LAKELAND, Fla. -- "Failure." That one word, with all its connotations, explains why Detroit Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez felt he had no choice after the 2013 season but to change absolutely everything. And that word -- failure -- explains why he is what he is today: a household name in Detroit, and one of the best batters in a lineup known for mashing.
At one point, Martinez was among the Astros' top prospects, showing a combination of batting average built on driving the ball to all fields, and an emerging power that grew as he advanced up the minor league ranks. He was seen as a sleeper, leaving prospect analysts to wonder how exactly he fell to the 20th round of the 2009 draft before being picked by Houston. Then, it all came crashing down, so hard that Martinez wondered whether he'd have a career at all.
Failure. Martinez ran into his first real bout with it in his first full season in the big leagues in 2012. He hit .274 with an acceptable OPS of .742 in 2011, making his MLB debut in only his third year in professional ball. He drove in a run during his first major league at bat, a pinch-hit double to deep center field. He seldom went more than a game between hits.
But when he got the chance to be a full-time starter in 2012, Martinez opened the month of May with an 0-for-26 streak that brought his average down to .219. He played in 113 games that season but finished with an average of .241. He improved to .250 the following year, but his on-base percentage was at a career-low .270, and Martinez saw his power dry up to 17 doubles and seven home runs in 296 at-bats.
By then, Houston had seen enough and put him on waivers after 2013. It didn't work out. It was time to move on. Maybe that was for the best in their long-term plans at the time, but it sure seems like a folly today. Martinez hit .315 with .358 on-base percentage and .533 slugging average while appearing for 123 games in the Tigers' Old English D.
Success that was worth the failure.
Photo: Bob Levey/Getty Images
"It's never fun," Martinez said of his struggles with Houston. "I was at one of those points I didn't know what to do. I was kind of like, 'Where do I go from here?' It's just one of those things that definitely helped me. I think I'm a lot better today because of that."
Where he went was back to the beginning. Martinez's swing had always been different than other players. John Sickels of Minor League Ball noted in 2011, "Martinez's swing mechanics are unorthodox, but his physical strength and solid plate discipline make it work for him." His swing was too sloped, then-Astros hitting coach John Mallee later told MLB.com, which kept Martinez from lining up well with the pitch and staying there as it arrived at the bat.
Still, Martinez found success early in his professional career. He walked 11 percent of the time in Double-A in 2011, while striking out 15 percent. It worked until it didn't. In 2013, his final year with the Astros, Martinez walked just three percent of the time and struck out in 27 percent of his plate appearances.
"When it's all happening there's definitely some self doubts about am I going to play?" Martinez said. "But I always knew that I could play. I always had confidence in myself and confidence that I could do it. I didn't feel overmatched."
Martinez, a player who keeps notes after each plate appearance, knew his swing had taken him as far as it could. So, that offseason he got to work watching video and building fresh swing mechanics. What he discovered in the video analysis was that his bat was not in the zone long enough to be effective. There was only one way to fix that problem, he decided. "I realized I had to change everything," he said. "I had to change my feet. I had to change my hands. I had to change the way my hips fired. I had to change everything." Martinez worked on his swing throughout winter ball in Venezuela, right on through spring training, and even the early part of the 2014 season before it really felt comfortable.
The Astros, however, just never gave him a chance. He had all of 18 at-bats last spring. The writing on the wall was clear. He was released on March 22. "That was the most frustrating thing about it," Martinez said. "I was so excited because I made the change. I saw that it was going to work. I just had so much confidence in it. I'm sitting there and I can't play, I can't play, I can't play. Finally, when they let me go and I came here, I was finally free and I was just able to run and have fun and everything."
The Astros' release of Martinez worked out well for Martinez. But the phrasing Houston GM Jeff Luhnow used could have been better. "A victim of our own success." Martinez, while frustrated at the lack of playing time, says the Astros did him a favor. Instead of being buried in Triple-A, stashed away while the Astros gave their prime spots to flashier prospects, being released allowed Martinez to go to a team that wanted him.
The Tigers' outfield was set at the time -- with the new addition of Rajai Davis alongside Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, and utilityman Don Kelly, with prospect Tyler Collins taking the place of the injured Andy Dirks. But Martinez remembered the Tigers first showed interest in him when the Astros put him on waivers in 2013, and when he had a chance to choose a club of his own, he chose Detroit just two days after his release by Houston, March 24.
