Chip on his shoulder, Martinez vows to rake

February 23rd, 2021

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- You won't actually be able to see the chip wears on his shoulder in 2021, but opposing pitchers are probably going to feel the brunt of it.

If you're looking for a top candidate to win the American League's Comeback Player of the Year Award, you might want to start with the guy who starts at designated hitter for the Red Sox.

"I think I've got a little bit of a chip on my shoulder," said Martinez. "I've always played with that, I've always played with that chip, having to prove people wrong my whole career. It kind of might have went away a little bit, but I think I've got it back a little bit now."

Last season represented the worst Martinez has looked with a bat in his hands since before the Houston Astros released him. And we all know how that turned out.

Martinez used the rejection from Houston to help spur him on to become elite at the art of production -- first for the Tigers, and briefly with the D-backs and then for the Red Sox.

But then came 2020, when Martinez felt lost without being able to study video of his at-bats during games and let it get to him mentally.

The results? A .213 average, seven homers, a .680 OPS and -0.6 bWAR. Yes, it was that bad.

"Thanks for reminding me of that," quipped Martinez to a reporter who opened the Zoom session reciting his 2020 batting average. "It was obviously a rough two months. It was one of those things that I felt like I really wasn't prepared for last year. I feel like it kind of caught me off guard, with whether we were going to play, whether we weren't."

Nobody is as meticulous about his hitting as Martinez. And that's why not being able to look at his at-bats in-game -- part of the restrictions due to COVID-19 -- threw him off so much.

"It definitely hurt me a bit. Obviously had to change my routine to something I wasn't used to. It's something I grew up with in the Minors," Martinez said. "Like I've said a million times, it's part of my routine, and it's something that kind of just got taken away from me. I'm excited that this year we're going to have it back in a sense, some kind of video where we can look at our swings. So I'm looking forward to getting back to somewhat normal baseball during these crazy times."

The right-handed-hitting machine was overjoyed when last season ended, because it meant he could work overtime in what he refers to as the lab.

The lab is the batting cage he spends much of his time at in Miami during the offseason. And this time, the hours were longer than usual -- but also more productive.

He diagnosed his issues swiftly and then worked to get them fixed.

"I created some really, really bad habits in my swing and I didn't even notice it at the time," Martinez said. "It kind of just took me a while to figure out what was the actual cause of it. What was causing this move that I was making. I literally spent a lot of time on it, trying new things in the cages.

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"I remember one week in the cage from freaking like 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at night for like a week straight, right when I started hitting. 'OK, let's start off right away and eliminate everything and get to the source so we know what to work on the entire offseason.' I feel like we did a good job of it. I'm excited for the season, honestly."

When Martinez's swing is in sync, he's as dependable a force as there is in the game. In 2017-19, he smashed 124 home runs -- seven more than any other player. His 339 RBIs were second over that span, and only Mike Trout's slugging percentage was better than Martinez's .619 clip.

This is why Red Sox manager Alex Cora doesn't spend a lot of time fretting about whether Martinez will regain his groove this season.

"We saw it in 2018, we saw it in '19, we saw it before that," Cora said. "Honestly, J.D.'s swing is not one of my biggest worries. J.D. is doing great, man. He's looking for ways to keep improving. He looks great physically.

"Obviously everybody is going to point out last year. I still believe in this guy. He's capable of doing damage. He's a proud individual. Over the course of his career he's proved people wrong, so like I've been saying all along, it's not going to be a surprise for me when he goes out there and produces like he's capable of."

At 33 years old, Martinez has two years left on his contract with the Red Sox, though he will have an opt-out clause this coming winter for the third straight year.

In truth, he hopes he's in Boston long beyond 2022 and can join David Ortiz and Nelson Cruz as sluggers who thrived deep into their 30s and even into their 40s.

"I mean, that's what I'm hoping, honestly," Martinez said. "I've hoped that since the first time I signed here. Now this is a special organization. A lot of guys don't get to play for the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Dodgers, the Cubs, those historic franchises."

To stay in Boston, Martinez knows he will need to get back on track and stay on track. And he will use that chip he likes to talk about to help him keep raking.

"I actually worked out with Nelson Cruz, you know, in the offseason a little bit and I was just picking his brain the whole time," Martinez said. "I was like, 'Nelson, talk to me. How do you do it?' I feel like he's been as productive the last two years then he's been his whole career if you look at his numbers. That's impressive and it gives you motivation, because in your mind, you're like, 'Well, if he can do it, why can't I?'"