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St. Louis Cardinals: The curious rise of Jose Martinez

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Martinez is off to a hot start in 2018, hoping to show his 2017 breakout was for real.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at New York Mets Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when Jose Martinez was a Top 100 prospect? Heck, you will get bonus points if you remember a time when he was in his own organization’s Top 20.

The simple fact is that the journeyman minor leaguer was not on many if any, prospect lists throughout his 11-year MiLB career. But after a breakout in his age-29 season, the St. Louis Cardinals may have found themselves yet another diamond in the rough.

Martinez was signed by the Chicago White Sox out of Venezuela way back in 2006. After a few seasons in the Venezuelan Winter Leagues and Rookie ball, Martinez broke out with Kannapolis in his first taste of full-season ball in 2008. He hit .306 with a nice .359 on-base percentage as a 19-year-old in his 39-game debut.

That’s where Martinez’s story nearly ended. He blew out the meniscus in his knee so badly surgery was not enough to repair it. Instead, he needed a menisci transplant and sought to be the first baseball player to ever come back and resume a career after an injury like that.

And he has.

Martinez missed the 2009 season and then quickly became a man of many hats. He made a stop with the Atlanta Braves in 2013 before heading to the Kansas City Royals in 2015. In May, the Royals traded Martinez to the Cardinals for cash and by September, he made his big-league debut at the ripe age of 28.

He hit .438 in his 12-game debut. While that is nice, it was his 2017 breakout that put him on the map. Martinez slashed .309/.379/.518 in his 106-game debut, adding 13 doubles and 14 home runs to his resume. He even went a perfect 4-for-4 on the base paths. In his first extended look at Major League pitching, he walked 10.4 percent of the time and struck out 19.5 percent of the time, a hardly worrisome number from someone many did not even know if he would hit at all.

Martinez switched from the typical jack-of-all-trades (he played first, left and right field last season) to the everyday first baseman for the 2018 Cardinals. He has picked up where he left off with five hits in his first seven at-bats of the season, with one home run already in the books.

A lot has changed since the early days of his career. Martinez was a ground ball hitting outfielder, who made better hit contact than power contact. Take for example his 2012 full season in Birmingham where he hit 190 ground balls and 88 fly balls. If you were to add in the 60 line drives, he still hit 42 more balls on the ground than he did in the air. That is hardly the recipe for success in today’s game lofty launch angles.

That certainly changed with the Cardinals last season. His groundball rate was still higher, but the lowest mark of any stop in his career at 42.1 percent, all while he posted a career-high line drive rate (26.6 percent) and a 31.3 percent fly ball rate. The numbers are a lot less extreme than they were earlier in his career.

Martinez is a big man, standing at 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds. That said, to expect a guy who reached his career-high in home runs at the age of 29 to become a 30-homer presence is a bit unrealistic. What Martinez is good at is using his right-handed bat to all fields, which with his newfound loft should help with extra base hits.

In adding some more loft to his approach, he hasn’t lost his contact ability either. Last year he made contact 80.5 percent of the time, and an even higher 87 percent of the time if a pitch was in the strike zone. Martinez is a bit aggressive not afraid to swing at the first offering he sees, but he seems to know how to work a count and get his pitch.

Martinez is now earning David Ortiz and J.D. Martinez comparisons as a late bloomer. What the Cardinals need from Martinez is a reliable bat, no matter what comp he earns on paper. Thus far, he is looking to be just that.