J.D. Martinez slipped through the Astros’ fingers, just as he was blossoming
Typically, roster mistakes require the passage of time to become evident. It often takes months or even years. But in 2014, J.D. Martinez compressed that timetable in dramatic fashion following his spring training release by the Astros — a thought that will likely cross the minds of some members of the Houston organization during the four-game series between the Red Sox and Astros that starts Thursday.
In fairness, the Astros weren’t alone in their whiff. In November 2013, after a season in which Martinez struggled to a .250/.272/.378 line while seeing his plate discipline unravel (10 walks in 310 plate appearances), Houston peeled the corner outfielder off its 40-man roster and outrighted him to the minors. The other 29 teams let him pass through waivers unclaimed.
Of course, no team at the time realized that Martinez was amid a profound transformation as a hitter. Martinez took ownership of his struggles with the Astros in 2013 and went to work trying to better himself. He started dissecting video of his swing and those of others to make sense of why a career that had started with great promise in 2011 (.274/.319/.423 in 53 games) had sputtered.
“ ‘Obsessed’ is a good word,” recalled former Astros teammate Jason Castro. “He was so dedicated and driven to improve himself. He was constantly in the video room trying to figure out what he was looking for to change and help him progress. We talked a lot.”
Martinez’s interest in Castro stemmed from overhauls that the catcher had made to his swing, changes that helped propel the former first-rounder to an All-Star campaign in which he demonstrated, for the first time as a pro, power (18 homers). Castro’s breakthrough came after working with hitting instructors Craig Wallenbrock and Robert Van Scoyoc in California. The day after the season, Martinez went to work with that duo and transformed his career.
When he arrived at spring training as a nonroster invitee in 2014, Martinez knew that he stood on the threshold of a breakout. A player who had 24 big league homers in 975 plate appearances prior to 2014 believed that he was capable of clearing the fences 30 times in 2014.
“I was like a kid in a candy store,” Martinez recalled in spring training. “I was so excited. Then I went to spring training and I’ll never forget it. I was the most excited I’ve ever been for spring training. I was like, ‘People don’t even know. Nobody knows.’ Everybody thinks, ‘It’s just J.D. Whatever.’
“I’m sitting here with, ‘Oh my God. I want to show you. I want to show you something. Can I show you? Please let me show you.’”
Castro knew immediately that Martinez was a different player.
“I had talked to him throughout the offseason, asking him how it was going,” said Castro. “He was pretty optimistic about it. But when he came into camp, seeing the types of changes he made and where he had gotten himself to, I knew he was going to have a good year.
“I remember watching some of his batting practices, hitting 80 percent home runs in batting practice just driving the ball all over the yard.”
Yet the Astros never took stock of the impact of those changes. Martinez barely saw the field in spring training games. He got just 20 plate appearances, mostly a sporadic late-innings at-bat here or there.
“I told them, ‘Give me the same opportunity you’ve given everyone else and let me show you what I’ve learned,’ ” said Martinez. “They didn’t.”
“They had kind of moved on from him before they really gave him a chance,” said Castro. “He wasn’t in the plans. He wasn’t starting. He didn’t really have a chance to put together at-bats.”
At a time of year where hitters typically are searching for their timing, those brief looks made it nearly impossible for Martinez to make any sort of impression — on the Astros or on anyone else. Houston let other teams know that Martinez was available via trade.
The Astros reached out to Dave Dombrowski, the current Red Sox president of baseball operations who was then general manager of the Tigers. Detroit had called the Astros following the 2013 season to inquire about Martinez as a righthanded-hitting fourth outfielder.
“We liked even the old J.D.,” recalled Dombrowski.
But in the fall, the Astros weren’t interested in trading Martinez. And by spring, when the Astros were looking to move him rather than sticking him in Triple A without an everyday role, the Tigers had already addressed their need for a righthanded hitter by signing Rajai Davis.
“They said, ‘If you’re interested in trading for him, we would trade him,’ ” said Dombrowski. “We had our club pretty well set and we would have had to pay $300,000 or whatever it was to send him to Triple A. So we said, ‘At this time, we just don’t have room.’ ”
No one had room. And so, on March 22, the Astros released Martinez. Both Tigers assistant GM Al Avila (whose son, then-Tigers catcher Alex Avila, had known Martinez since the two were Little League contemporaries) and Detroit third base coach Dave Clark (who’d been Martinez’s first base coach for three years in Houston) urged Dombrowski to sign Martinez. While other teams also were interested, Martinez chose the Tigers.
Yet the Tigers had no idea that they’d struck gold.
“We really hadn’t seen him in spring training,” said Dombrowski. “We were fortunate. If we were that smart, we would have traded for him.”
Both the Tigers and Astros arrived at that realization quickly. Within days of his change of organizations, the Tigers had a Triple A spring training game against Houston’s highest minor league affiliate.
Members of the Astros organization — particularly those who’d seen Martinez tear through the minors while hitting around .340 from 2009-11 — were stunned that he’d been released.
“It was kind of shocking to a lot of people, not only because we all knew the talent he had, but also because he was only 25 years old, and he already had contributed to the [big league] lineup,” said former Red Sox infielder Ed Romero Sr., who was a manager in the Astros organization at the time. “There were a lot of sad people, including myself, seeing him when he got let go.”
Sadness quickly gave way to amazement. In that Triple A game, Martinez put on a memorable show.
“He hit three home runs, and they were bullets,” recalled Romero, who managed Houston’s Triple A squad. “On top of that, he hit a ball that hit the top of the fence for a double. So he hit one to left-center, one to straight-up center field, and one to right-center. And the ball that hit the top of the fence was to left-center, too.
“The following day or two days after, they went to our place in Kissimmee and he hit two more home runs.
“When he came back and played against us, the power he showed to right-center, the swing was not as flat. He was staying longer through the hitting zone. He was laying off pitches. He was driving the ball with so much power. It was, ‘Wow.’ You know the story after that.”
Indeed. The player who had been passed over by the industry forced his way back into the big leagues by launching 10 homers in 17 games for Triple A Toledo. An injury to Torii Hunter opened the door for Martinez to claim a regular lineup spot with Detroit in mid-June, and he’s forged a place as one of the game’s great hitters ever since.
He has emerged as a transformative figure for the Red Sox after they signed him to a five-year, $110 million free agent deal in February.
He also serves as a reminder that even smart teams will make bad player evaluations, and that sometimes a player is capable of achieving something far beyond anything that his track record suggests.
“He’s a game-changer,” said Red Sox starter Rick Porcello, who saw Martinez’s breakout season with the Tigers in 2014, “in any lineup.”