The most valuable player in baseball this season is J.D. Martinez, even if he might not be the best hitter on his team at the moment, because Mookie Betts holds that distinction. Still: The best hitter in baseball, from last year's All-Star Game to this year's Midsummer Classic is Martinez,
The most valuable player in baseball this season is J.D. Martinez, even if he might not be the best hitter on his team at the moment, because Mookie Betts holds that distinction. Still: The best hitter in baseball, from last year's All-Star Game to this year's Midsummer Classic is Martinez, a guy who didn't have a job in the middle of February.
Martinez has mashed 60 home runs since last year's All-Star Game, with 152 RBIs and an OPS of 1.074, better than anybody in that time on that stat line. The only person with a higher batting average over the same timespan is Jose Altuve, the reigning American League MVP Award winner.
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The Red Sox are 67-30, the best record in baseball. The only change in Boston's batting order from last season to this year is putting Martinez in the middle of it, a spot that used to be occupied by David Ortiz.
Ortiz hit 20 homers with the Twins in 2002, but after he was released on Dec. 16, 2002, he signed with the Red Sox just a month later. The Astros released Martinez during Spring Training in 2014. So Ortiz and Martinez have that in common, in addition to all the stick Ortiz once brought to the middle of the Red Sox order and what Martinez is bringing now.
Ortiz was 27 when he got to Fenway from Minnesota, with very little fanfare. Martinez is 30, and he showed up to great fanfare when he finally arrived in Fort Myers, Fla., after hitting a lot of home runs in Detroit and Phoenix once the Tigers signed him in March of 2014, after he couldn't get on the field with an Astros team being managed by Bo Porter at the time. Martinez, who told Astros management that he had made some changes to his swing the previous winter, had just 18 at-bats that spring. It didn't matter. If Martinez stayed with the Astros, he was on his way to Triple-A. Two days after getting released by Houston, he signed with the Tigers.
Now, Martinez is the right-handed hitter doing for the Red Sox what the left-handed-hitting Big Papi once did. But they are the same this way: They both had plenty to prove to baseball. They then set about proving it.
It is worth mentioning again that Jeff Luhnow, a brilliant baseball guy who runs the Astros, sent out emails to 29 other teams four years ago before he released the guy who is currently the most productive hitter in the whole sport and said they could have Martinez for little or no compensation.
"Crickets," Luhnow said.
As Major League Baseball heads to Washington for this year's All-Star Game, there is no better story in baseball than Martinez. Not Michael Trout, not Altuve, not Aaron Judge, not Giancarlo Stanton, not even Betts, who thrilled Fenway on Thursday night with a grand slam after a 13-pitch at-bat.
Martinez was out of a job not long ago. He hit 45 homers in 119 games last season for the Tigers and the D-backs. There have been other stories about players who went from being out of a job to doing this kind of job at the plate. Ortiz is one. Now, Martinez is another. It's like Roy Hobbs said in the movie "The Natural:"
"My life didn't turn out the way I expected."
I asked Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, another brilliant baseball man -- if you don't think so, look at the way he has reimagined the Yankees over the past two years -- if the Yankees even considered signing Martinez in the spring of 2014 after the Astros let him go.
"Don't recall off the top of my head," said Cashman.
The biggest splash about a home run guy in the offseason was supposed to be Cashman acquiring Stanton when the Marlins began their fire sale. Martinez has been far more important, at least so far, to the Red Sox than Stanton has been to the Yankees, even if Stanton has picked up the pace the past month or so. The Red Sox's 168 homers last season ranked 27th in the Majors. Now they rank second with 133 in 2018. Manager Alex Cora's batting order has organized around the hitter he didn't officially have when pitchers and catchers reported.
It means that big things are still happening to Martinez in Spring Training, good and bad and even great. Five months after the Red Sox signed him, he has a .330 average, .392 on-base percentage, 1.040 OPS, 29 homers, 80 RBIs and a .648 slugging percentage.
This is what he said to the media when he was packing up his things in Kissimmee, Fla., where the Astros were still training in 2014, when the team released him.
"It's all right," Martinez said. "I'm not really down about it. It is what it is. Obviously, Houston is the team that brought me up and where I want to be. Everything happens for a reason."
That's where he was, at the lowest point in his professional career. Look at where he is now. Just about all of the other guys, even a splendid little big man like Altuve, we saw them coming. Nobody saw Martinez coming. Now, everybody will see him in Washington on Tuesday night. Lot of stars will be there, but none bigger than him this season. A baseball life that didn't turn out as expected.
Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.