Hot start illustrates J.D. Martinez's ongoing evolution

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Detroit Tigers'   J.D. Martinez

Houston — You can equate where J.D. Martinez is in his baseball evolution today to a graduate student putting the finishing touches on his Master’s Degree. He knows his subject inside and out and now it’s a matter of applying his knowledge to real-life situations.

“It’s just having a game plan,” he said before the game Friday. “I’m going up there with a good game plan against certain pitchers. I feel like that’s been my strength. Especially in Pittsburgh. I knew what those guys throw. I’ve faced them quite a bit. I know how they’re going to try to pitch me, I know what pitches they are going to try to make me chase.”

It wasn’t just the Pirates pitchers. He’s been locked in since the bell rang on this 2016 season. He hit safely in the first seven games. And even though he went hitless Thursday in Pittsburgh, he extended one inning with a walk and started one inning with a walk, scored both times, and added a sacrifice fly.

He’s hitting .433 with a home run (with a .500 on-base percentage), three doubles and five walks.

“He worked hard in spring training to do just that (start fast),” hitting coach Wally Joyner said. “You don’t want to peak too soon and you don’t want to find it and lose it in spring training. You are going to find it and lose it during the season.

“But he is doing great. His approach has been very consistent and he’s taken it into every game so far.”

What seems different this season is Martinez’s patience at the plate, his ability to recognize the sliders and the breaking balls out of the zone and laying off them. He’s been a dangerous hitter since he came to Detroit. Now he looks like a mature hitter.

“It’s just that I am going up with a game plan and I am sticking to it,” he said. “I am not getting away from it. They want to get you uncomfortable at the plate. It’s like what they do to Miggy (Cabrera). They don’t want to pitch to his strength, but Miggy is so good because he makes the adjustment and he can hit so many different kinds of pitches.

“I feel like I am not quite at that level, but I can hit a good amount of pitches when I’m anticipating them.”

The Yankees initially attacked Martinez with off-speed pitches and he hit them. The next day they went after him with fastballs. That worked for one at-bat and then he adjusted.

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“That’s how it is over and over,” Martinez said. “Pittsburgh was coming inside the first couple of games and they blew me up. Then I hit the home run off (Jonathan) Niese and they said, ‘We’re not going in there anymore.’ Then they started going up and I had to make the adjustment.”

Martinez still keeps his journals on how each pitcher tries to attack him and updates them regularly. But, like any post-graduate, the knowledge is embedded — he doesn’t have to go back to the reference material as often.

“This is what I think,” he said. “When I am going good, I know what adjustments to make with a certain pitch. If they are throwing me in, I’m going to try and keep my heel down and take the nob (of the bat) past the ball. If they are throwing me up and in, I’m keeping my hands above my elbows.

“These are the keys I use in my mind, things I do that if you’d tell somebody else they won’t know what I’m talking about. But to me, when I am going good, I know what adjustments to make in my head.”

It’s still seems implausible that three years ago he was designated for assignment by the Astros.

“It’s a remarkable story,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “The guy gets released, then becomes a Silver Slugger, hits 30 home runs, drives in 100. And I don’t think it’s going to slow down.”

Martinez has always said he holds no animosity toward the Astros. He was hurt, sure, but when it scarred over, he took responsibility for it.

“They gave me a chance and I didn’t do what I was supposed to,” he said. “They had a bunch of good young guys coming up and my time ran out.”

He still has good friends in Houston — Dallas Keuchel, who he faced Friday, Mike Fiers, whom he will face Sunday, George Springer among others.

“I like a lot of the guys over there,” Martinez said. “I still text those guys throughout the year. I’m always rooting for them. I was super happy for Dallas last year when he won the Cy Young Award. I texted Springer when he got hurt.

“I texted Fiers when he pitched a no-hitter — on my birthday. It was cool.”

Twitter @cmccosky