How J.D. Martinez Rose from Division II Obscurity, MLB Reject to Elite Superstar

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistJuly 17, 2018

Boston Red Sox' J.D. Martinez celebrates his two-run home run during the ninth inning of an interleague baseball game at Nationals Park Tuesday, July 3, 2018, in Washington. The Red Sox won 11-4. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

MINNEAPOLIS — Descending the stairway into Hell's Kitchen, hungry souls walk past a brick wall seared with stern warnings: "No Whining." "No Complaining." "No Surly Attitudes."

When Boston slugger J.D. Martinez is in town, this trendy, Goth-y Twin Cities eatery boasting "Damn Fine Food" and an edgy attitude is his go-to place. As Martinez settles into a back table for a late-morning brunch on this June day, flames from his hot bat lick the MLB leaderboards: He leads the majors in RBI (55) and ranks second in both homers (22) and total bases (167).

Martinez comes for the foodthe lemon ricotta hotcakes are "the bomb" (he's correct)and he's also come on this day to talk about his career, which has had its own delicious twists.

In the four seasons from 2014 to '17, Martinez ranked second in the majors in slugging percentage (.574), seventh in OPS (.936) and eighth in at-bat/home run ratio (15.1).

And yet…he attracted zero interest from any Division I schools out of high school, was drafted 611th overall in 2009 and was outright released by the Houston Astros in 2014.

From there, though, he has hit as well as almost anyone in the majors.

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Though he played in the shadow of Miguel Cabrera in Detroit and Paul Goldschmidt in Arizona, in the first four seasons after his release, only five players in the majors recorded an OPS of at least .900 against both right-handed pitchers and lefties: Mike Trout, Joey Votto, Kris Bryant, Goldschmidt and, yes, Martinez.

And yet…when he stepped into a frigid free-agent market this past winter, Martinez, 30, was iced out until after spring training had already started, signing with the Red Sox on Feb. 26. And the $200 million that many in the industry figured he would earn melted away into a five-year, $110 million deal that places him behind, among others, Jason Heyward (Cubs), Chris Davis (Orioles) and Robinson Cano (Mariners) in average annual salary.

"When it was all happening, my mom said it: 'Did you expect anything else?'" Martinez says. "I was like, 'Nope.'"

So she asked, what are you worried about then, J.D.? Her son took a breath, surveyed the landscape and told her, nope, not only did he not expect anything else, but he wasn't worried, either.

J.D. Martinez arrived at the All-Star break this season with an American League Triple Crown within reach.
J.D. Martinez arrived at the All-Star break this season with an American League Triple Crown within reach.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

"It's just funny because it's always been the same thing," Martinez says.

Forget Easy Street. Martinez has arrived in Washington, D.C., at Tuesday night's 89th All-Star Gamejust the second of his careerwhile navigating his fair share of self-doubt. Always, though, his thoughts rarely strayed from what he does best.

"Even when he's not hitting, his mind is hitting," says Greg Brown, the scout who signed Martinez for the Astros and now is the head coach at Martinez's alma mater, Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Syrup soaking into the hotcakes, Martinez holds a forkful of eggs and considers his friend's assessment.

"That's so true," he says, grinning. "So true."

Across this below-street-level restaurant, as diners crush the deviled eggs, house-made peanut butter and ham and pear crisp sandwiches, Martinez confesses that during this conversation alone, his mind already has drifted to what he will do when he gets to the ballpark and how he's going to attack Jose Berrios, tonight's starting pitcher for Minnesota, "at least twice."

"I don't know, man," he says. "It's my passion.

"I love it."

No complaining and no whining. As Martinez has made himself into one of the game's most feared sluggers, he has refused to allow the many doors he's had closed on him corrode him from the inside.

Why, you might even say there's a special place in Hell's Kitchen—and, certainly, in the American League—for a guy like him.

Despite hitting 45 home runs with 104 RBI last season, Martinez didn't find a home in free agency until after spring training had begun this year.
Despite hitting 45 home runs with 104 RBI last season, Martinez didn't find a home in free agency until after spring training had begun this year.Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

"My whole life, I've felt like I've always had to prove myself," he says, slowly. "It's never been easy, as easy as others who are in my position have had it. So I've always felt that drive.

"I remember going into last offseason, everyone was like, 'Are you excited [for free agency]?' And I'm like, 'Something is bound to happen. Something is bound to go down.' People were like, 'Why do you say that? Why do you put that negativity out there?'

