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The Shapkins Defender – Fishing for J.D. Martinez

Welcome to The Shapkins Defender, where I inhale your toxic screeds and spit out the fresh oxygen of optimism, like a tree that kind of understands WAR. (Just don’t ask me to explain it.)

For this edition, I take a deeper look at the Derek Fisher trade, much maligned in some circles of Blue Jays fandom. Specifically, I will look at the ways in which Derek Fisher is like J.D. Martinez, which is less crazy than it seems. Maybe.

J.D. Martinez was born August 21st, 1987. Derek Fisher was born August 21st, 1993. So, he is exactly six years younger, making for an interesting side-by-side comparison.

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Each were drafted by the Astros, went through the usual rise through the farm system and then spent three years bouncing between Houston and the minors, struggling to establish themselves as major leaguers.

Then the Astros gave up on both of them. Martinez was outrighted off the Houston roster in November of 2013 and was eventually signed to a minor league deal by the Tigers. Almost six years later, in July of 2019, the Astros kicked Fisher off their roster as well, sending him north of the border to the Blue Jays.

It was at this point that Martinez famously corrected his swing, transforming himself from a mediocre hitter into one of the league’s best. And in the subsequent six years, he has hit 207 home runs, produced a wRC+ of 151, accumulated 24.2 fWAR and even earned himself a World Series ring after helping the Red Sox win it all in 2018.

Can Derek Fisher do that? Probably not! But I think it serves as a useful illustration as to why teams take chances on these guys.

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Now Fisher is in the same place Martinez was between the 2013 and 2014 seasons. He’s just turned 26 and has his future in doubt, despite showing some potential. If he is going to prove himself, it will be in a new venue. The question will be whether he can find ways to smooth out the wrinkles in his game and turn himself into a less-flawed player, the way J.D. did.

The solution probably won’t be the same because the wrinkles aren’t exactly the same. Martinez was in a position where he seemed to have decent bat-to-ball skills but had trouble maximizing his production by making consistent hard contact. Fisher, on the other hand, already crushes the ball when he connects but just doesn’t connect enough.

Martinez’s hard-hit rates in those three seasons with Houston were all between 26.2 and 33.6%. (Numbers from FanGraphs) Every season since, after fixing his swing, he’s been above 40. Fisher, on the other hand, has already been between 38 and 41 so far. (League average is around 32.) His biggest problem is the strikeout rate, which has been at 32.5, 48.8 and 34.1% in his three limited seasons. (48.8! Jesus Christ!) Martinez had rates of 21.2, 21.9 and 26.5 in his Houston years. And he has basically stayed in that range since, which is close to league average.

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I don’t have any data to show whether Fisher’s path to improvement is easier or harder than Martinez’s. My suspicion would be that it’s easier to take a guy with a natural hitting ability and teach him to add more power than it is to take a powerful guy and teach him better pitch selection instincts. So, that’s not a point in Fisher’s favour. But at least the problem isn’t that he’s swinging at bad pitches. It’s that he’s letting good ones go by! His career O-Swing Rate (swinging at pitches out of the zone) is 23.6%, well below J.D.’s career rate of 33.4% and the league average of 30%. However, his Z-Swing Rate (swinging at pitches in the zone) is a scant 55.8%, well below the league average of 65% and the 75.2% rate of Martinez.

It’s obviously more complicated than this. You can’t just tell Fisher to be more aggressive and have him turn into J.D. Martinez. But the point I’m trying to make is that he still could be something more than he is now. Not every baseball player comes up at 19 and hits the ground running like Juan Soto. That’s what makes Soto so special. Blue Jays fans should know this just from recent history. Josh Donaldson had his big breakout when he was 27 years old. Bautista and Encarnación were 29. Just this past year, former Blue Jay Gio Urshela had a big breakout at the age of 27. Mitch Garver? 28. Yet many Blue Jays fans have already decided that the Fisher trade is a massive loss for the team, which certainly could end up being the case in the long run. But maybe let’s give it a minute?

And it’s true that the list of guys who don’t succeed is much longer than the list of those who do. I’ve mentioned this before, but Baseball America found that about 20% of prospects acquired in deadline deals went on to be useful. And this makes total sense because, if a player is certain to be a success in the majors, then a team is unlikely to trade them away. When you trade for prospects, unless you’re trading away premium major league talent, you’re going to get unknown quantities.

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But that’s why you need to acquire as many of these talented-but-flawed players as you can! The more you have, the greater your chances of landing that J.D. Martinez-type, the guy who takes that next step from a borderline major leaguer into a bona fide star. Maybe it will be Fisher. Or maybe it will be Billy McKinney or Teoscar Hernández or Forrest Wall or Chad Spanberger or, dare I say it, Sócrates Brito. Or maybe it will be none of these guys! But when you’re a rebuilding team, you can afford to take chances on guys that contenders will shy away from.

There is certainly some risk in putting these lottery tickets on your roster because they might end up being a waste of time and resources. But as J.D. Martinez has shown, with the right tweaks, the rewards can be tremendous.

If you have a bone to pick with the front office, send your hot takes, diatribes, harangues, tirades and jeremiads to me at [email protected] or @darraghfilm on Twitter, or just leave a comment below.