"There were some other offers out there that I might have had a better chance at (playing immediately) at," Martinez said. "But at the end of the day I wanted to go to the team that wanted me and a team that liked me, not a team that was just taking me because I was available. That was one of the main reasons I came here" to the Tigers organization.
The Tigers assigned Martinez to Triple-A Toledo, but he didn't stay there for long. In just 17 games, he hit .308 with an astounding .846 slugging average comprised of 10 home runs, a triple and three doubles. It all came together on April 19 when, during a double-header, Martinez hit four home runs. Two days later he was in Detroit, where he's been ever since. The renaissance was complete.
"I knew I wasn't going to play," he said. "I knew I was just going to be used for situations. I was totally fine with that. I knew coming up that this team was great. It was a World Series contention team. That didn't change because I came here, because I came up. They were that before I even got here. So I was just trying to fit in, play a role in any way that I could."
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images
"The one thing you notice right away is the power," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said recently. "It's tough to teach power like that. He's an elite power hitter, in terms of being able to drive the ball out to any part of the park, any park in the country. I know he revamped his swing. I didn't know much about him when he was with Houston. So I can't speak how much of a difference it is or how much he's altered his swing or improved his swing. But I know if he had that power, that's something you don't find very often."
Although Martinez expected he would just be help off the bench, and Ausmus said the original intention was to use him as a late-innings power bat, Martinez started in left field his second day with the Tigers. The day after that Ausmus wrote him fifth in the batting order, right behind Victor Martinez. That is a place he would remain for most of the season.
Martinez's first multi-hit game came on May 2, but a game-tying home run May 19 against the Indians proved to be the true announcement of his power. The next day he hit another home run. There was no keeping Martinez out of the lineup in June or July. He batted .345 in both months, with .702 slugging in June and .609 in July. He hit 12 home runs and 13 doubles while driving in 36 runs total during those months.
"Once he started getting regular at-bats, that's when he was really able to take off," outfielder Rajai Davis said. "This game is a game of repetition, and you need the reps. The guy who gets the most reps obviously is going to have a lot more opportunities. So he was able to make his adjustments very quickly and really help us win."
Martinez's only struggle came in August, a month he batted .265 and hit three home runs. The working theory was that pitchers had seen enough by then to make their adjustments, and it was up to Martinez to make adjustments of his own. That's half the story. The other half is the reason the struggles began in the first place. Martinez, who didn't feel completely comfortable with his new swing until the end of the season, got out of his mechanics.
"They got out of whack during that stretch there, and I couldn't figure it out and couldn't figure it out, and then it just hit me," he said. "I just kind of started grinding away at it and was able to get back on-track."
Watching Martinez during batting practice or in games this spring makes one feel that the changes to his swing stuck, and that he's unlikely to see that dreaded regression some might expect out of a breakout year. Martinez uses all fields well, and that elite power is readily apparent.
"I didn't see him really up close the way he used to swing," Ausmus said. "I've only seen the converted J.D. Martinez. So I don't know how drastic a change it was. But his swing does look exactly the same now as it did last season when he was having success. I'm sure, knowing from experience, how difficult it is to change swing mechanics, because swing mechanics are so habitual, that he must have put a lot of effort into them."
You take spring training results with a grain of salt, but early returns have been positive so far. Through play with less than two weeks to go before Opening Day, Martinez has hit .349 with five home runs and three doubles, and a .767 slugging average. So, Davis believes Martinez will just keep hitting this year. "Same ol' J.D., still doing his thing," Davis said. "He's got a plan that works. It's going to work. I don't see why not."
You don't set out to fail. But in a game like baseball, you're going to. In baseball, like in life, how you deal with those failures not only says something about you, but it also helps set you up for future success. His career may not have turned out like he hoped it would in Houston, but Martinez is grateful everything played out just the way it did.
"I like to think of it as a blessing from God, just to be able to come here with hitters I idolize and looked up to my whole career, like Miggy and Victor, Torii, Kinsler, these guys," Martinez said. "Being able to come over here and just work with them and pick their minds. That was an opportunity and something I had here that i never had in Houston."