“The Red Sox outfielders.”
Three names immediately come to mind when that phrase is uttered, and for obvious reason. Mookie Betts won his third straight Gold Glove in right field in 2018 while also taking home a Silver Slugger Award as the best offensive player at the position. Center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. claimed his first Gold Glove. While Andrew Benintendi didn’t win any hardware, he was a Gold Glove finalist.
Yet the player who reaped the greatest financial benefit from the Red Sox for being an outfielder was none of the above. Instead, it was J.D. Martinez who took in an extra $100,000 for winning the Silver Slugger Award as the top hitting left fielder — a performance bonus he received on top of the $100,000 he also secured for winning the Silver Slugger Award as the top hitting designated hitter.
“I laughed. I laughed,” Martinez said of his reaction to becoming the first player to win the Silver Slugger at two different positions in the same year. “Found a loophole I guess.”
Adding to the comedy: Though Martinez won the Silver Slugger Award as the best offensive designated hitter in the game (as voted on by coaches and managers), he did not secure the Edgar Martinez Outstanding Designated Hitter Award, whose electorate includes writers, broadcasters, and American League public relations departments. Khris Davis of the A’s received that honor.
“It was all just a mess,” said Martinez.
Yet the confusion surrounding the awards points to a complex positional identity. On one hand, Martinez spent more time as designated hitter last year than he did in the outfield, filling that role in 93 games. But he played 32 additional contests in left field and another 25 in right.
So what is he? The subject is at times the subject of amusement around the Red Sox.
“He’ll joke around and say that he ranked as the top left fielder in baseball. I just give him crap that, ‘Hey, you don’t even start on this team,’” said Benintendi. “We always give him crap that he’s just a DH, and kind of make fun of his athleticism, just because we’re all these small guys who can run around.
“But,” Benintendi allowed, “we think of him as an outfielder, too.”
Martinez thinks of himself in such terms as well. He doesn’t approach the outfield as an inconvenience. He enjoys roaming the grass.
The Red Sox are comfortable having him play the corners (they plan to have him play roughly the same number of games in the outfield, chiefly right, in 2019 that he did in 2018). And while he probably won’t wrestle primary outfield duties from Betts or Benintendi anytime soon, if he were to print self-identifying business cards, his listed position probably wouldn’t be designated hitter.
“I can play outfield. It’s tough with this outfield, obviously. I’m not saying I’m at that level, but I’m not a liability,” said Martinez. “If you’re expecting some kind of miracle Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. play, that’s not my ability that I was given — but I feel like I can do a fair job of holding my own out there.”
That self-assessment isn’t a fun-house mirror reflection. At the field level, others agree that Martinez is capable when wearing a glove.
“He’s not a pure DH,” former Orioles manager Buck Showalter noted last year. “He’s not a bad defender. He throws well. They can throw him out there. It’s kind of tough that he gets penalized [in MVP voting] because in some people’s minds he’s a DH.”
Obviously, the Red Sox have concluded that their strongest lineup is usually one that features Benintendi, Bradley, and Betts in the outfield with Martinez as designated hitter. The team was an incredible 60-21 (.741) in games with that combination.
While the team was a still-excellent 33-24 (.579, a 94-win pace over a 162-game season) with Martinez in the outfield, it would be misleading to attribute any downgrade solely to the slugger’s defense. Most of the team’s losses in games where he played outfield came against lefthanded starters, a demographic that spent a significant chunk of last year as a kind of Red Sox kryptonite.
Moreover, Martinez delivered greater offensive value to the team when he played the outfield than when he served as DH. He hit .384/.450/.680 in games where he played outfield, and .297/.373/.597 as a designated hitter. He believes he benefits from the engagement with the game on both sides of the ball — even as he made a point of trying to find a way to take advantage of those times when he wasn’t in the field.
“On days where my swing feels good, put me in the outfield. It keeps me out of the cage, keeps me in the game. I love playing the outfield. No. 1, it keeps me loose. I’m constantly running, moving. For me, my body works well when I’m constantly moving. Whenever I stop and you put me in a bubble, I get tight,” he said. “But there’s times when DHing is an advantage for me because I can go in there and have a grind day, just go in [the batting cage between innings] and grind on stuff, try to find my swing again.”
The fact that he is capable of putting up significant numbers even in a part-time role, and that he’s likely to see more time in right field this season, introduces a sense of possibility. Could Martinez, one year removed from becoming the first player to win two Silver Slugger Awards in one season, go for three — DH, left, right — in 2019?
“Mookie’s scared,” Martinez laughed.
As he does so often, Betts seemed willing to defend his turf in right field.
“I told him, ‘Don’t get too comfortable out there,’ ” Betts said. “He needs to stay in that DH role.”