J.D. Martinez’s swing isn’t natural to him. It’s learned. Something he’s had to build from the ground up. One that wasn’t sculpted through feel but through attention to mechanical detail, patience, routine. The swing is corrected through video and then playback.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic last season, all of that eluded Martinez, who hit just .213 with seven homers. The routine was ruptured. The patience? Hard to do that in a 60-game season. The video was nonexistent. The mechanics sputtered.
“I felt like I really wasn’t prepared for last year,” Martinez said Tuesday. “I felt like it kind of caught me off guard, whether we were going to play, whether we weren’t. It was my fault. I take accountability for that because I didn’t stay ready. This year I said to myself, ‘They’re not getting me again. They’re not catching me off guard.’ So you know, I stayed ready the whole time.”
Last season, Martinez expressed his frustration with Major League Baseball’s decision to suspend in-game video for 2020. In an unprecedented season, the suspension of in-game video — a resource utilized by players across the league — was MLB’s attempt to socially distance players as much as possible.
In a normal season, hitters are allowed to go to terminals underneath the dugout and watch their previous at-bats, a cornerstone of Martinez’s process. Not having it, Martinez acknowledged, was a difficult adjustment.
“That’s what they do,” manager Alex Cora said. “They’ve been taught to use these resources throughout their careers, and all of a sudden it’s not there. And you know, I heard about it. I don’t think that’s the main reason he struggled. I think he’ll be the first one to tell you that.”
This season, though, players will have some form of access to in-game video.
In new health and safety protocols agreed to by MLB and the Players Association, the use of communal video terminals is still prohibited during games. But players will have access to tablets under the Dugout iPad program that can provide in-game video in a format that cannot be used to steal a catcher’s signs.
The lack of access to communal terminals is noteworthy. Presumably, players won’t be able to sit down with coaches to break down video before and after games. Still, having access to in-game video is a plus.
“Hitting, it happens so fast,” Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers said recently. “It’s a reactionary sport, and you’re reacting to the pitcher. You’ll be amazed how many times players are like, ‘Man, I felt like I had a game plan. And I had wanted to make a move. And I felt like I was doing it.’ So, when you watch that video, I think that’s where it helps players and kind of adjust.”
The adjustments Martinez makes happen with what he sees. What the video tells him. The in-game video allows him to make the in-game adjustments to which Hyers alluded. He can go into his first at-bat and see that his thought didn’t translate into his game swing.
“So, obviously, I can eliminate that,” Martinez said. “I can go into my second at-bat and think of something else. And if that doesn’t work, I can do it my third at-bat and maybe I figure it out. My third at-bat, maybe it looks better versus having to waste four at-bats in one game and then try something else. It cuts my margin in a fourth, really. I can get results quicker, in a sense.”
Martinez, 33, is counting on a bounce-back season. He spent the offseason honing his craft in Miami, working with personal hitting coach Ricardo Sosa, as well as his former college coach. The sessions were intense and long. Martinez wanted to eliminate the bad habits of last season. The hips flying forward on his swing, causing him to be late on fastballs, leading to his .186 average on that pitch. That work will continue during spring training.
“I can’t sit here and say, “Yeah, guys, I fixed it, I’m back.’ You know what I mean?” he said. “Because it’s not like that. It’s not baseball. The moment you think you’ve got it figured out the game humbles you real quick.”
The Red Sox need Martinez’s bat in the middle of the order to be what it was in 2018-19. He’ll have a larger sample size with which to work, the video he feels he needs to be successful, as well as a chip on his shoulder. He doesn’t believe in pressure, he said. To him, pressure is “something we make up in our minds.”
Perhaps. But the expectations for Martinez are real. This will be his chance to relegate last season to a fluke, not a decline in productivity.
This season, Martinez will have the infrastructure in place he needs to unlock his success.
“I’m looking forward to getting back to, you know, somewhat normal baseball during these crazy times,” he said.