"I'm like, 'I'm not putting out negativity. I'm positive. I'm gonna be OK.'

"It's my story. It's me."

His story starts in the back of a high school bus in the minutes following a Florida state championship game. The celebration roared. His Flanagan High teammates looked toward the future, many ready to move on to college ball. Martinez, who would be drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 36th round that year but passed because he knew he was too raw, could only wonder: OK, what's next? Is my career over? Am I ever playing baseball again?

Shortly after Martinez exited that school bus, he ran into Eric Cruz, Flanagan High's infield coach. Cruz is one of those folks we all need in our lives: a believer. He asked Martinez what he was doing that weekend? Martinez was doing that weekend what so many newly graduated high schoolers with no college plans were doing: nothing.

Good, Cruz told him. Me and you, we're taking a trip. I'm going to schedule some workouts at a lot of schools. Cool, Martinez said. Let's go.

"We literally drove around the entire state of Florida and hit up all these junior colleges," Martinez says. "We went to Polk Community College, Manatee Community College, Florida Tech…and I'm missing three or four.

"I worked out at each one individually. I just remember, I'd have to go stretch and throw, run a 60, hit batting practice. Like a major league workout at every one of them."

First night, they stayed at Cruz's father's house. The next, they bunked at Cruz's brother's house. The one flicker of interest came from Florida Tech, where, at lunch in the cafeteria, Martinez exclaimed to his coach, "I love this place!" Cruz chuckled, figuring the free ice cream sold him.

Martinez as a teenager with his father, Julio.
Martinez as a teenager with his father, Julio.Photo courtesy of J.D. Martinez

Then they walked the campus afterward, and the ice cream lover noticed something else: The Florida Tech enrollment seemed to be overwhelmingly male.

"Coach, if this is my only option, I'm going to pass," Martinez told Cruz. "There are no girls here."

So the tour continued, and, at the end, they heard pretty much the same thing from each place: Why isn't this guy going D-I? There must be a red flag there somewhere. We're out.

"I remember thinking, Why the f--k did they make me try out then?" Martinez says. "Why am I wasting my time?

"I remember going to the last one, my arm is hanging, I can't even throw a ball anymore. I've thrown as hard as I can for three days in a row."

Finally comes one more chance: Nova Southeastern has a workout.

Why not, the kid thinks. One, he's desperate now. And two, Nova Southeastern is near his family's home. Though it is a D-II university, it tossed in some scholarship money: $3,000 for the year. Of course, it cost $21,000 a year to attend, so Martinez asked his father, who owned his own roofing business, if there was any chance…

Yes, Julio Martinez said. Just go do it.

So freshman year, he's on the team, sitting on the bench and, well, as Martinez says, "This is a true story: Our coach goes, 'If anyone on this team wants to know why they're not playing, come to my office and talk to me.' A lot of guys were pissed off that they weren't playing. I really didn't understand why I wasn't playing."

So off went Martinez to the coach's office.

"Coach, I just don't understand it," he said. "Tell me what I have to get better at, and I'm going to work my butt off to get better at it. I just don't think the guys in front of me are better than me just because they're older than me."

"Strategy," Martinez recalls the coach saying, cracking a broad smile at the puzzling answer. "He said there was a reason he [told me] that. I was like 'yeah, yeah, yeah.' We're good friends now."

A couple of days later, Martinez got an opportunity. And seized it.

Three years later, Martinez's story has moved into his pickup truck, which happens to be parked in the driveway of his parents' home. Day 2 of the 2009 MLB draft has just come to an end, and Martinez is still waiting. That's not how it is supposed to go. Scouts had been watching. And several of them tip him off: We expect you go to fairly early, probably in the top seven rounds.

Astros scout Greg Brown with Martinez a few years after the two struck a deal in the 2009 draft to bring Martinez into the Houston system.
Astros scout Greg Brown with Martinez a few years after the two struck a deal in the 2009 draft to bring Martinez into the Houston system.Photo courtesy of Greg Brown

Perfect, Martinez thinks. So his parents host a draft party, invite all his relatives and friends"Spanish people, you know; any excuse for a party," Martinez quips—and the first day goes by and, nothing. So the party continues into the second day and, crickets.

"My mom sees me, I'm stressed out, and I get in my truck and leave because I'm just pissed at this point," Martinez says.

On vacation with his wife in South Carolina, Cruz is tracking the draft because Martinez, like all of his players, is like a son to him.

