Former Astros GM Jeff Luhnow admits he released J.D. Martinez because of flawed analytics

Jordan Cohn
October 07, 2020 - 12:13 pm

When you look at the fact that the Astros drafted J.D. Martinez in the 20th round of the 2009 MLB Draft, you immediately think of just how good a value he is at that selection. And it's true -- he's a three-time All-Star who is still one of the prominent sluggers the league has to offer, even after a down 2020 campaign.

But as much as you can commend them for their draft pick of Martinez, you can criticize them even more for letting Martinez go just five years later, as he was released during spring training of 2014.

The brand-new podcast “The Edge:Houston Astros,” from Cadence13 and available on RADIO.COM, focuses on the Astros’ infamous cheating scandal that rocked the baseball world, but uncovered yet another shortcoming of Luhnow’s front office over the years: an overreliance, in some cases, on analytics.

Sure, analytics and advanced data helped them in many ways, but in the case of J.D. Martinez, it led the team to making a big mistake. Ben Reiter, the senior writer at Sports Illustrated whose 2014 cover story predicted a World Series victory for the Astros in 2017, led us through the decision-making:

Sometimes, Luhnow’s dedication to the data led him astray. During spring training in 2014, an underperforming 26-year-old outfielder named J.D. Martinez had sworn to Luhnow that he had completely overhauled his swing during the offseason, and was seeing great results. But Luhnow had data showing that 26-year-olds almost never got better. So he cut Martinez from the team. 

A few days later, Martinez returned to Astros camp, as a member of his new team, the Detroit Tigers. And his swing definitely looked different. 

Luhnow admitted that it was a bad call.

“That was the buzz around Astros camp -- J.D. Martinez just hit three home runs against his former teammates,” Luhnow told Reiter on the second episode, titled Stargazers. “Part of me said, ‘Uh oh, what have I done.’ The rest is history… he became one of the premier sluggers in the league for the past six, seven years.”

That must be a good feeling: get released by a team and subsequently swat three bombs against them just days after you were cut as a member of a new team. Bravo, J.D.

And it wasn’t like Martinez had jus that one, brief shining moment. His career stats in Houston over parts of three seasons amounted to 24 home runs and a slash line of .251/.300/.387. In 2014, his first season with the Tigers, he hit 23 home runs and slashed .315/.358/.553. If that’s not improvement at age 26, I don’t know what is.

And if a follow-up season of 38 home runs and 102 RBI isn’t another tier of improvement after age 26, I’m not sure what is. From then on, he never looked back, averaging 36 home runs, 102 RBI and a .312/.385/.600 slash line over the next four seasons with Detroit, Arizona and his current home, Boston.

Obviously, the Astros and Luhnow have much, much bigger regrets, which you can hear all about by listening to the rest of this revealing podcast series. But letting a player like J.D. Martinez go for free as he entered his prime? That’s a mistake that’s too hard to ignore.

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