Low draft pick, high expectations: an introduction to J.D. Martinez.
It’s a sweltering 96 degrees in the mid-afternoon hours at Whataburger Field, and the Corpus Christi Hooks, dressed in light blue t-shirts and baseball pants, have begun their day at the office. There’s a slight breeze that comes off the water, but it provides little relief to the suffocating heat that drapes over this southeastern Texas town. The ballpark is quaint and beautiful, but from corner to corner, there is nowhere to go to escape the heat.
Such extreme temps might prompt the average citizen to move a little slower in these parts. But not the Corpus Christi Hooks. There’s work to do — infield and outfield drills, stretching, warming up, batting practice. If they are bothered by the heat, they hide it well. These are young ballplayers, hungry to win, hungrier to play in the Majors. They ignore the elements and push through.
In the middle of the group is J.D. Martinez. He’s bathed in sweat, but he walks with a swagger, oozing confidence and looking very much like the prototypical ballplayer — tall, slender, strong. He’s the Hooks’ cleanup hitter, and if the stars are aligned properly, he’ll someday do something similar for the Houston Astros.
Draft Day in 2009 was supposed to be a day of celebration for Martinez, but the one emotion he felt over all others was disappointment. He wasn’t selected until the 20th round — No. 611 overall, and the delay surprised and saddened him.
“I was bummed out,” Martinez said. “I wasn’t as excited as you should be.”
Instead of wallowing in self-pity, he used it as motivation. Every day he tells himself, “You’re not supposed to be where you’re at right now, according to everybody.”
Where is he exactly? Simply, he’s at the top of the organizational ladder, the logical choice to eventually replace Carlos Lee in left field. Martinez started his career in ’09 as a bench player in Greeneville who had little chance to ever crack the starting lineup with any kind of regularity. He ended the 2010 season as the Astros Minor League Player of the Year.
Greeneville’s Opening Day began with Martinez on the bench. When he did finally get a chance to play, he remembered, “I had a horrible day.” Soon after, Astros Minor League hitting coordinator Mike Barnett (currently the Astros hitting coach) paid him a visit. Barnett noticed a small flaw that was causing Martinez’s swing to drag. They added a little hip flinch, and that one alteration may have changed the entire course of Martinez’s career.
Not long after Martinez’s session with Barnett, a teammate got hurt. Manager Rodney Linares shuffled the lineup and inserted Martinez into left field. He had a good game, so he played there again the next night. He had another good game. In 19 games with Greeneville, Martinez batted .403.
Martinez played for four affiliates in two years and never hit below .300. Not bad for a kid who was told by Linares, “You weren’t supposed to play a lot.”
Martinez recalled a hypothetical dilemma Hooks manager Tom Lawless presented to him earlier this season.
“He said, ‘If you were the general manager, what would you do — bring in a guy that can hit for average that’s going to hit .330, .340 at every level but who drives in maybe 80 (runs), or are you looking for a guy who hits maybe .280, .290, that drives in 100?’”
The answer (unless you’re Albert Pujols and can hit .340 AND drive in 130 every year) is the latter. Martinez has bought into the philosophy. Now it’s just a matter of implementing the plan.
His coaches are stressing the need for him to pull the ball more, and to hit for more power. Martinez appears to be ahead of the game in that respect — typically, players are pull hitters first and slowly evolve into being able to go to the opposite field. Martinez has always been good at hitting the ball to right, so in essence, he already has a solid handle on the hardest part of his game.
“It’s something that I’m willing to learn, that I’m excited to learn,” he said. “I can do the average thing. I have an idea how to hit to right field and how to hit to all fields. That’s why I’m able to hit for average every year. But (the Major Leagues) is a different game. It’s almost like you have to give and take. That’s what we’re working on, getting into a good count, not just be satisfied with hitting on the barrel somewhere. They want me to unload on it.”
Martinez was one of a slew of young players the Astros invited to big league Spring Training this year. Looking back, he said that experience helped him tremendously, not only to get a feel for what life is like at that level, but to also get over the awe factor and realize everyone is playing the same game.
“You idolize these players and think they’re gods,” Martinez said. “Spring Training put it back in perspective. It’s just a game.”
Martinez’s short spring stint with the big club was productive in another way — although he had no chance to make the team, his performance left quite an impression on the Astros’ decision-makers. He played in only eight games, but he was a refreshing addition to an exhibition season that, for the Astros, was a foreshadow of things to come. The Astros are near the bottom in the National League in home run totals, with most of the power coming from one player — Hunter Pence.
Whether Martinez’s numbers will translate to power in the big league remains to be seen. There are no guarantees. But those who are watching him play every day feel pretty confident the 23-year-old will be able to make the transition.
“He’s driving the ball to gaps and hitting home runs, which is what he needs to do,” Lawless said. “I told him, “You can’t play left field and be a singles hitter in the big leagues. you have to drive the ball to the gaps and hit home runs.’ I think he understands that now.”
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