Here are some reasons why people will say J.D. Martinez’s season is a fluke:
- He’s a player coming into his physical prime after a large number of at-bats in the league. These guys burn bright then fade out.
- He’s hitting in a loaded lineup and pitchers would much rather go after him than the Hydra of other Tigers hitters like Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, or Ian Kinsler.
- It’s only the first half. Maybe this guy is Marcus Thames 2.0.
Ignore all that. Martinez’s success is real. It’s not a fluke. It’s a result of a self-driven process that turned the formerly floundering Astro into a baseball-bashing Tiger.
I have focused on other hitters finding success through internal changes. Chris Davis unleashed his beast of a swing. Carlos Gomez embraced his power. Joey Gallo is never satisfied with himself. What makes Martinez's story unique is that he used external influences to change his swing.
There is a great article in the Detroit Free Press chronicling how the suspension of Ryan Braun in 2013 led to Martinez's success in 2014. Braun’s suspension meant news coverage. News coverage demands stock footage. Martinez sat watching the stock footage of Braun swinging a bat and it clicked. His swing didn’t look like Braun’s. Was Braun doing something different that allowed him to succeed or was Martinez doing something different that was holding him back? Through tons of video research Martinez found that his own pattern of movement was different than those who hit at the highest level.
Beyond the improved swing, Martinez was astute enough to see something was different between a successful hitter and himself. He was driven enough to do his own research and smart enough to reach a solid conclusion. There is a relationship between any player and their swing and Martinez showed enough humility to realize his swing was flawed. Finally, he played winter ball in Venezuela while changing the swing. Makeup is not whether a player is a good person or always hustles or plays the game the right way or [insert cliché here]. It’s about players conducting themselves in such a manner that will lead to optimal performance. Martinez’s makeup is outstanding in this regard.
Martinez’s swing was relatively the same his first three seasons in the majors. From the front we can get a solid look at his overall stride and timing.
His stride is in early alignment from an open stance to a raise onto his toe before dropping his heel. His hands punch up well above his shoulder before driving into contact. It’s a strange, hard to repeat, and even harder to time movement pattern. His first movement is slow and he creates good bat speed into contact but the transition between is choppy and abrupt. If he were driving a car he’d be the person who rolls up to the stop sign nice and slow, slams the brakes, and then floors it.
While the timing is less than ideal he does show some good features, including plenty of bat speed, extension, and balance. The stride and the hand “punch” are uncomfortable to watch but he does sync them up. The raw physical tools are there along with the ability to synchronize one aspect of the swing even if it’s stuck in an overall poor movement pattern.
From the side the mechanical drawbacks become more apparent.
Elite hitters will rotate through their hips and trunk to move their hands and drive their back leg. They rotate to engage forward movement. Martinez wasn’t moving like this before 2014. He moves his hands and back knee forward while rotating. There was very little separation between his upper and lower half.
Martienz continued to struggle with his swing well into his third year as a major league ballplayer. Then Ryan Braun got suspended. Footage like
was all over TV. Martinez realized that footage matched the way the best hitters in the game moved their bodies. His swing wasn’t moving in that fashion and he needed a change. Enter a winter in Venezuela.
I promise you this grainy hand held footage is of Martinez.
It’s simpler, cleaner, better-timed, and more powerful. It’s a remarkable change that Martinez would carry over into the 2014 season.
But like any change the alterations in the swing would take time to fully manifest. The 2014 season didn’t get off to the start Martinez likely hoped, as the Astros cut him. He was soon picked up by the Tigers and hasn’t looked back.
His new swing is a model of efficiency. He got rid of the ill-timed align-raise-drop stride of the past in favor of a simple leg lift. He kept his natural identity as a hitter and didn’t scrap his upward hand punch. Instead he optimized it by starting it lower and keeping the movement gradual. Remember how in the past his overall timing was poor but his ability to sync up his hands and feet was solid? He’s kept that skill and it’s now on full display thanks to a much easier striding pattern.
So while the improved stride would obviously help with timing up a baseball his internal timing has gone from terrible to excellent. His hips are leading the way. Hitters' hips should coil, then go forward or coil while moving forward. In the past he would coil and start to uncoil while moving forward.
Around the time when the heel drops (plus or minus a frame or so) the hips begin to rotate. Now when his hips start to rotate they force the back leg to drive through. Hips pull the back leg. In the past his hips had already started rotation prior to this point so there was nothing really driving the back leg.
Watch how the back leg moves into contact. Before 2014, Martinez's back leg would reach its maximum bend and everything would spin into contact. In 2014 the proper rotation is happening and his back leg is now driving forward into contact. Congrats! You now have some torque and weight transfer going.
The aesthetic change with his hands in 2014 is the lower starting position. The effect of this change is an improved bat path. In the past, Martinez would push his hands forward to get to the baseball. Now his hands are firing properly thanks to better timing of rotation. Old Martinez had to push his hands because there was no torque to bring them into the zone. New Martinez can keep his hands back and let them arrive in the zone naturally. It’s a tough concept to explain but easy to see. To illustrate the difference in bat path I’ll take a swing from 2013 and 2014, find when he makes contact, and go back three frames.
See how the elite hitters and New Martinez aren’t chopping down at the ball? Rather they are working on the same plane, which gives them a much better timing window.
Martinez made his swing work by putting his brain to work. He saw what other hitters were doing and learned from them. The process was great, the results are solid, and the rich get richer as a special hitter fell into the lap of the Detroit Tigers.