PITTSBURGH – After a 3-for-6, three-home run, six-RBI day at the plate on Father’s Day versus the New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers’ right fielder J.D. Martinez now has 16 home runs on the year, ranking him 7th in the American League and 13th overall in MLB.
The story of how Martinez came to be one of the best power hitters in baseball isn’t anything new.
After getting cut by the Houston Astros during 2014 spring training, the Detroit Tigers signed him to a minor league deal a couple of days later.
Four weeks after that, the Tigers promoted him from Triple AAA Toledo to the big leagues where he ended up with slashing .315/.358/.553 slash line, with 23 home runs, 76 RBIs, 57 runs, and six stolen bases over just 123 games.
Dan Farnsworth of FanGraphs first caught wind of the future star, following the 2013 season when Martinez was removed from the Astros 40-man roster and entered in to the Rule 5 Draft (where no one picked him up!).
The quick synopsis from Farnsworth’s article stated the following, “J.D. is showing a tremendously better ability to drive the ball to center and right-center fields due to a change in swing path and lower half stability.”
As Jeff Sullivan, later pointed out in another piece on Martinez on FanGraphs, “Farnsworth projected that Martinez would show a better ability to drive the ball up the middle and the other way. Martinez was never lacking for power. It was about consistency and plate coverage. Before, as an Astro, Martinez demonstrated fairly good pull power, but he didn’t have too much power elsewhere. He wasn’t a pile of crap to the other fields, but those weren’t necessarily strengths. This year’s numbers are absurdities. Even more pull power. Better power up the middle. Better power the other way. Martinez has been one of baseball’s best opposite-field hitters to date. He’s been perhaps even better the other way than to the pull side.”
Let’s examine that analysis and tie it in to both this season as well as yesterday’s home run show Martinez put on at Yankee Stadium.
As Farnsworth and Sullivan both pointed out, the adjustments in Martinez’s swing have allowed him to be one of the best opposite field hitters over the past two seasons. The spray charts above, first from his time with the Astros and then currently with the Tigers, clearly illustrate this point.
Furthermore, Eno Sarris of FanGraphs has some great quotes from Martinez about the adjustments he’s made.
“I had to change my step because it was kind of causing me to do other things. When I figured out how I wanted my path to work, I had to be in the zone as long as possible. If I get my foot down earlier, I’m going to send the bat earlier. I have my hands so high, they have to come back down. If I bring my hands down a little more, I can be more into that slot that I need to be. Trickle effect. You fix one thing, it’s a ripple effect. You have to fix other things so that things line up.”
We can see in the slow-mo swing below, from his first home run yesterday, how he’s completely eliminated the toe-tap, allowing for – as Martinez put it – to be in the zone as long as possible.
Later in Sarris’ piece, he has this Martinez quote:
“I overdid the changes a bit in the offseason — trying to be so perfect with my swing — that I ended up taking away stuff that was good. I stopped my hands from moving. Last year, I kept my hands moving. So this year, when I was going through that funk, that was one thing we noticed. My hands were moving less than last year, and that movement got me more into my rhythm and timing. I’m glad that stretch happened now, because I don’t think I would have been able to make that fix without it. Now my swing is built to try and get the ball in the air.”
After watching those two home runs – coupled with what Martinez said above, “Now my swing is built to try and get the ball in the air” – we can see just how effective his swing changes have been. The pitch location of each of those two home runs, while in the strike zone, are perhaps not ideally suited for a player not of Martinez’s ilk.
Take a look at the pitching chart to Martinez from yesterday’s game. The clear red square and clear green diamond – each located on the lower, outside part of the strike zone – were the pitches that resulted in his second and third home runs.
Right now, Martinez is on pace for around 38 home runs this season. A few more swings like those above and that number may inch closer to 50 before it’s all said and done.