Boston Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez proving to be worth every penny

MLB


BOSTON — J.D. Martinez‘s message is loud and clear, backed up by home runs, exit velocity and launch angle: He was worth the money.

Martinez entered last offseason as one of the top free agents after a four-season run as one of the game’s top hitters and coming off a monster 2017 campaign with the Tigers and Diamondbacks in which he hit 45 home runs and slugged .690 in 119 games.

He remained unsigned through the winter meetings and through January and into February. Finally, after spring training had already started, Martinez landed in Boston where everyone had predicted, giving the Red Sox the power bat they needed after finishing last in the American League in home runs in 2017. He signed a five-year, $110 million contract on Feb. 26, and while it took him seven games before he hit his first home run, he hasn’t stopped mashing since.

Martinez went 4-for-5 with two doubles, a massive home run to dead center field, five RBIs and a go-ahead two-run single in the seventh inning as the Red Sox rallied from a five-run deficit to bury the Mariners in a wild 14-10 victory at Fenway Park on Friday. He’s hitting .324/.393/.644, tied Mike Trout for the MLB lead with 23 home runs, took over the MLB lead with 60 RBIs, and ranks third in the majors in slugging percentage and OPS, trailing only Trout and teammate Mookie Betts in both categories.

He is, in other words, the same fearsome slugger who tore apart pitchers in 2017 and yet had trouble finding a job, at least at the right price. Martinez recently expressed his displeasure to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Cwik over what transpired in free agency. “It was a joke,” he said about the ugly aspects of the business side of baseball. “Once you start getting into the dollars and you start talking about that, then you start seeing teams come out and say how they really feel about you.”

Martinez was entering his age-30 season. Too risky for a long-term, nine-figure contract suggested some critics, pointing to some of the free-agent busts in recent years who signed deals that took them into their mid-30s. The market also hasn’t been kind to corner outfielders and first base/DH types in recent years and some teams might have felt Martinez was limited to a DH role — if not now, then certainly within a couple of years.

The Red Sox, with an opening at DH, were the obvious fit. With Martinez and Betts leading the way, they’ve improved from 4.85 runs per game, sixth in the AL, to 5.16 per game, second in the majors to the Yankees’ 5.23 — all while the AL average per game has dipped from 4.71 to 4.40.

That attack was on full display Friday as the Red Sox pounded out a season-high 20 hits and matched their season-high with the 14 runs. After the Mariners scored four runs in the first off Steven Wright, the Red Sox responded with five runs off Wade LeBlanc in the bottom of the inning. Martinez showed off his raw strength by one-handing a double off the Green Monster.

It was a twist from last weekend in Seattle, when LeBlanc retired 22 batters in a row at one point and outdueled Wright in a 1-0 game. “He pitched a great game against us last time,” Martinez said of the soft-tossing Seattle lefty. “It was one of those things where I think we had a little chip on our shoulder coming into today. We were like ‘Let’s go, let’s get this guy.’ Maybe we were a little more focused. We got him up against the ropes right away and didn’t let him get comfortable.”

Still, the Mariners battled back. Nelson Cruz hit his second three-run homer off Wright and the Mariners would take a 10-5 lead. The Mariners were just swept in three games at Yankee Stadium at the start of their East Coast road trip and one of those losses came Wednesday when they blew a 5-0 lead. Entering Friday’s action, teams were 409-19 this season when leading by five-plus runs at one point. The Mariners blew their second five-run lead in three days Friday.

“When we went down 10-5, I remember just thinking in the outfield during one of the pitching changes that we’re down 10-5, but it doesn’t really feel like that way,” Martinez said.

It was 10-6 in the sixth when Andrew Benintendi drew a two-out walk off James Pazos. The Mariners turned to Nick Vincent, just off the DL. He had nothing and Martinez ripped a 1-2, 89 mph fastball 427 feet to center field. In the seventh, Martinez came up with the bases loaded and the score tied at 10 and grounded a base hit up the middle for two more runs.

As Red Sox manager Alex Cora said after the game, “That’s the beauty of baseball. Two guys that went at it last week and only one run and, boom, look what happened in the first inning.”

The Red Sox have been burned in recent years by big-money contracts — Carl Crawford, Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, to name three that turned out so poorly the Red Sox dumped all three before the deals were done. Maybe that’s one reason they held firm on not wanting to overpay Martinez.

It’s only three months into the deal, but the early returns have the five-year investment looking pretty good. With Jackie Bradley Jr. and Betts having short stints on the DL, Martinez has even started 31 games in the outfield. But it’s the bat that pays the rent.

He really has become a hitter without a major weakness. You can get him to chase sliders when ahead in the count and he has little weak spot up and in like most batters, but otherwise he has no obvious holes that you can attack:

Fastballs: .333/.417/.733 (103 PAs); sinkers: .432/.510/.818 (51 PAs); changeups: .268/.289/.659 (42 PAs); sliders: .234/.301/.359 (73 PAs); curveballs: .444/.474/.778 (19 PAs)

When he’s in a hitter’s count, his OPS is 1.839. When the count is even, it’s 1.298. And if you try to get ahead on the first pitch and make a mistake, watch out: He’s hitting .576 when he puts the first pitch in play.

Martinez mentioned the chip on his shoulder the team might have had against LeBlanc. I think this is guy with a chip on his shoulder against the entire league.



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