How J.D. Martinez transformed an awkward swing into an elite one
All offseason, the pairing seemed inevitable. It wasn’t a matter of whether but when J.D. Martinez and the Red Sox would find the match that seemed too perfect not to happen, the gold standard of power-hitting free agents in this year’s class finding his way to the most power-deficient team in the American League last year.
Yet that long-anticipated outcome should not obscure the unlikelihood that Martinez was in such a position at all. After all, this is a player who wasn’t taken until the 20th round of the 2009 draft, and whom the rebuilding Astros released in the spring of 2014 — shortly after he passed through waivers at a time when he was earning roughly the league minimum.
At 26, Martinez was a career .251/.300/.387 hitter averaging about 15 homers a year, production that was deemed unworthy of a corner outfield spot in the big leagues.
So how, in the span of four years, did he emerge from an end-of-spring scramble for a minor league job to someone who landed a five-year, $110 million deal with the Red Sox? The story of Martinez’s transformation into an elite power hitter is as dramatic as that thumbnail suggests.
“It wasn’t easy. It was constant work,” said Greg Brown, the scout who recommended that the Astros take Martinez in 2009 and who is now the coach at Martinez’s alma mater, Division 2 Nova Southeastern in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “It’s a rise and a fall and a rise again. Those are the best stories for me.”
Near the end of his four-year minor league career in the Marlins system, Brown, who worked out in the offseasons at Nova Southeastern, met then-freshman Martinez and was immediately impressed by his size (6 feet 3 inches), work ethic, passion for hitting, and ability to get the barrel of the bat on the ball in a way that allowed him to drive it to right-center. Martinez got on Brown’s radar when, as a first-year scout, he covered South Florida in 2009.
Martinez rewrote the record book at Nova Southeastern, hitting .394 during his career while smashing 32 homers and slugging .691. Yet as much as Brown raved about Martinez to Astros officials, there was a problem: Martinez had a swing that looked like a mess of disjointed parts.
“His technique was flawed, in my opinion, and probably in that of most people in baseball,” said Brown. “I used to joke about him with his swing because he thought it was the most beautiful swing in the world, which is awesome.”
It didn’t look like the swing of many big leaguers, and certainly not big league power hitters.
Martinez put his front foot down early and pulled his hands up and back before the pitch rather than having any sort of rhythm to sync his swing to the delivery. By doing that, he created a longer swing (his hands had to travel farther) while relying chiefly on his hands to get the barrel to the ball, sacrificing the involvement of his lower body for power.
The shape of the swing was also a problem. Brown described it as a “V” — moving down and then up through the zone, with the result that he’d often be swinging down on the baseball — rather than a “Nike swoosh,” in which he quickly got the barrel of his bath to an upward trajectory that would allow him to meet the ball squarely.
“I thought he was an everyday big leaguer, and I thought he had the power potential to get up to 20 home runs,” said Brown. “A lot of it had to do with, he used the whole field. Despite having a linear swing, he could still drive balls to right-center. That’s very uncommon.
“I think he was a hard player to cross-check. You come in and the area scout digs him, but you look at it, and there aren’t a lot of guys who hit like that in the big leagues, if any.”
The Astros finally pulled the trigger on Martinez in the 20th round of the 2009 draft. He wasted little time before making a mark.
Assigned to Rookie Ball, Martinez demolished younger competition, hitting .403/.446/.740 in 19 games with Greeneville of the Appalachian League before earning a quick promotion to Tri-City of the New York-Penn League. Astros hitting coordinator Mike Barnett recognized the flaws of Martinez’s swing, but in 2009-10, he saw a hitter who was smart enough in his attack plan and whose hands were good enough to dominate in the minor leagues.
Martinez put up such consistently strong numbers — batting averages in the mid-.300s, an OPS regularly in the .900s and greater — that it was hard to alter a formula that had him barreling toward the big leagues on a fast track.
“Here was a guy who hit .360 through the minors,” recalled Barnett. “I said, ‘He is an absolute run producer. You don’t find these guys walking around the street. This guy can drive in runs.’ ”
By 2011, just over two years after being drafted, Martinez was in the big leagues, looking like a potential key part of a rebuilding team. He drove in an Astros rookie record 28 runs in August 2011, his first full month in the big leagues, posting a .293/.328/.509 line to that point.
But the league took note and adjusted. The fastballs up and away that Martinez had been able to drive to right-center came less frequently. He started looking for sliders down and away, leaving the young hitter in a poor position to hit to his strengths.
Martinez sputtered in his second year, getting demoted to Triple A in August after his average dropped to .235/.308/.373. His approach further unraveled in 2013, when he hit .250/.278/.378 for the Astros. His performance suggested little more than a depth player, someone who could be shuttled between the big leagues and the minors.
But Martinez did not accept that fate.
After the 2013 season, Martinez sought out Craig Wallenbrock and Robert Van Scoyoc, private hitting instructors in Southern California who’d worked with Brewers slugger Ryan Braun as well as Martinez’s Astros teammate Jason Castro.
“J.D. just felt he was on the outs and had to make a change,” recalled Wallenbrock. “His attitude was, ‘What do I have to lose? I’m going in the wrong direction.’