"I can only imagine how he felt," says Cruz, now an area scout for the Diamondbacks. "I was like, 'Poor J.D.' But he was never a complainer. He was always a worker."

Martinez remembers texting scouts from the four clubs that had shown the most interest at the time—Houston, Kansas City, Toronto and Atlanta—after the 15th round. Two didn't bother responding. One apologized, saying it was out of his hands. The Astros' Greg Brown was the lone hope.

"Listen, we have $20,000 and we'll draft you right now," Brown told him.

"Dude, that's not even worth my scholarship," Martinez shot back.

Brown called back and offered $30,000 plus tuition to finish school. He didn't have a choice, Brown told him. He had slipped, and if he didn't take the offer, he would continue slipping. So, with the 611th pick in the 20th round…

"He was long, strong, ran a 6.7 and could throw," Brown says. "J.D. had the tools. He gets a lot of flak about his defense, and I think it's undue. I think it's something front offices are gauging and use against guys."

Martinez also had a significantly flawed swing "just like every player has in the amateur world, but one thing he had better than anyone was an internal ability to analyze his own swing and drive in runs," Brown continues. "As an RBI guy, I think it's an art form. I even said this in my report: This guy has a knack for driving in runs. He smells RBIs."

The Astros assigned him to low Class A at Tri-City in Troy, New York. But his mother, Mayra, was having surgery, so he asked for a couple of extra days. The Astros said that would be fine but that they would have to send him to Rookie Ball in Greeneville, Tennessee.

"When I get there, I find out I'm like the fifth outfielder," Martinez says. "And there was a first base mitt in my locker. The manager, Rodney Linares, walks by me and says I have early work today. First base. I go, What in the world? I've never played first base in my life.

"So I was like, 'OK.' I showed up every day, I wouldn't play, but I'd take early work. Ground balls, ground balls, ground balls. I'd come in with bruises, bloody lips…the bad hops, the ball would just wear off my face."

While Martinez batted .328 in more than 350 games in the minors, the Astros found it difficult to find a regular role on their roster.
While Martinez batted .328 in more than 350 games in the minors, the Astros found it difficult to find a regular role on their roster.Eric Christian Smith/Getty Images

But he was hitting the ball hard in batting practice, and he finally got his first start…against some Chicago White Sox kid throwing 98 mph cheese.

"I'm from D-II. We don't see that," Martinez says. "We see 89 to 90 with a lot of crap: breaking balls, changeups, sliders. Which I believe taught me how to hit an off-speed pitch."

When he went 0-for-4 with three whiffs and landed back on the bench, it was like he had returned to the back of that high school bus: He sat there thinking, Is this the end? Am I going to be stuck working on roofs with my dad?

"I said, 'F that,'" Martinez says. "'I've gotta figure this thing out.'"

Into the batting cage he went for, like, three or four days, cranking the pitching machine as high as it would go, teaching himself how to hit 90-something mph fastballs. And as he learned, he got another opportunity when two of the outfielders ahead of him were injured, opening up playing time.

"I pretty much made myself a prospect after that," Martinez says. "Rodney Linares really stuck his neck out in Greenville to play me, because they had their prospects, guys who they had invested money in."

Over 357 minor league games between 2009 and 2014, Martinez raked, hitting .328. Houston finally called him up for the first time in 2011, and he yo-yoed between the Astros and the minors over the next three seasons.

He achieved more on willpower than on artistry, and during those early days with the Astros he batted .251 with 24 homers and 126 RBI over his time in the bigs.

"I took a liking to him simply from his work ethic and his desire," Brown says. "He was constantly working on things. From a practical sense, I thought his swing was a little ugly."

Martinez agreed and completely rebuilt his swing after the '13 season. It's complicated, so complicated that to go over all the technical stuff would require another interview for another story, he says.

Suffice it to say, Martinez's old swing featured a double-load with his hands, some early preparation as the pitcher wound up, his front foot on the ground and another pump of his hands to get into position.

Martinez took his rebuilt swing to winter ball in Venezuela in the winter of 2013-14 just to make sure it worked—it didbut when he came back for spring training, the Astros and manager Bo Porter didn't find many at-bats for him. The club was taking a close look at younger prospects like George Springer and L.J. Hoes, whom they thought had a higher ceiling.

