J.D. Martinez did a lot more for Red Sox than just hit a lot of home runs
What J.D. Martinez remembers most about the 2013 season is not that he struggled mightily at the plate, or that his team, the Houston Astros, lost 111 games.
What aggravates him still, even five years later, is that not one teammate offered a hand to pull him out of the quicksand.
“I was looking for answers and looking for people and I felt so hopeless,” Martinez said. “My dreams were just disappearing from me, and I had nobody to guide me. It was the most frustrating thing for me.”
It was a slap-in-the-face reminder of how, at its highest level, baseball is far more a cutthroat business than a sport. A veteran player eager to hold on rarely wants to help a younger teammate who could one day steal his playing time.
Go talk to the coaches. That’s what they’re there for.
“I never forgot that, how I felt going through that,” Martinez said. “I always said to myself, ‘I’ll never be that person.’ I knew what it felt like. I would never wish that on anybody.”
As the Red Sox prepare for Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Friday night, Martinez has wielded an influence that goes well beyond his 43 home runs, 130 RBIs, and 1.031 OPS.
Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Rafael Devers, Mitch Moreland, and Steve Pearce are among the Sox players who have turned to Martinez for guidance, all with the approval of hitting coach Tim Hyers.
It’s not the only reason the Red Sox led the majors in runs this season or why several players have improved. But it’s a corner piece of the puzzle.
“The way J.D. goes about his business, his focus on every swing, it has made a difference on this team,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. “He’s been very influential.”
For Alex Cora, the soundtrack in the clubhouse should be baseball conversations. That was his way as a player, and he wanted it as a manager.
When the Sox started recruiting Martinez last winter and in the days leading up to his accepting a five-year, $110 million deal in February, Cora felt he would help change the atmosphere around the team.
“J.D. is all about the game,” Cora said. “The first time we sat down to talk, I felt he would be great for us and not just for what he could do at the plate.”
That the Astros released Martinez in 2014 before he became one of baseball’s best hitters is part of what makes him such a good teacher. He understands failure in a way other stars can’t.
Martinez remade his swing with the help of private instructors, a process well underway before the Astros released him. He has since hit .307 and averaged just over 34 home runs a season.
“He hits for power and average. Obviously he’s onto something,” said Bradley. “I’ve learned a lot talking to him. A lot of doors opened up.”
It also helps that the bilingual Martinez crosses cultural boundaries. He was born in Miami of Cuban parents and played high school and college baseball en route to the majors.
Martinez came though the system that produced some teammates but understands the challenges others have. It makes him uniquely positioned to help.
“Absolutely, 100 percent,” Martinez said. “I don’t have any cliques; I mingle with everybody. Mingling with everybody helps the clubhouse chemistry, too.
“There are certain guys I will go up to, if I sense they’re intimidated by me and won’t ask me first. They think they don’t want to bother me. But I’ll wait for an off day and call them over and try to figure things out.
“Then there’s other guys who have had success and they don’t want any help. I don’t think I know everything, but I’m happy to help.”
It worked smoothly because Hyers and his assistant, Andy Barkett, welcomed Martinez’s input. They saw him as an ally, not a threat to their authority.
That both coaches are advocates of swings tailored to get the ball in the air helped. They spoke Martinez’s language.
“That’s the atmosphere I want,” Hyers said. “I’m not going to pick up everything. He might see things I can’t see. You want the guys talking to each other. All of us, we talk baseball.
“J.D. understands how the swing works. But it’s not a cookie-cutter approach. He doesn’t expect everybody to swing the way he swings. But he really knows how to talk to the players, and he’s easy to talk to about hitting.”
The Martinez Method — maybe that will be the book title someday — encompasses physical and mental preparation. He carries around an equipment bag of large elastic bands and medicine balls to “activate” his body before games.
He also hits incessantly, his swings starting early in the afternoon before night games. There is an evangelical zeal to how strictly he adheres to his routine.
The mental preparation, breaking down opposing pitchers and putting together a game plan for each situation, is equally important. Martinez consumes information voraciously, to a point of having his batting-practice swings recorded on an iPad so he can go back and look for the tiniest of flaws.
Now Betts and other players do some of the same things.
“Sometimes one person can say something that makes a difference for you,” Betts said. “That was J.D. for a few of us. He’s helped me a lot in terms of understanding what goes into having a good game.”
The Red Sox have 11 games to win in the postseason, but Bradley is already eager to make the four-hour round trip from his home in Florida to work out with Martinez in Miami this winter.
Bradley hit .252 with a .775 OPS after June 1, recovering from a calamitous start of the season by incorporating some of Martinez’s principles.
There could be other Sox journeying to Miami, too.
“I get a lot of joy out of that, Martinez said. “With Jackie, you can see his eyes light up. It’s a great feeling when I see a guy is about to go off in a game and he goes out there and crushes it.
“I never pressure anyone to believe what I believe. It’s their choice. But when guys ask me, I’m always open, and I share. I love to talk about hitting. It’s a passion of mine. I’m glad I found teammates who feel the same way.”