After 148 games last season, the Red Sox had a record of 85-63 -- and led the Yankees by three games in the American League East. A year later, after the same number of games, the Red Sox enter Saturday's games with a record of 101-47, and stand 9 1/2 games ahead of the Yankees. There was one significant addition to the team between then and now: J.D. Martinez. He is not only the Most Valuable Player in the AL this season, he is the MVP of the entire sport.
I was at Fenway a few weeks ago for an afternoon game against the Indians, won by the Red Sox, 7-0. Martinez was intentionally walked that day in the middle of a six-run fifth inning, and later knocked in a run with a single. So J.D. went 1-for-3, with a run scored, and a run batted in: A quiet day at the office.
In the NESN booth that afternoon, during an Indians pitching change, analyst Dennis Eckersley grinned, scratched his head and said, "Gee, what's changed in this batting order this season? Help me out here."
Martinez has changed everything for Boston's offense, and in the process become a right-handed version of David Ortiz. Once, a long time ago, the Twins didn't want Ortiz anymore. He ended up with the Red Sox and only ended up changing their history and baseball history once he got to Fenway. Nobody knew a whole lot about Ortiz when he first arrived in Boston. Everybody knew what Martinez could do when the Red Sox signed him this past February because of all the home runs he hit over the past few seasons with the Tigers and the D-backs, including 45 in just 119 games in 2017 playing for both of those teams.
But you can never tell the story of what Martinez has done this season -- and what he has meant to this Red Sox team -- without placing it in this context: He was designated for assignment 4 1/2 years ago by the Astros, after just 18 Spring Training at-bats.
There are other fine MVP candidates in the AL this season -- including one at the top of the Red Sox's order, right fielder Mookie Betts, a wonderful all-around player. Orioles manager Buck Showalter told me this about just his outfield play earlier this season: "He is the best right fielder I've ever seen with my own eyes." You have to factor in defense when evaluating how much Betts means to his team, especially playing that position in Fenway.
Mookie has played 117 games this season entering Saturday, and owns a .339 average with 117 runs scored, 29 home runs, a .431 on-base percentage and a .624 slugging percentage (1.055 OPS). He is half of a fun, fair debate in Boston about who is more valuable to the Sox this season, him or J.D.
J.D. is valuable, even playing the outfield as little as he has so far. Of all the other MVP candidates, his stat line gives off the biggest beam of light:
• .331 batting average
• 41 home runs
• 122 RBIs
• 106 runs scored
• 1.035 OPS (.402 on-base percentage / .633 slugging percentage)
Martinez has not only made those hitting ahead of him in the order better, he has made everybody better. Last season, the Red Sox ranked fourth from the bottom of baseball in home runs (168). This season, with 14 games left to play, they are tied for ninth (188). Showalter once described Ortiz's spot in the Red Sox's order this way: "Danger." The same can be said for Martinez.
Michael Trout is still the best all-around player in baseball, one of the all-time greats. Betts has been Boston's Trout this season, because of his range of skills, the way he is such a streak of light on the field. The Astros' Alex Bregman, also discussed as an AL MVP candidate, is one of my favorite players -- a dirty-uniform guy, who has become a complete star. Bregman has 50 doubles this season, a .295 average, 30 homers and 100 RBI and .398/.553/.950 line for on-base, slugging and OPS. Because of the injuries the defending World Series champs have had -- and the way Bregman has carried an offense he wasn't supposed to -- you can easily make the case that without him, the Astros would be chasing the A's in the AL West.
By the way, despite the fact his average is just .251 (I know, I know, we're not supposed to talk about batting averages the way we used to, the way we're not supposed to think starting pitchers matter the way they once did), the A's Khris Davis absolutely belongs in this conversation, too. He hit another homer on Friday night to win a big game against the Rays and keep his team 1 1/2 games behind the Yankees for the top spot in the AL Wild Card race, as well as just 2 1/2 games behind the Astros in the AL West. Davis, the best home run hitter in baseball since 2016, now has 42 homers this year and 111 RBIs.
Davis is not the MVP. Neither is Mookie, nor Bregman, nor Trout. They don't call it the Best All-Around Player Award. They still call it Most Valuable. J.D. wins that distinction, hands down. From DFA to MVP in four years. His backstory doesn't make him the MVP, it just makes the whole tale better. It is the story of the year in baseball.