By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Even after smacking 10 home runs in 17 games for the Toledo Mud Hens, the call up to the Detroit Tigers surprised 26-year-old outfielder J.D. Martinez.
“I was kind of shocked,” Martinez said. “I really wasn’t expecting it, to be honest with you … This is big leagues. That’s Triple A. It’s different. These guys up here, they do it up here. That means something.”
In 17 games in Toledo, Martinez has a .308 batting average and .366 on-base percentage to go with those 10 homers.
The Houston Astros drafted Martinez in 2009, and over the last three seasons Martinez played in 252 major league games. Several of his Astros coaches, John Mallee and Dan Radison, encouraged him to change his swing, so this past offseason Martinez did exactly that. While the change led to Martinez’s impressive numbers, it hardly came easily.
“It was definitely tough,” Martinez said. “The first couple weeks, I just wanted to pull every hair out of my head, but I knew that it would pay dividends down the road, and I just kept staying focused and staying positive in it, and it took me awhile, but I feel I finally got accustomed to it, and now it’s like second nature. It’s like my old swing.”
When Martinez went into spring training with the Astros, he felt like the at bats were not there for him to get into a rhythm. The situation worked against him demonstrating his capability with his new swing, which he said is so different from his old swing that he struggles even describe it.
While there was some trepidation in deviating from the old swing, Martinez had faith because the new swing combines some common elements of the swings of all the best players.
“There was definitely some questions at first, but I felt like there’s so many great players and they all have these things that they do alike – it’s got to be working,” Martinez said. “You’re not going to reinvent this all of a sudden. Just made my swing more traditional, more rhythmic I feel like, than it’s even been.”
More than just switching up his mechanics, Martinez also changed his mindset.
“I was just trying to hit the ball, just trying to make contact with it, really just trying to play pepper with the ball instead of trying to hit through it, if you want to really break it down,” Martinez said. “I feel like the ball just travels a lot more now. They don’t just line drive anymore. They more like – they go.”
New Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said that while he has seen Martinez play, he is not overly familiar with him.
“I wouldn’t say I’m an expert in J.D. Martinez, but [third base coach] Dave Clark knows him very well,” Ausmus said. “He was with him in Houston, knows him as a person, knows him as a player. I trust Clarkie’s opinion. His recommendation carried some weight.
“Obviously he can play the outfield, spell someone in the outfield,” Ausmus said. “He’s got power off the bench, as a pinch hitter late in a game if it’s a close game, which has to give the opposing manager a little pause in terms of who to bring out of the bullpen, and he’s a threat whenever he’s in the box.”
Ausmus said Martinez’s ability to drive the ball is one of the reasons the Tigers picked him up, since power to hit the ball over the wall is “not something we have a ton of,” as the manager explained it. While Ausmus is not expecting Martinez to rack up the same kind of gaudy stats he did in Toledo, Ausmus seemed optimistic.
“I don’t jump out of my shoes for Triple-A statistics, but he certainly swung the bat well down there,” Ausmus added. “I’d love to see it carry over, but there’s a big difference. He’s played here before, so he knows what to expect, he’s played at the major league level. It’s tough to teach power, just like it’s stuff to teach speed.”