The presence of Carlos Santana at Fenway Park offered a reminder of how close the Red Sox came to moving on from J.D. Martinez in the offseason of 2017-18.
While Martinez sat on the open market, the Red Sox were connected with the big three of free-agent corner bats: Martinez, Santana, and Eric Hosmer. On Dec. 18, 2017, the Sox instead re-signed Mitch Moreland to a two-year, $13 million deal — one that essentially closed the door on Hosmer, but did not foreclose the possibility of a deal for either Santana or Martinez.
The Red Sox put a three-year, $45 million offer on the table for Santana. The possibility of playing for the Red Sox was something that the switch-hitter (who would have served as a designated hitter and platoon partner for Moreland) strongly considered.
“I was thinking about that. I was thinking Boston, mentally, I wanted to play here. It’s fun, the teammates, the fans, the stadium — they have a lot of good things. But everyone knows it’s a business,” said Santana. “It was a hard decision for me and my family, but I signed with Philly.”
The Phillies gave Santana a three-year, $60 million deal. Had he accepted Boston’s offer, however, it would have closed the door to Martinez in Boston.
Santana — who was dealt this past offseason from Philadelphia back to Cleveland, in part to open first base for Phillies star Rhys Hoskins — is amidst an excellent start to 2019, hitting .274/.400/.473 with nine homers. Still, it is safe to say that while the Red Sox saw a good fit for Santana in Boston, they’re pleased with the outcome that resulted in Martinez joining the Red Sox — where he continues to build a case as one of the preeminent righthanded hitters of the 21st century.
For the second straight year, Martinez is delivering phenomenal performance. He entered Wednesday hitting .306 with a .388 OBP, .543 slugging mark, and 11 homers through 55 games. He’s currently on pace for 32 homers, though it’s not hard to imagine how warmer weather might elevate that total quickly.
After all, Martinez is establishing performance baselines that suggest a player in the midst of one of the great runs of the 21st century. Since his offensive reinvention after the 2013 season, when he reconfigured his swing to go from a hitter who sprayed line drives to one who launched, Martinez is hitting .307/.372/.583 while averaging 41 homers and 83 extra-base hits per 162 games.
He hit over .300 with more than 40 homers in both 2017 and 2018. The only other hitters to do so multiple times since the introduction of PED testing in 2004 are Albert Pujols (5 times), Alex Rodriguez (2 times), Miguel Cabrera (2 times), and David Ortiz (2 times). There’s a very real chance that Martinez will join Pujols as the only three-peaters in that rare coupling of elite power and elite average — and Martinez would be doing it in an era when reliever usage and stuff are both far different than they were when Pujols last accomplished the trick in 2010.
“To be able to do both those things is so difficult in today’s game because of velocities, movement, I think that’s why he’s one of the elite hitters in baseball,” said bench coach Ron Roenicke. “When he’s staying with what he does well, it’s pretty amazing. He can hit to all fields. He can hit the off-speed. . . . When he’s disciplined at the plate, he’s as good as anybody in the game.”
Roenicke identified Pujols and Cabrera as players who shared Martinez’s ability to hit for power without sacrificing his approach, while also noting the similarity of Martinez to Mike Trout in the ability to drive the ball to the opposite field.
What Martinez does on the field in games is a marvel. Yet like most truly great hitters, the 31-year-old follows behind-the-scenes routines that are the source of amazement to his teammates and that have laid the bedrock of his remarkable consistency and that, in turn, serve as a sort of metronome for his club.
“You know what time he’s going to be in the cage every day,” said assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett. “You know what time he’s going to be there before the game starts. You know he’s going to be in there between innings. You can set your clock that he’s going to want flips before [batting practice] at a certain time.”
That commitment to calibration reflects the fact that Martinez is working not just on one swing but on several. The hitter varies his attack based on the zones where he feels an opposing pitcher will attack him.
If the key to driving the ball with force is to match the plane of the pitch with his swing, then to Martinez, different pitch movements in different parts of the zone necessitate different swings.
“It’s like golfing. They’ve got how many clubs?” mused Martinez. “I don’t play golf, but they’ve got a lot of clubs for a lot of different spots where the ball lies. It’s kind of the same thing as that.”
That versatile approach to gameplanning for opposing pitchers — one that requires detailed work both to study pitch tendencies of his opponents and then to choose the club (or swing) that offers the best chance to hit the ball hard — helps to explain why Martinez has emerged as one of the elite offensive forces this decade.
So, too, does the fact that Martinez does not take satisfaction in his status, in his unlikely emergence from a player who was released by the Astros in his mid-20s to a middle-of-the-lineup monster.
“This isn’t a sport where you dwell on your past accomplishments. This is a sport where you have to produce now,” said Martinez. “You can hit the game-winning home run yesterday, you strike out with the bases loaded in a game-winning spot and everyone is [upset]. They quickly forget about the past, so you have to, too.”
That measured approach to success suggests part of the reason why Martinez has become a standout among peers, one for whom largely inconceivable performance bars are becoming baselines.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com.