In the final days of the 2020 season, J.D. Martinez made no attempt to mask his horrendous disappointment. A self-made player who had become one of the most consistent middle-of-the-order producers in baseball from 2014-19 saw his offensive numbers plummet and his swing fall apart.
Typically, the power of Martinez’s swing comes from the ground up, a carefully calibrated kinetic chain transferring strength from the feet to the hips and torso and into the upper body. But in 2020 — en route to a .213 average, .291 OBP, and .393 slugging mark in the compressed season — that broke down dramatically, with Martinez rushing out with his front side, opening his hips too quickly, then throwing his hands at the ball, resulting in hollow contact.
“I don’t remember a day where, start to finish, he was happy,” said Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers.
To achieve a reversal, Martinez was not simply going to rely on his track record.
“The words when he left were, ‘I’m getting after this,’ ” Hyers said.
When Martinez returned to South Florida, he did not ease into the offseason. A hitting mechanic got back into the garage.
Martinez has made Team Sosa Baseball — a renowned South Florida facility run by Ricardo Sosa that is frequented by several big leaguers — his primary offseason base for several years. This year, he set up residence quickly.
“In previous years, he’d like to go out on a boat — he’s a big fisherman — and have his off-days,” said Kevin Suarez of Team Sosa. “This year, he had no offdays, man. He was in there every single day, even on the weekends.”
Suarez estimated he threw Martinez 200-300 pitches or flips per day in the morning (”My arm was hanging”), with Martinez continuing his work with others in the evening. Then he’d go home and continue his work until he felt that he’d locked in the precise movement he sought.
“I think he’s insane,” Suarez joked. “He picks it apart all night. He’s got to have some time off from baseball, but he goes home and practices and makes it perfect.”
Martinez wasn’t going to focus on one area to the exclusion of others. A player who rebuilt his swing completely in the 2013-14 offseason wanted once again to completely disassemble it and put it back together.
Martinez would take a round of swings, then examine video of it before stepping to the plate for another round.
He knew that he’d been sliding too far forward and opening up too quickly with his hips, but with his repetitions, he identified a root cause of that. Instead of remaining anchored on his right ankle at the start of his swing, he started his weight transfer too early, something that became pronounced in 2020. He believes the issue stemmed from an ankle injury in Game 1 of the 2018 World Series.
Once he identified the back heel as the foundational problem, Martinez could work through his remaining sequence of moves. He was deliberate in that process, exacting in his standards for what qualified as comfort with each component of his swing.
“He’d come in and say, ‘Kev, look at this, man — I figured it out. Look what I’m doing!’ ” Suarez said. “He was happy. He’s like a little kid at a candy store.”
Martinez took his work from the cages of Sosa Baseball to the field at his alma mater, Nova Southeastern, typically in sessions that lasted a couple of hours at a time following hours of strength and conditioning work.
Laz Gutierrez, Nova’s head coach, had worked with Martinez in 2018-19 as the Red Sox mental skills coach. In watching the slugger this offseason, Gutierrez was struck by Martinez’s purposefulness.
“Last year has served as such a big motivator for him,” Gutierrez said. “This is a kid who has always worked hard. He’s accomplished what he’s accomplished because of that work ethic and that attention to detail. I just think it’s been elevated to a completely different level. J.D. is a scientist when it comes to this.
“J.D. has always been a high-repetition guy. He probably drives the Red Sox medical staff crazy, puts them on pins and needles. But what was different this time, it wasn’t just about volume. It was about quality reps. To me, it was more of a surgical approach.”
While he’s able to get considerable value from his work in cages, Martinez likes to see the flight of the ball on a field to validate his progress. Over time at Nova, the progress became evident. Balls flared to right field early in the offseason increasingly became thunderous drives with the familiar arc that Martinez seeks.
“He goes from struggling in the beginning of the offseason — ‘My swing sucks; I don’t feel good’ — and at the end of it, he just explodes at the ball,” Suarez said. “Now he’s happy: ‘My swing is perfect; my swing is great.’ ”
Martinez has been slightly more measured in his assessments with the Red Sox staff since arriving in Fort Myers. Nonetheless, Hyers sees a difference in Martinez, with the way he’s creating whip with his bat, and without the frustration and doubt that trailed him throughout 2020.
“In 2020, he was just all over the place with his moves and things he didn’t want to do — just very inconsistent,” Hyers said. “I’m seeing, early in camp, him controlling moves. The snap and crack [of the bat] is closer to ’18 and ’19 for me. I hear the crack of the bat that I’m excited about.”
Martinez has said he is excited about the coming year, but spring optimism comes without guarantees. He has experienced across-the-board statistical decline each of the last two years, an ominous development for a 33-year-old. It’s fair to wonder whether the declining numbers — particularly against fastballs — are the product of mechanics or simply evidence of age-based decline.
Yet as was the case entering 2014 — the spring when the Astros released him — Martinez is navigating through camp with both confidence that he’s found something and an edge carved by that sort of perceived skepticism.
“I think that you’ll see what 2020 has done is add a sense of urgency,” Gutierrez said. “[He wants] to prove, ‘I am still one of the best hitters in Major League Baseball. I’m on a mission, and I want to show everyone that I am still J.D. Martinez.’ ”