That March, the Astros released him. And while Houston has gone on to reach the highest of heights in the game, general manager Jeff Luhnow has said several times that releasing Martinez is his greatest regret and that the Astros were "a victim of our own success" in that their young talent outnumbered their roster space. As slighted as Martinez felt at the timehe and Luhnow had words in private in which Martinez says he said his piece sternly but respectfullyMartinez sees now that the Astros did him a favor: Far better to be released and get an opportunity elsewhere than for them to bury him in their farm system.

With Miguel Cabrera offering protection in the lineup and advice off the field, Martinez became a hitting star in Detroit, slugging 99 home runs while batting .300 in four seasons with Detroit.
With Miguel Cabrera offering protection in the lineup and advice off the field, Martinez became a hitting star in Detroit, slugging 99 home runs while batting .300 in four seasons with Detroit.David Banks/Associated Press

But in Martinez's first series back in Houston with Detroit in June 2014, he was still so angry he didn't even want to go out for batting practice. When he did, Luhnow was waiting by the Detroit dugout and called out to him.

"Hey, I just wanted to tell you that you were right," Martinez remembers Luhnow saying. "I'm really happy for you and really proud of you. Just take it easy on us this week."

Martinez went 5-for-13 with a double and two runs scored. Just as important, Martinez was able to move on from the disappointment.

"Everything happens for a reason," he says. "It was a blessing."

Now, his story thunders through batting cage after batting cage, stadium after stadium, with force and grandeur. Martinez rolled into the All-Star break leading the majors in RBI (80) and total bases (228), tied for the MLB lead in homers (29) and second in slugging percentage (.644). Now that he has unlocked some key secrets of hitting, he cannot slow himself down.

Even when J.D. is not hitting, his mind is hitting.

There are times, he admits, when he is with his girlfriend and suddenly his head is 1,000 miles away and she looks at him and says, You're thinking about your swing, aren't you?

"And I'll say, 'Yes—leave me alone,'" he says, smiling.

It has been a lifetime of this. Sometimes, you do not reach the All-Star Game through showcases and expensive private coaches. Sometimes, you become an All-Star because you will it to happen.

He signed with Detroit days after his release from the Astros because the Tigers were contenders and told him they needed an experienced hand in Triple-A, a guy who wouldn't panic if they needed big league help. Martinez also trusted assistant GM Al Avila in part because Avila's son Alan was a teammate of Martinez's at Nova Southeastern. All he wanted to know was, would he be playing every day at Triple-A? Yes, he was told. So he had an opt-out built into his new deal, allowing him to become a free agent in June if he wasn't already called up to the majors.

It was another bet on himself that paid off.

Martinez played his way into the Tigers lineup quickly, hitting .315 with 23 homers and 76 RBI in '14. The next year revealed what kind of an offensive monster the Tigers had found when he pounded out 38 homers and 102 RBI. But even as he tallied homer after homer, thinking with each one that he had finally arrived, he was cast aside again. Despite steaming into the All-Star break ranking third in the American League and tied for fifth in the majors with 25 homers, baseball shut him out of the Home Run Derby.

Instead, along with veterans Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Josh Donaldson, Todd Frazier, Anthony Rizzo and Manny Machado, hot rookie Kris Bryant and flavor-of-the-month Joc Pederson were invited.

The sting of that snub has stuck with Martinez and is why you did not see him in the Home Run Derby this summer and likely why you will not see him participate in future summers. It was another slight, more fuel for his internal pilot light. So he continues to grind—and feast on information. This is what helped solidify his game as he grew in Detroit, working alongside sluggers Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Torii Hunter and Ian Kinsler. He learned little tricks about pitchers and hitting. Even from the shadows, Martinez always viewed himself as ready for center stage. Last summer's trade to Arizona helped position him there.

"I think it really helped me transition to becoming a guy who speaks up in the clubhouse," he says.

With Martinez last season, the Diamondbacks surprised many in baseball by winning 93 games and reaching the National League Division Series.
With Martinez last season, the Diamondbacks surprised many in baseball by winning 93 games and reaching the National League Division Series.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Where Martinez mostly stayed quiet and watched in Detroit, Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt encouraged him to speak up internally in Arizona hitters meetings. J.D. didn't necessarily realize it at the time, but it was sharpening him, ultimately, for his move to Boston.

"As a person, he's always had great qualities," Dave Dombrowski, then Detroit's GM and now Boston's president of baseball operations, says. "Now he's looked upon as an established big league player and one of our leaders.

