Fired-up J.D. Martinez knows what's plaguing baseball, and it's not launch angle

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John Tomase
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Tomase: Martinez knows what's plaguing baseball, and it's not launch angle originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Rallies in baseball have gone the way of men's tennis, all power on power and over in an instant. Many of us blame the launch angle revolution for an approach that prioritizes home runs at the expense of being a complete hitter.

J.D. Martinez vehemently disputes this characterization and on Friday made an impassioned case to lay the blame where he thinks it belongs -- on the overhaul of the way teams evaluate pitching.

"This is a stuff over command league," he said, and not kindly.

As a proponent of launch angle -- and one of its most successful practitioners -- it's easy to understand why Martinez gets his back up about the subject. He transformed himself from a bust who was released by the Astros in 2014 into one of the most feared sluggers in the game, but that right there is the start of the problem.

"I'm not a slugger," he said. "I don't consider myself a slugger, I consider myself a hitter that can drive the ball. I think a lot of guys kind of have that same identity here. You know a lot of guys believe in that.  We don't have any guys who are just up there swinging for the fences. I think that's' a tough way to produce runs on a consistent basis. You're pretty much depending on longballs. To me, I'm a firm believer in it. I think you've got to be a hitter before you're a slugger."

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Martinez is living that approach as one of baseball's hottest hitters. He's batting .361 with a league-leading six homers and 20 RBIs, as well as a Bonds-esque OPS of 1.147.

There was a time when pitchers worked at or below the knees, because anything above the belt would be hit a mile, especially during the Steroid Era. Throwing sinkers allowed Rick Porcello to win a Cy Young Award as recently as 2016, but the launch-angle approach was already changing the game and turning low-ball hitters into sluggers, so teams began prioritizing pitchers who could throw fastballs up in the zone, which helps explain why Porcello remains a free agent at age 32.

The way Martinez sees it, the changes that began to take place on the pitching side have since far outstripped any hitting approaches when it comes to limiting offense, because the cycle of the game is hitting reacting to pitching.

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"A lot of people are very quick to blame launch angle, oh, the launch angle is ruining baseball, but I don't think that has anything to do with anything," he said. "I think media needs to dive in into how the league has changed. How pitchers have pitched differently in the last couple years."

Martinez lays the blame at the feet of technology, particularly the Trackman system in virtually every ballpark that uses Doppler radar to measure -- among other things -- location, spin rates, and horizontal and vertical break, giving teams a new trove of data with which to evaluate their hurlers, and in the process revolutionizing the game.

The Astros, unsurprisingly, ushered in this new era in 2017, and now pretty much every team has caught up.

The Red Sox used nontraditional information, for instance, to target right-hander Garrett Richards in free agency this winter, thanks to elite spin rates on both his fastball and curveball. They similarly trusted the data on soft-throwing left-hander Martin Perez, who limits exit velocity.

Martinez sees a problem in the type of huge arms now dotting every staff. They throw upper-90s fastballs atop the zone and some kind of breaking ball down, but they don't necessarily command with pinpoint precision.

"Everyone's based off Trackman," he said. "Everyone, literally, they look at their stuff and every team around the league goes, 'All right guys, who spins the ball the most and who throws the hardest?' And they have a little computer that tells them that, and they look at it and it shows them it and they go, 'OK, this guy has the best spin, and he has the most life, you throw the ball as hard as you can up here, and then throw a breaking ball down there.' And that's the whole league."

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Martinez was just getting started.

"And you know everyone's so quick to blame the whole launch angle revolution," he said. "You want to say, 'Everyone's up there trying to swing for the fences and drive home runs and nobody's a hitter anymore and putting the ball in play.' But I think what people don't understand is, this is a stuff over command league nowadays. It's guys that throw 100 miles an hour, you see it every day, every team. I mean when I was coming up, there was one guy in the league that threw 100 and it was (Aroldis) Chapman. Now there's two guys on every team that throw 100.

"They go, 'Here's my best ball, you hit it, if you don't hit it, I'll walk you, or I'll strike you out.' So what do you have? Now you have a league that's a home run, a strikeout or a walk. I think that's where everyone needs to start focusing their attention, instead of that whole launch angle revolution thing, because I think it's just, I think it's dumb."