J.D. Martinez has defied low expectations to become important Tigers slugger

The most pleasant surprise of the 2014 season for the Detroit Tigers has been J.D. Martinez.

The most pleasant surprise of the 2014 season for the Detroit Tigers has been J.D. Martinez.

The odds have been against Julio Daniel Martinez since he started playing baseball. First, as a young player he was tall and gangly and a little awkward in the field. His early coaches didn’t know quite what to do with him. But when they saw what happened when he made contact with a baseball, they realized they had to find room for him on their roster.

In high school “J.D.” was a great hitter at a prestigious school in Broward County, Florida. Yet, he wasn’t drafted until the 36th round by the Minnesota Twins. 1,085 amateur players were selected before him. He declined to sign with the Twins and opted to enroll at Nova Southeastern University, which you almost certainly have never heard of because it’s not known for baseball or sports of any kind. It’s a research facility that churns out scientists, not a top NCAA college that produces pro athletes. But Martinez managed to get some attention with his bat while at Nova and the Houston Astros drafted him after his junior year. He was taken in the 20th round with the 610th pick of the draft. He was considered a “filler player,” someone who would fill out a roster spot in the low minors so the blue chip prospects would have someone to play against.

But Martinez showed he could hit — he tore up his rookie league to the tune of a .403 average in 2009 and quickly earned promotions up the Astros’ minor league ladder. In 2011 he started at Corpus Christi but wasn’t there long before the Astros summoned him to the big leagues. Houston has a system packed with top draft picks after several losing seasons, but Martinez was not considered to be one of them. In the majors he hit .274 as a rookie replacing Hunter Pence (who had been traded) in left field. He struggled a bit in his second season and was used as a fourth outfielder in his third season in 2013 but hit just seven homers in 320 plate appearances. He was being played sporadically and he the Astros didn’t seem to know what to with him. They wanted a left handed bat with power. J.D. is right handed and was not hitting the ball with authority in Houston. After the ’13 season the Astros dropped him from their 40-man roster but invited him to spring training the following spring.

“I want a chance to play and see what I can do,’ Martinez said in February. But on March 22 he was released by the Astros. He had hit relatively well in limited time in spring training, but Houston didn’t feel the Florida-born outfielder fit in their plans. Two days later Dave Dombrowski signed Martinez to a minor league deal and the Tigers assigned him to their minor league camp.

After three years wearing a big league uniform, Martinez was in the duds of the Toledo Mud Hens in April of this year. He responded with determination. In 17 games he belted 10 homers and drove in 22 runs. He was promoted to the Tigers in late April and in his second start he had two RBIs. Two starts later he had two more runs batted in, and two starts later he had two more. He showed a penchant for driving in runs late in games. A lean, muscular right-handed hitter, Martinez took a shining to Cleveland pitching, and on May 19 he hit a pinch-hit solo homer against the Indians. Two nights later he hit another off Cleveland pitching.

On Friday night, J.D. blasted a homer and a triple against the Indians, helping the Tigers to a 7-2 victory that propelled them into first place. In between that first homer in May and Friday’s crucial extra-base hits, Martinez has been a key part of the Detroit offense. There’s no telling where the team would be without his hitting. Through Saturday he has 21 homers and 51 extra-base hits in 108 games. His .900 OPS ranks 10th in baseball for players with at least 400 plate appearances. He’s hit his way into the lineup as an everyday outfielder, assuming a big role as the #5 hitter behind Victor Martinez. The Tigers’ #3-5 hitters have 74 home runs, which is more than half the entire team total. J.D. Martinez has hit 12 of his homers from the 7th inning on (and driven in 35 of his 69 RBIs). He’s punished the Indians and the Royals, the Tigers two chief rivals in the AL Central: hitting .327 with 6 homers against the Indians and .432 with 5 homers against KC. That’s 11 homers in 24 starts against those two teams.

Where would the Tigers be without J.D. Martinez? They wouldn’t be first place, that’s for sure. He was cut by the lowly Astros and signed a minor league contract in March, late in spring training. Relatively unknown and lowly regarded, it was highly unlikely he was going to earn a big league spot without doing something amazing in Toledo. He did it, and since he got a chance to play everyday in May, he’s been doing amazing for the Tigers.