“J.D. Martinez is in many ways a freak. ‘Brave soul’ would be a better way to put it. He had made it to the big leagues. He had big league time. But he was willing, rather than trying to stay there with what he was doing, to try to get better.
“It’s a unique individual in terms of mental makeup to be a J.D. Martinez.”
Martinez had always been praised for his hitting mind and for his desire for information. Yet what he encountered in Santa Clarita was different.
Rather than taking a piecemeal approach, Martinez was open to a fundamental overhaul of everything he was doing with his hitting mechanics. With Wallenbrock and Van Scoyoc, he essentially entered a hitting sweat lodge that inspired a vision of his future.
“I sit down and look at film with guys and compare them with the best hitters in the game,” said Wallenbrock. “We look at the stride. We break things down into the particular. They kid me about it, they call me ‘Mr. 4-to-5.’ ”
That is a reference to the traditional 2-to-8 scouting scale in which a 5 represents an average player or skill, a 4 is below average, a 6 is All-Star caliber, and 7’s and 8’s are elite talents with MVP and Hall of Fame skill sets.
“If we put a number 4 on your abilities, and you want to get paid more, you want to advance, you want to move yourself up to a 5, what do you do to go up from 4 to 5? The answer everybody gives is 1,” said Wallenbrock. “I say, ‘That’s the problem.’
“1 is made up of an infinite number of fractions, and each one of those fractions has a whole world or whole universe of knowledge into itself. What you have to do is find out what fractions of 1 you’re off on — it’s usually multiple fractions — and just start working to clear up those little fractions.
“Pretty soon, you get so intrigued by the process of each tiny little thing — maybe your grip, maybe a change in your weight distribution when you start your stride, where you hold your hands, where you stand at the plate — any of these little things start making a difference. It doesn’t make you a whole hitter but it makes you a little bit better.
“The process of 4-to-5 becomes so intriguing that at some point, you don’t care if you get to 5, because you’re enjoying the journey so much to get there. And then you wake up and discover you didn’t reach 5, you went past it. You weren’t even aware of it, and you’re now a 6.”
Martinez embraced a philosophy and mechanics that permitted him to turn raw materials into game production. He created a timing mechanism with his front foot that synced his stance to the motion of a pitcher. He lowered his hands so that, instead of swinging down at the ball, he could quickly get the barrel working up through the strike zone on the same plane as the pitch, driving the ball in the air. He focused on letting fastballs travel deep and driving them to the opposite field, something that allowed him to pull breaking balls.
Martinez returned to South Florida that winter as a different player. For years, Brown had tried to convince Martinez of the benefits of staying “on plane” to drive the pitch in the air. But he hadn’t found the right way of communicating to connect with Martinez. Wallenbrock had.
“The application was right away,” said Brown. “It was immediate. It’s not like you were taking someone who couldn’t hit and teaching him to hit. He could hit. But you were giving him the engine of a Ferrari.
“Ultimately, he was one of the best in the world. He got to the big leagues. He was very successful. Most successful people do not have that growth mind-set that allows for that type of change.
“It’s an entirely different rhythm, it’s an entirely different loading mechanism, which are huge overhauls. We’re not talking about slight adjustments. What J.D. overhauled, all that information started adding up, but it was his own epiphany that created his opportunity to make the leap that he did.”
From that point, said Brown, Martinez became his own hitting coach, with the self-understanding to adjust both his swing and approach to realize radically different levels of production.
The Astros didn’t benefit from those changes, as they removed Martinez from the 40-man roster in early 2014, gave him few at-bats in spring training, and released him prior to the minor league season. But when the Detroit Tigers signed Martinez to a minor league deal, they got a player whose career was ready for liftoff.
Martinez blasted 10 homers in 17 games for the Tigers’ Triple A affiliate at the start of 2014, forced his way to their big league roster before the end of 2014, and hasn’t stopped hitting since.
Over the last four years, Martinez has hit .300/.362/.574 while averaging 32 homers — a run headlined by an extraordinary 2017 campaign in which he hit .303/.376/.690 with 45 homers in 119 games, leading the majors in homers per plate appearance (one every 10.9) and slugging percentage (.690).
He has become a lineup-transforming hitter of a caliber that was all but impossible to envision in his amateur and early professional days. Martinez has blown past even the most optimistic visions that Brown had — an everyday player capable of hitting .260 with roughly 20 homers — into an absolute force.
As he prepares to commence his career with the Red Sox, that past harbors some promise for his future. For all of the skepticism now related to the ability of aging players to sustain their production, Martinez has shown an ability to adapt that few others can claim, something that may augur well for his future and that of his team.
“The reality is that J.D. did something that is very, very uncommon — he turned himself from a 4-A player into an All-Star,” said Brown. “His ability to constantly stay in a growth mind-set of teaching and learning has made him a master of his craft.
“I think, long-term, this holds value much more than most hitters. As he ages, he’s going to continually be able to adapt to what he is at that moment.
“Most hitters, it’s how I’ve done it, it’s what’s made me successful, it’s how I’ve always done it. That, I believe, is something that makes him very different long-term, and is why I think there’s even better years ahead of him.”