Detroit — With the music blasting in the Tigers clubhouse late Wednesday afternoon, and most of his teammates hitting the showers or grabbing a quick bite to eat before heading to the airport for the coming trip to Kansas City, J.D. Martinez sat in front of his locker — still in uniform — and grabbed a well-worn notebook and a pen.
A couple minutes passed before he looked up from his scribbling, realizing an interview awaited. And when asked about the contents of the notebook, he smiled.
“It’s top secret,” he joked, before offering an explanation.
It’s a journal Martinez keeps of all his at-bats and “what my plan was, and what I did that did or didn’t work.” You’ll occasionally hear veteran ballplayers talk about “the book” on a particular pitcher. Well, this is an actual book that Martinez carries with him as a homemade study guide.
“Sometimes,” he says, “I’ll be in the on-deck circle and they’ll make a pitching change and I’ll run inside and look real quick.”
It’s a habit the 26-year-old outfielder — easily the Tigers’ biggest first-half surprise this season — says he formed as a minor leaguer in the Houston Astros’ farm system.
“When I got to the big leagues (in 2011), I got away from it because I was kind of embarrassed about it,” Martinez said. “But then I just decided, ‘Screw it. I don’t care what people think. I’m gonna do what works.’ ”
Whatever he’s doing now, it’s working better than anyone could have imagined.
Three months after Martinez was released by the worst team in baseball, he earned American League player of the week honors. And Wednesday, with Miguel Cabrera getting the day off and Victor Martinez still resting a sore back, J.D. Martinez batted cleanup — again — for the A.L. Central leaders, though he insists that stunning reversal of fortune “is something I honestly don’t even think about.”
“You’ve just got to worry about what’s in front of you,” he adds. “What you can control, the present.”
Presently, he’s doing exactly that. He extended his latest hitting streak to eight games Wednesday, and scored after a leadoff single in the fourth inning of a 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Taking it easy
Later, he talked about that at-bat, and what he’d learned after a first-inning strikeout, when Dodgers starter Zack Greinke fed him a steady diet of sliders.
“I haven’t faced him enough to know what he throws — and, I mean, he’s Zack Greinke,” Martinez laughed. “But once I saw more pitches, I realized I don’t have to panic anymore. And I just looked for the ball up.”
He eventually got what he was looking for, working an 0-2 count full before drilling a hanging slider into right-center field.
“I’m finally to the point now where I’m like, ‘OK, you don’t have to try to do too much with this,’ ” Martinez said. “Just think of your short, line-drive swing up the middle.’ ”
And it’s that kind of thinking — that kind of growth — that has his manager, Brad Ausmus, thinking the Tigers really do have something here that’ll last, too. There’ll be a roster decision to make when, or if, Andy Dirks returns from his injury rehab in a few weeks. But it seems safe to say at this point, Martinez isn’t going anywhere.
“A lot of people with power try to hit home runs,” Ausmus said. “But I think J.D. is becoming comfortable with the fact that he doesn’t need to try to hit home runs to hit home runs.
“When you realize that as a hitter, there’s not as much effort in your swing. It makes it a lot easier for you to make contact, it makes it a lot easier for you put the ball in play. And when you have the type of power he does, just putting the ball in play sometimes is gonna lead to home runs.”
All of which has led to Martinez getting comfortable as an everyday player, holding down the fifth spot in the Tigers’ order that was a major question mark entering the season.
Landing on his feet
Wednesday marked the 21st consecutive start for him, a stretch that dates to the end of a bizarre 9-20 skid for the Tigers that lasted from mid-May to mid-June. Over those 21 games, Martinez is hitting .393 (33-for-84) with eight homers, 18 RBIs and an eye-popping 1.255 OPS. For the season, he’s hitting .329 with 12 home runs and 38 RBIs — and a team-best .642 slugging percentage — in just 173 at-bats since getting called up from Toledo in late April.
Not bad for a guy the Astros essentially gave up on. A 20th-round draft pick by Houston as a collegiate junior, he made his major league debut in July 2011 after the Astros dealt away Hunter Pence.
But following a strong rookie showing, he struggled to produce consistently the next two seasons. And after a slow start with a newly-revamped swing this year in spring training, he was let go by the team in late March.
“When I got released, it would’ve been very easy to feel bad for myself,” Martinez said. “But I give credit to my dad. He always taught me to never quit, never get my head down. So that’s never really been my personality. I’ve always felt like the underdog, sort of against the odds, since I started in baseball. I feel like I have to prove myself. That’s kind of the motivation I use to get me going.”
And the way things are going now, well, motivation isn’t a problem.
“This is fun,” he said. “I haven’t had this much fun since Little League.”
Martinez, who credits his winter ball trip to Venezuela for helping him rediscover some of that youthful enthusiasm, admits to feeling a bit like a Little Leaguer when he first set foot in the Tigers clubhouse.
“I was just trying to hide in the corner,” he said. “(But then) Victor came up to me and gave me a hug. Miggy came up, sat at my locker and started talking hitting. Torii comes in and says, ‘What’s up?’ and is all excited to see me. (Ian) Kinsler, too. Everybody.
“Any salty veteran would’ve walked in, sat in the corner and waited for me to come up to them and introduce myself. But no, that’s not how it is here.”
And no, that’s not exactly top-secret stuff. But taking a cue from Martinez, I wrote it down anyway.