Baseball’s so-called team of the future — otherwise known as the Houston Astros — made a super-sized blunder this Spring when they decided to release J.D. Martinez without any compensation. Martinez was once regarded as a highly touted prospect for the Astros, but he went through his share of struggles through his first three major league seasons.
Martinez made his major league debut in 2011, and went on to play 53 games for a struggling Astros team. In only 208 at-bats, he posted a slash line of .274/.319/.423 while knocking out six homers. Not earth-shattering numbers by any means for a corner outfielder, but still something to build on nonetheless.
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As time went on, Martinez struggled to stay in the Majors for an entire season to really develop his skills. In 2012, he started the season by playing 23 games in the minors before getting the call-up to the big club, where he went on to play 113 games and post a slash line of .241/.311/.375.
Despite leading the team in runs batted in with 55 (this is more a knock on the Astros roster and not a compliment to J.D.) his slash line declined slightly from his rookie year. A disappointing feat for a player that was supposed to be trending upward.
Martinez’s struggles in Houston came to a climax in 2013 where he only played in 86 major league games thanks to a wrist injury and a stint in the minors. He hit his way to a slash line of 250/.272/.378 with a shivering K/BB ratio of 82/10. That is nearly a strikeout per game.
During that very offseason, the Astros decided to remove Martinez off of the 40 man roster, a bold move for a team that lacks championship aspirations in the short-term.
Obviously Martinez was going through his fair share of struggles, but the Astros seemed to be the perfect team to give him the proper time to develop. Players that hit .332 over six seasons in the minors are unlikely to be given up on by teams that average 100 losses per season.
But wouldn’t you know it, that is exactly what happened.
On March 22nd, the Houston Astros decided to cut ties with their struggling outfielder, thus making Martinez a free agent eligible to sign with any team. Two days later, general manager Dave Dombrowski and the Detroit Tigers snatched him up and signed him to a minor league deal. A shrewd move that would pay huge dividends in the long run.
“90 percent of the game is half mental.” – Yogi Berra
Martinez started the 2014 season by playing 17 games for Detroit’s AAA affiliate. All he did there was hit .308/.366/.846 while popping 10 home runs and batting in 22 runs (I repeat, he did this in only 17 games!). Shortly after, he received a promotion to play with the Tigers and he has forced himself into the lineup by way of his bat ever since.
Martinez has been a benefited greatly from hitting behind professional hitters such as Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Not only do these great players offer great RBI opportunities, they have helped J.D. develop a better mental approach to hitting. Yogi Berra said it best, “90 percent of the game is half mental.”
Over 108 games so far this season, Martinez is hitting .305/.347/.553 with 21 home runs and 69 runs batted in. More importantly, he appears to be more comfortable with the pitching he is facing at the major league level.
His K/BB ratio (109/25) is still nothing to write home about, but he is making the most of the contact that he does make.
He has developed a strong approach in which he hits for power to all fields. Watch as Martinez stays inside the ball and launches a 95 mph fastball from John Axford over the right field fence:
The level of difficulty of this kind of swing is difficult to explain. The ability to drive the ball to the opposite field is a lost art in this age driven by pull hitters (which is best shown by the way defenses are exaggerating their defensive shifts to the pull side this season).
Not only does Martinez have the ability to drive a ball to the opposite field, but he has shown the ability to get his hands in and turn on an inside pitch as well. Watch as he keeps his hands in on this 92 mph fastball that is up and on the inside corner:
This is another extremely difficult technique, especially for someone with long arms such as Martinez. Hitters that have long arms tend to get tied up on inside pitches because they are unable to get their arms extended and generate enough force into their swings.
Often pitchers jam taller hitters inside with the hope that they will make the hitter swing awkwardly and not make hard contact.
Watching Martinez’s plate coverage in these two instances is something that can only be marveled at. The ability to hit both inside and outside fastballs with the kind of authority he does is a rare talent.
Certainly a talent that should make both GM Dave Dombrowski and giddy Tigers fans excited going forward.