BALTIMORE — Performance is always judged in relative terms.
In 2015, J.D. Martinez solidified his status as an offensive force. He earned his first All-Star selection by hitting .282/.344/.535 with 38 homers, 102 RBIs, and 73 extra-base hits for a last-place Tigers team. The year represented a triumph.
In 2021, Martinez has moved past the 2020 mess of a compressed season. He made the All-Star team again and has put up numbers similar to his 2015 line. After a 3-for-4 night in Wednesday’s 6-0 win over the Orioles that included his 28th homer — a 444-foot moonshot to straightaway center — and a double, he’s hitting .287/.349/.522 with 99 RBIs and 72 extra-base hits for a contender.
Yet for Martinez, 2021 is not 2015. He does not take satisfaction in his rebound from the 2020 season, instead seeing the gap between his performance in 2021 and the pinnacles he achieved as arguably the most complete power hitter in baseball in 2017 and ‘18. His head swims with thoughts about what he can do to get back to being that player.
“I don’t accept it,” he said of his 2021 performance. “I’ve seen my potential and I’ve seen what I could be. So unless I’m playing at that level, I’m not satisfied. It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time. It causes a lot of restless nights, but I’m fine with it. I wish I could be a natural player to go out there and naturally play and not think about anything because it probably make my life a lot easier. But God gave me a different set of skills and a different set of things, being able to break stuff down and the commitment level that I have to it. It’s cool. I’m OK with it. That’s what keeps me hungry.”
Martinez’s performance since his exceptional start has added to the sense of dissatisfaction. He was hitting .345/.424/.615 through May 15. In 104 subsequent games, he entered Wednesday night hitting .261/.317/.475 — respectable but well short of his standards.
“I’ve been feeling just kind of off-and-on, off-and-on, off-and-on type deal,” said Martinez.
Perhaps more troubling for the 34-year-old: He’s looked overmatched by fastballs, especially at higher velocities, for much of the season. He entered Wednesday night hitting just .247 with a .306 slugging mark (in the bottom 20 percent of regulars) against pitches of at least 95 miles per hour. Two scouts recently said that they believe his bat has slowed, in a way that has forced him to cheat on fastballs and made him more vulnerable to chasing off-speed pitches below the strike zone.
Martinez sees a different issue. After the 2020 season, he broke down and rebuilt his swing, in the process identifying an issue dating to a right ankle injury in the 2018 World Series. He’d lost strength in the area, resulting in a tendency to drift out toward pitches early rather than staying back, keeping his front hip closed, and attacking the ball deep in the zone.
Martinez said that the Red Sox medical staff recently fitted him for orthotics to try to create more of an arch in his feet, helping him to do a better job of planting his foot to create leverage and balance that allows him to maintain his hip position entering his swing.
“The constant battle I’ve had all year is, I’m early, I’m late; I’m early, I’m late,” said Martinez. “I’m constantly grinding on trying to keep my hip back. As of late, we’ve been putting orthotics in and it’s been kind of helping a little bit.”
Hitting coach Tim Hyers suggested that Martinez has been inconsistent this year in his ability to maintain his balance and avoid rushing out on pitches. He’s also seen Martinez trying to force power and get too big with his swing rather than remaining compact.
“Like all hitters, sometimes when you start searching for a little more power, especially as guys get older, they can’t [force] that,” said Hyers. “They’ve got to stick within themselves and allow things to happen in the game and not go and try to create the power and the results.”
Wednesday offered a reminder of who Martinez can be on days when his swing is right. For a Sox offense that had struggled to just 11 runs over the prior four games, he imparted life, driving in the first three runs, one on his massive homer, two on a double to give the Sox breathing room in a taut game. In the performance, the Sox saw considerable promise.
“Seeing him in the dugout and throughout the game, he was pretty locked in,” manager Alex Cora said. “We need the big boys to do their thing. We’re a very offensive team. We’re a lot better when the big boys are swinging the bat.”
A resurgent Martinez could play a pivotal role for a team fighting for the postseason.
Martinez isn’t prepared to say that he can be the hitter he wants to be before the end of the season — “It’s hard for me to say that, because for me, I always want to be better,” he said — but he has seen enough flickers of promise to think that he can be the hitter the Red Sox will need.
“Do I feel like I’m going to be able to contribute? Yeah, absolutely,” said Martinez. “I always say, and my coaches always tell me, ‘The thing with you is you’re always one adjustment away from being the best hitter in baseball.’ That’s how I feel. I always feel like that. I can look terrible my first two or three at-bats and all of a sudden, my fourth at-bat, I’m like, ‘Who the heck is this?’ ”
For the Red Sox, there is little time to waste in hoping for that transformation of Martinez back into being one of the elite hitters in the game.