Edwin Encarnacion leads all of baseball with 24 home runs and 63 RBI in 76 games played. His monster May drew headlines, but this is not his first rodeo. Encarnacion has hit 42 and 36 home runs in his last two seasons, respectively, with more than 100 RBI each year. He is well on his way to eclipsing those totals again in 2014. Surely, everyone saw this coming, right?
Wrong. Encarnacion was waived by the Toronto Blue Jays after the 2010 season — a year where he hit 21 home runs with a .787 OPS, no less — then was released by the Oakland Athletics less than a month later. He re-signed with Toronto later that month and had another middling season before morphing into one of the elite sluggers in baseball. Ditto for Oakland's Brandon Moss, who has been traded, optioned, and non-tendered so many times that he is still under club control through the 2016 season. Even David Ortiz was released by the Minnesota Twins before becoming one of the best hitters of his generation with the Boston Red Sox.
These names seem like lofty company for J.D. Martinez, who began the year in Triple-A after being released by the Houston Astros this spring. However, Martinez has played his way into a starting role, hitting .310/.344/.593 with seven home runs and 27 RBI in his first 36 games with the Tigers. He has a 1.108 OPS in the month of June including four home runs in the last week. He is already worth 1.1 WAR this season, tops among Tigers outfielders. He has single-handedly improved the Tigers' No. 5 hitter splits to league average, a far cry from last month when they were near the bottom of the league.
The numbers are great, but we have seen short instances of brilliance from Tigers players before. Brennan Boesch helped carry the Tigers' offense in the first half of the 2010 season, hitting .342/.397/.593 with 12 home runs in 267 plate appearances. His hot streak nearly won him an All-Star bid. Even a brutal second half didn't stop him from finishing fifth in the AL Rookie of the Year vote that season. Quintin Berry's early success still has some fans clamoring for his high octane presence. Matt Tuiasosopo was the flavor of the month for a while in 2013. And Chris Shelton may be the punchline of all punchlines when it comes to small sample sizes.
So is J.D. Martinez for real? Unlike previous small sample wonders, his history suggests that there may be a chance. Martinez never made any top prospect lists while moving through the minor leagues, but his numbers speak for themselves. He put up a .937 OPS between Single- and Double-A in 2010 as a 22-year-old, then followed that up with a .959 OPS in Double-A in 2011 before his big league call-up. Overall, Martinez hit .332/.394/.548 in just under 1,500 minor league plate appearances. None of the small sample successes listed above hit even remotely as well as Martinez did in the minor leagues.
One thing that may begin to work against Martinez as the season progresses is his plate discipline (or lack thereof). He has walked just seven times in 122 plate appearances, and strikes out nearly five times for every walk. He has a whopping 15.7 percent swinging strike rate, which ranks 19th among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances. He has swung at a Delmon-esque 41.7 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, 10th highest in baseball (Delmon ranks 20th). While the strikeouts aren't a problem now, they could be if he doesn't learn to lay off more pitches.
It's still too early to tell whether J.D. Martinez is the next Edwin Encarnacion or just another in a long line of small sample wonders unearthed by Dave Dombrowski. His numbers are a bit unsustainable — in addition to the plate discipline issue, he also has a 26.5 percent line-drive rate hanging over his head — but his minor league pedigree suggests that there may be some substance here. Either way, Martinez's performance has provided a big boost to a Tigers club that desperately needed it during a rough stretch in May and early June.