worried about collecting Ks, Martinez is determined to get some wood on the ball with two strikes. And it’s refreshing. After all, why strike out when you can put the ball in play and try to make something happen?
“It’s just a matter of staying in the same routine, the same mentality,” Martinez said. “Stay positive in every at-bat. Trust and do whatever you can do when you plan. Everything’s working. They’re over there trying to make pitches, and I’m going to go over there and try to put the ball in play. I think nothing more, nothing less. Just go out there and try to put the ball in play. Find some holes. If it’s a homer, if it’s a double, whatever, I think it’s going to be good because I am going to be on base.”
He gets it. Get on base, and good things tend to happen for the team. Perhaps his affinity for OBP is what led Martinez to tease that “it’s boring to hit when nobody’s on base,” after Friday’s win. How can you blame him? Martinez just wants everyone in on the fun-he’s certainly having plenty of it, as Friday’s effort raised his OBP to that remarkable .443 mark for the year.
And those production rankings among first baseman so far this season? Talk about a different story: Cardinals’ first basemen rank 2nd in MLB in OPS so far this season (1.013). Thanks, José.
The Cardinals may have found their first baseman. And all it took was floating a little cash west on I-70.