"When he talks, people listen. They seek him out."

And they learn from him, especially after witnessing some of the more creative practice habits of any hitter in baseball. Pitcher David Price, who was with Martinez in Detroit in 2014 and 2015, says, "I never knew there were top-hand hitters and bottom-hand hitters until two years ago."

That's when Price happened to see Martinez, a top-hand hitter, working in the batting cage with a Frisbee in place of a bat. Martinez held the Frisbee in his right hand as he simulated swings, launching the Frisbee at the point where he would snap his wrists during a swing.

"He's got his own quiver bag of gadgets he uses in the cage," Price says.

"He has a basketball he puts on his hands, and when he swings, it falls off," Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts says. "I don't know, but it works for him."

Much of this comes from his insatiable appetite for work, a trait he developed in the aftermath of his release from the Astros: "How quickly it can be taken away from you, you know?"

It also springs from the safe space he's long found in the batter's box.

Near Martinez's boyhood home in South Florida lived a former big league catcher named Paul Casanova, who played for the Washington Senators and Atlanta Braves from 1965 to 1974. Casanova, who died in August, had a batting cage at his home that always was open. Kids serious about their baseball flocked to hit there and, from the time Martinez met "Cassy" in eighth grade, so did he. That's where young J.D. wanted to be, and the fact that his parents were going through a divorce at the time made the refuge all the more attractive.

Whenever Martinez was out with friends, always, his parents enforced a curfew. Be home by dinner; you have homework to finish. But he always was allowed to stay at Cassy's as long as he wanted. On the best nights, some of Cassy's old teammates would show up and crack open a few beers, and the laughter would ring out endlessly.

"That's how I grew to love game, listening to him tell stories," Martinez says. "I really think he's responsible for my love and passion for the game. I remember sitting there going, Cassy, tell me a story. He would tell stories about all the players he played with. My favorite time was when the old players would come in after we hit. It would be 10, 10:30 and it would be like, You wanna hear something…? Tell me about the time…

Miguel Cabrera visited with former catcher Paul Casanova (center), who helped Martinez in his younger years refine his hitting approach and nurtured his love of baseball.
Miguel Cabrera visited with former catcher Paul Casanova (center), who helped Martinez in his younger years refine his hitting approach and nurtured his love of baseball.Photo courtesy of J.D. Martinez

"I want to be able to tell stories like that when I retire."

Funny thing is, despite his perch now as one of the game's pre-eminent sluggers and Boston's obsession with the Red Sox, halfway through his first season there, he is not recognized around town very often.

"Surprisingly," he says.

The slugger who obsesses over every small detail of his in-season routine at the park is still finding the rhythm to life in Boston.

"In Arizona, it was easy," he says. "You could drive and go get breakfast. In Boston, you try to drive and get breakfast and there's no parking anywhere. You're like, Dang, dude. Where do you park? You've got to try and find places, and you just kind of give up on it after a while. It's a different feel."

Soon enough, his anonymity will fade and Boston's breakfast spots will reveal themselves. On this day in Minnesota, the tables are wide-open and he will walk to Target Field unnoticed. As the last bits of our meal disappear, we rehash, one more time, the events of last winter that landed him in the place most people figured for a contract few expected.

"I'm not complaining about $110 million," he says. "It's not that. I don't want anybody to think I'm complaining about that."

Finally, he settles on a real estate analogy.

"It's like when you sell a house," he says. "If everyone in their neighborhood sells their house for $500,000 and you have a shinier house, a newer house, one that's bigger with more square footage, then you're expecting to get at least $500,000. And the market is at an all-time high.

"So when you get $400,000 you're sort of like, how the hell does this happen? Know what I mean? It's one thing if you say the market is down. Then you know, OK, I just sold at a bad time. But that's not it. It's the opposite."

Mystifying, yes. But like J.D.'s mother told him: Given his journey, did he expect anything else?

He's slugging, content and collecting his own stories to tell. A couple of hours and a few blocks from here, Berrios awaits. No, Martinez says, he doesn't feel as if he's making up for lost time. The way he figures it, he's right on schedule.

"Everyone's path is their own," Martinez says. "I love my story. I wouldn't change it. It gives it character. It's never been on a silver spoon. I've played with a lot of players, and most who get to this level, everyone knew they were going to be big leaguers. Everyone knew they were better than everyone else. They were top-round picks.

"There are guys out there who have a different story. And I think those stories give everyone hope."


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.