July 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

Kurt Mensching

Hard to say if J.D. Martinez's season with Tigers is a fluke or the real deal

With a new swing, a new coaching staff and a new team that knows how to succeed, J.D. Martinez, 26, has flourished in Detroit. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Like in a fairy tale, J.D. Martinez has escaped the lowly Astros to find a new life with the penthouse-inhabiting Tigers.

With a new swing, a new coaching staff and a new team that knows how to succeed, Martinez, 26, has flourished in Detroit. It’s easy to second-guess the Astros, who seem to have given up too soon on a good player, and to praise the Tigers for being smart enough to snatch him up when they did.

Martinez has earned his home in the middle of the Tigers’ batting order by hitting .330 with a .367 on-base percentage and .616 slugging average, which is to say, really well.

So well, in fact, it’s hard to take him out of the lineup even for a day off, let alone to make room for anyone else to play.

But when any player seemingly comes out of nowhere and finds a fair amount of success, you’re left wondering just how long he can keep it up and when he might turn back into a pumpkin.

Something or nothing

Martinez entered the All-Star break on an 8-for-15 tear in Kansas City. In the four games since, all against the Indians, he’s 2-for-15.

That could mean something. It could mean nothing at all. The problem in analyzing baseball too closely on a game-to-game basis is that oftentimes accidents look like trends and trends look like accidents. What looks like a slump might just be the product of bad luck or good pitching.

So from that point of view, what Martinez did against the Royals or Indians really doesn’t tell us anything at all. He could be the next Brennan Boesch, but maybe he’s just the first J.D. Martinez.

Boesch is an easy comparison to throw out there because he started off so well in Detroit before hitting the wall so hard. What makes reading Martinez’s future so difficult is two of the stats you might look at to give you a clue would seem to disagree with one another.

A worrisome one is Martinez’s batting average on balls in play. Different types of players fall into different ranges. A speedy, left-handed, line-drive hitting batter will post a high BABIP throughout his career. A slow, fly-ball hitter will post a lower one. Line drives lead to hits. Fly balls lead to outs.

Martinez’s BABIP is .384, more than 60 points above his career average. True he’s hitting more line drives than his career average, but he’s also hitting more fly balls. Calculating his expected BABIP puts it at about .320. So you’d expect a few of those “hits” will end up as “outs” going forward.

The 'r' word

Beyond BABIP, when Martinez hits a fly ball, it’s more likely to leave the park this year than in any other time during his career — his home runs per fly ball rate has risen from 13 percent to 22 percent.

Martinez did change his swing, but his contact rate remains unchanged and his strikeout rate actually climbed above his career average.

Those stats might tell you to expect that dreaded “r” word used by sabermetricians — regression. So, maybe we should expect a drop-off in the second half, both in terms of home runs and average. That hurts even more with a player who doesn’t have a high walk rate, either.

Then you look at another stat, calculated by ESPN.com: hard-hit rate. Players who consistently score high here shouldn’t be seen as a fluke. In stats presented July 18 by Mark Simon of ESPN.com, Martinez ranked fifth in the majors with a rate of 24.5 percent.

For comparison, Victor Martinez leads at 26.8 percent and Miguel Cabrera ranks 10th at 23.4 percent.

From this standpoint, everything is going just fine for J.D. Martinez and maybe we shouldn’t worry too much after all. It might help explain why Martinez’s BABIP is so much higher than expected this year.

He certainly looks the part. The change to his swing is resulting in better contact and more hard-hit balls.

Martinez has been a great story in Detroit so far. He’s an even more intriguing one now, because we just can’t say whether this story ends up happily ever after.

Kurt Mensching is editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.

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