The “other” Martinez is the biggest surprise of the first half for the Tigers

J.D. Martinez's hot bat has forced the Detroit Tigers to give him playing time and he's continued to show power in the first half of the 2014 season.

J.D. Martinez’s hot bat has forced the Detroit Tigers to give him playing time and he’s continued to show power in the first half of the 2014 season.

The surprise of the first half of the season for the Detroit Tigers is J.D. Martinez, who came out of nowhere, it seems, to become a key cog in the team’s offense. Where would they be without him?

Only three Detroit batters have a higher offensive WAR than J.D’s — Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez, and Miguel Cabrera. Baseball says JD has been worth 1.5 wins so far this year, but in fact his clutch homers have contributed to more wins than the WAR calculation. The stats don’t lie — and in fact, they may surprise you. Through games of July 6, Martinez’s OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) was exactly 1.000 — a level that defines the premiere sluggers in the game. In fact, his 1.000 OPS was higher than anyone on the team, including VMart and Miggy, and barely second in the American League only to superstar Mike Trout’s 1.005!

At the start of the season, the 26-year old outfielder’s career appeared to be that of the classic “AAAA” player — a guy who excels in the minor leagues but can’t make it in the bigs. Martinez had a promising rookie season with Houston in 2011, hitting .274/.319/.423 in 53 games. But his numbers declined as he played more games for the Astros the next two years. In his career with Houston, he managed only .251/.300/.387, below par in all three measures of hitting for average and power and getting on base.

The outlook was dim. The 2014 Baseball Prospectus, the most highly regarded predictions publication in the sport, called his 2013 campaign “an ugly, ugly season,” noting that “he was below average in every aspect of the game” and predicted “mediocrity…will be what sends Martinez to pasture for good.” The scouting report noted that he “hit the absolute snot out of the ball in the minors, but the swing mechanics haven’t translated to big-league success.”

But now his pasture is either corner spot in the outfield at Comerica, where he is competent, if not exactly rangy, and displays a strong arm. And J.D. is certainly hitting the snot out of the ball in the major leagues now.

He is, in fact, looking like the Tigers’ No. 1 right or left fielder of not just the near future, but the present. He was the team’s player of the month for June and also the A.L. player of the week during one week in June. Martinez is performing much better than the guys who had been the starting left fielder and right fielder for the club — Rajai Davis and Torii Hunter.

Recent reports credit Tigers’ assistant GM Al Avila with convincing his boss to grab Martinez off the scrapheap in Houston. Al’s brother had coached J.D. in Little League, and J.D. had played college ball with Al’s son Alan (not to be confused with his son Alex, the Tigers’ catcher).

Houston released J.D. this spring after he had defied coaches by swinging at the first pitch of an at-bat and popping up. The Tigers, at Al Avila’s urging, scooped him up. J.D. then hit ten homers in seventeen games at Toledo and forced his way onto the major league team, where he could provide some badly needed pop off the bench.

He’s done way more than was expected, gradually becoming an important part of the everyday lineup, getting calls at the corner outfield spots and at designated hitter of late, due to VMart’s recent injuries, and batting fourth or fifth in the lineup. J.D. has always exhibited power, and his mechanical problems seem to have been resolved.

I wrote here a couple weeks back that Tiger fans should expect JD to revert to previous form. Maybe he still will, but it’s more likely I was dead wrong, like everyone else except Al A. After all, J.D.’s not a new kid on the block, and the league’s pitchers already knew how to pitch to him. It appears he’s just learned how to hit.

One of the most astounding things is this: when Martinez first came up, in his rookie year, he looked like a platoon player who could only hit lefties. He’s turned that on its head, too. So far this year, he is hitting right-handed pitchers at an incredible .389/.410/.726 clip — while hitting only .176 against lefties.

It looks like this Martinez is for real. Even if he cools off, he’s still a potent addition to the Tigers’ lineup — giving Detroit a pair of Martinezes that are having remarkable seasons.

Now if only Al A could get Alex’s swing straightened out too.