The adjustment JD Martinez made that unlocked his power

Red Sox DH JD Martinez’s power outage might finally be over

J.D. Martinez’s power production has fallen off this season but the veteran designated hitter for the Boston Red Sox may have found his swing again by studying one of the game’s best power threats – his younger self.

Martinez collected a pair of pivotal extra-base hits in Tuesday’s victory in Cincinnati.

A rare triple from Martinez with two outs in the third inning put the Red Sox on the board for an early lead. Martinez crushed a 93 mph sinker 405-feet to deep center field. Nick Senzel crashed into the wall as the ball sailed over his outstretched glove, sending him to the ground in pain. It was later revealed that Senzel broke his toe on the play, ending his season. TJ Friedl sprinted from left field to chase the ball off the wall, allowing Martinez to scamper around the bases to third.

Martinez tacked on an insurance run in the fifth inning with a solo shot on another sinker from Reds starter Nick Lodolo. The 420-foot blast was the furthest ball hit that night in Cincinnati’s hitter-friendly ballpark.

The triple was his first of the season and the home run was only his 12th, by far his lowest total in a non-COVID shortened season since 2013. His .433 SLG and .160 ISO would also be his lowest since those early years when he was a struggling part-time player for the Houston Astros. Martinez is still racking up plenty of doubles but the mystifying power outage has been a troubling trend all season.

According to WEEI’s Rob Bradford, Martinez made some adjustments to his swing prior to last night’s game that helped him unlock his power stroke.

“Honestly, I just went back to some feels I had, looking at video back in 2014,” said Martinez. “I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to try this today.’ I told everybody. ‘I was like, I’m doing something different. What’s the worst that can happen, I go 0-for-4?’ I was like, ‘I have been 0-for-4 a million times this year. I’m good. Let’s try something new.’

“It was something different. A different feel that I have tried, and it paid off. Obviously, it was a mechanical thing. It feels like it was huge, but it’s really not. When you kind of look at it on film, you’re like, ‘It’s not that really big of a difference.’ But to me, the way it feels, it looks like it’s enormous.”

The minor mechanical tweak doesn’t appear obvious to the casual observer but the change is significant if Martinez can feel the difference.

The dip in home run production coincides with a drastic decline in Statcast data. Martinez has ranked in the top 10 percent of the league in Hard Hit Percentage in every season of the Statcast era (since 2015), aside from the horrendous shortened 2020 season, per Baseball Savant. He peaked with a 52.7 HardHit% during his first season in Boston when he was in the top 1% of the league and he’s been above 47% in every full season. His current 41.5 HardHit%  puts him in the 58th percentile, both of which would be the worst of his career in the Statcast era. Martinez’s 89 mph average exit velocity would also be a career-low, a category he has placed in the top 10% of the league in five of the previous seven years.

Martinez didn’t go into detail about the adjustments that he made but the 104.1 mph exit velocity on his triple and the 105.2 mph on his homer are encouraging signs.

Red Sox outfielder Tommy Pham made recent comments about the de-juiced baseballs killing his opposite-field power this season, according to Alex Speier of The Boston Globe. The altered balls have apparently had an effect on Martinez as well.

Martinez has been using the opposite field more frequently over the last two seasons. His 30.1 Oppo% is currently equal to his Pull% this year. Pham’s assessment regarding the decline in power to the opposite field seems to explain why Martinez only has two opposite field home runs this season despite hitting the ball in that direction more frequently. Martinez’s spray chart on FanGraphs shows a cluster of fly balls to right field. Some of those blue dots fell in for hits but many of them were loud outs. Compare that to his spray chart from 2018 when about one-third of his 37 home runs were hit to the opposite field.

Whether it’s an alteration to the baseball or age starting to sap his strength, Martinez’s power is now predominantly to the pull side or up the middle. Especially at Fenway Park, where it’s always been more difficult for a right-handed hitter to knock one out of the park to the opposite field unless they hit it down the line toward the Pesky Pole.

Both of Martinez’s extra-base hits in Cincinnati were hammered to center field. The mechanical adjustments he alluded to were probably focused on making hard contact at the proper angle to barrel the ball. If he studied video of his younger self then he presumably wasn’t making an intentional choice to avoid right field since he had plenty of opposite-field power back in those days. However, his tweaks aimed at hitting the sweet spot on the ball combined with recognizing his dwindling opposite-field power could be the key to regaining his power.

Martinez will test free agency after this season. It could be a cold market for a 35-year-old whose power seemed to evaporate this year. If Martinez shows that he’s found his home run swing with a strong finish, he will make himself a much more appealing free-agent target.