Was it a fluke? Confident Martinez embarks on telltale season

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
J.D. Martinez: "I think God had a plan, and right when you think the world's falling apart on you, you never know what he's got up his sleeve."

Tampa, Fla. -- Tuesday was J.D. Martinez's anniversary.

One year with the Detroit Tigers.

The Tigers signed him March 24, 2014, swooping him up almost immediately after the lowly Houston Astros released him.

And, oh, what a year it's been.

"I think God had a plan, and right when you think the world's falling apart on you, you never know what he's got up his sleeve," Martinez said Tuesday night in the visitors' locker room at George M. Steinbrenner Field.

"That's how I like to look at it."

Since the Tigers picked him up, he has played in 156 games -- 123 with Detroit in 2014, 17 with Triple-A Toledo in 2014, and 16 this spring. And over those 156 games, he's put up some special numbers: 38 home runs, 109 RBIs, a .317 batting average and an OPS well above .900.

This spring, he's been the Tigers' best offensive weapon, picking up right where he left off in Game 3 of last fall's American League Division Series, when he doubled in the ninth inning to nearly save the season. In 16 spring games, he's had five homers, 11 RBIs and an OPS of 1.195.

Martinez had a two-run double Tuesday night, as if to celebrate his anniversary.

Not that he knew it was the anniversary until a reporter pointed it out to him.

"I had some options, but the Tigers were giving me what I wanted," Martinez said. "The big thing was the opt-out. They were giving it to me."

The opt-out date was either in June or July, Martinez can't remember. The clause stated if he wasn't on the major-league roster by a certain date, he was free to explore other opportunities.

That was huge, considering Martinez didn't expect to make it with the Tigers.

He knew he wasn't going to beat out Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter or Rajai Davis for a starting spot last spring, but he knew he was guaranteed to start every day in Toledo, so that would at least give him a chance to keep working on his new swing, while showcasing his services for others.

Quick promotion

The "others" never got their chance. Through 17 games at Toledo, he had 10 homers and 22 RBIs. The Tigers came calling, first as a big bat off the bench. But, before long, Martinez was doing so much damage, Brad Ausmus couldn't find a good reason to get him out of the lineup.

J.D. Martinez had 23 homers and 76 RBIs in 123 games for the Tigers last season.

He hit early, he hit late, he hit in the clutch, he hit in the postseason. He rarely stopped hitting, even when the scouting reports got out and pitchers started making their adjustments.

Funny thing: Martinez adjusted, too, as quick as at-bat to at-bat -- when in previous years, it might take him two weeks to get it together.

"They weren't last year -- how do I put it -- just serving it up," Martinez said, smiling. "This is the new age of baseball. Everything is computers and calculations and sabermetrics. If you have a hole, they're gonna find it, and they're gonna make the adjustments game to game because of that."

Martinez answered, in a big way, finishing 2014 with 23 homers, 76 RBIs and a .912 OPS over 123 games. The Tigers wouldn't have sniffed a fourth consecutive division championship without him.

Great expectations

The question now: Was it a fluke?

Martinez dismisses that. He's as confident a kid as there is, maybe because, at 27, he's not really a kid anymore. He's always believed in himself, even when the opportunities started fading with the Astros, even when his new swing wasn't quite working how he wanted early last spring.

So when he started setting the world on fire with Detroit last year, it was much more like, "What took so long?" than it was, "Can I keep this up?"

That said, he knows it gets tougher this year. He has great expectations on him for the first time as a major-leaguer. And the scouting reports on him aren't getting any thinner.

Can he keep it up?

"There's definitely gonna be more in-depth scouting reports on him compared to a year ago," Ausmus said. "That's the nature of baseball. I think he's capable of making adjustments, but it's too early.

"I wouldn't bet my life on it just yet, but I do think he can make the adjustments."

J.D. Martinez doesn't anticipate a drop in productivity: "I know the work that I did, I know the changes that I made."

Time will tell. As Martinez pointed out, you can't really judge by what happens in spring training. While Martinez has a plan for each spring training at-bat -- one time he might want to be aggressive, another time he might set out to go deep into the count -- pitchers always seem to be working on something specific each time they take the mound in the spring.

In other words, pitchers and catchers aren't having long scouting-report powwows before every spring game, like they will during the regular season.

But he has plenty of believers with the Tigers.

And, most importantly, a believer in himself.

"I don't even really worry about it," Martinez said, of the whole "pressure" and "fluke" talk. "I feel like I don't have to prove anything, the only thing I have to prove is something to myself.

"I know the work that I did, I know the changes that I made."

Those changes, mostly swing-related but some mental, took up most of last offseason. It wasn't enough to save his job with the Astros, who'd been stockpiling so many top prospects, Martinez got the picture.

Then came March 24, one year ago.

His life and the Tigers haven't been the same since.