Should the Red Sox give J.D. Martinez some time in the outfield?
It’s no secret that J.D. Martinez struggled at the plate last season. While there were several factors that led to his downfall, some of which were outside of his control, the mechanics of his swing is one aspect the Boston Red Sox star aimed the resolve over the offseason.
Martinez spoke with NESN’s Tom Caron and Jim Rice on “Sox at Sundown” for a revealing interview in which he outlined some of the issues he’s working to overcome and his process for regaining the form that made him one of the game’s best hitters.
You wouldn’t know it from his All-Star production in 2019, but some of the problems with his swing stem back to an ankle injury that Martinez suffered during the 2018 World Series. He admitted to being scared to rotate his hips through his swing because it would cause his ankle to hurt. That led to Martinez developing some bad habits that he’s been trying to break this spring.
"“I slowly started to come out of my hips and started jumping at the ball without noticing why,” explained Martinez. “All these triggers I used to do didn’t work. I’m sitting here wondering what the heck’s going on and then I come to find out, well, let’s work on my ankle and that would get better and then we tried to grind it.”"
With a healthy ankle, Martinez is able to plant his back foot to generate more power and keep his balance, allowing his hips to stay square until he rotates through his swing to make contact.
Hitters often make unintentional adjustments to their swing to compensate for an injury but one factor that threw a wrench in his mechanics wasn’t related to his health. Martinez believes that the Red Sox locking him into the designated hitter role cost him some flexibility with his shoulder.
"“I think the other big thing I realized is my freakin’ shoulder. I stopped throwing and playing outfield and I lost a lot of flexibility in my shoulder,” Martinez explained. ”If my shoulder is tight I can’t drop into the right slot, and then I have to kind of do the same thing slide off just to get on plane and swing through it.“It’s one of those things where when you throw a baseball, you’re always externally rotating and getting that flexibility in the shoulder. … I thought I was fine. The body was great and I felt great, but I just lost some flexibility. One of my strengths is I’ve always been a very mobile, loose guy. I have a lot of mobility, wiry you would say. So I’m able to create a lot of whip and looseness which helps me drive the baseball. I feel like I lost a lot of that.”"
When the Red Sox signed him prior to the 2018 season, Martinez insisted that he wanted to see time in the outfield. Despite that his reputation was built on his bat, not his glove, Martinez felt he was still in the prime of his career and too young to be stashed in the DH role full-time.
Boston boasted one of the game’s best outfields at the time with Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr. There was little reason to replace any of them with an inferior defensive player but the Red Sox acquiesced to his request by sending Martinez out to patrol one of the corner outfield spots in 57 games during the 2018 season. He recorded -4 defensive runs saved, which wasn’t great considering the limited sample but not quite a liability.
Perhaps it was the lingering effects from rolling his ankle in the World Series but Martinez was significantly worse in the field the following season when he produced -7 DRS in only 38 appearances in the outfield.
The Red Sox limited Martinez to only four starts in the outfield and six total appearances during the shortened 2020 season, enough time to tally -2 DRS.
Martinez acknowledging that his lack of playing time in the field has had unexpected consequences for his swing presents a difficult challenge for the Red Sox. Martinez’s defensive skills aren’t going to age gracefully so the 33-year-old might be considered a liability in the field at this point. On the other hand, the Red Sox need him to hit. Do they risk letting him grab a glove a couple of times per week if it helps keep that shoulder loose so they can get the best version of Martinez at the plate?
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Boston’s revamped outfield isn’t nearly as strong defensively as it once was and they are lacking in depth. Aside from the trio expected to open the season in their outfield alignment, the only other true outfielders on the 40-man roster are Jeisson Rosario and Marcus Wilson, a pair of prospects who have yet to reach the majors. They also have some versatile infielders who are capable of filling in at an outfield spot if necessary but this outfield is a far cry from the Killer B’s they won a championship with. It might be easier to utilize Martinez in the outfield on occasion now that the alternatives are no longer Gold Glove candidates.
Manager Alex Cora might be open to considering it but we shouldn’t expect Martinez to play the outfield on a regular basis. His primary role is still the DH. The insight he provided into how that role has cost him at the plate didn’t appear to be a veiled message to the team, but rather an honest explanation of what he learned while exploring the problems with his mechanics.
Martinez has come to realize that he isn’t able to physically do things as easily as his younger self was capable of. He needs to be committed to improving his flexibility so that he can stay loose and maintain a fluid swing. Add that to the list of reasons why he admires Tom Brady.
If playing time in the outfield isn’t available, there are other exercises he can do to build that flexibility. Removing him from the DH role so that he can grab a glove every day isn’t the answer but now that he’s identified that this was part of the problem, he and the Red Sox coaching staff can devise a strategy to ensure he’s prepared.
Martinez is already showing improvement in the batting cages, making great strides with the knowledge he’s gained over a productive offseason. Last season was a low point for the veteran slugger but with his swing returning to form, expect the production to follow in a bounce-back campaign.