By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Here in the great city of Boston, we sometimes think a little bit highly of ourselves. We’re the smartest, the toughest, the biggest, the baddest. The best.
We’re not entirely wrong, you know.
But we do occasionally get carried away. One such area would be with the local baseball team. Whenever the Red Sox sign or trade for a new player, we all wonder loudly how that player will handle the pressure of playing in Boston, as if the mound at Fenway Park isn’t 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate, and as if the sport of baseball transforms into a completely different experience from what these guys have played their entire lives when it’s played in our fine Commonwealth. It’s maybe a bit much.
Still, we have our examples from the past 20 or so years that lends some credence to the existence of a Boston element. Some guys — Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz, Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez, Kevin Millar, etc. — thrive with the Red Sox and embrace everything about the experience of playing in Boston. Other guys — Julio Lugo, Edgar Renteria, Pablo Sandoval, Carl Crawford — end up crumbling.
Whether it’s the pressure or the fans or the media or the simple weight of living up to a big-money contract, or whether everything that happens on a baseball diamond is the result of random chance, we cannot know. But we shall nevertheless wonder over the course of the next few months just how J.D. Martinez will handle the pressure of playing in Boston.
In that regard, there is reason for optimism.
Yes, there are pressure situations for players who aren’t on the Red Sox, and when placed in such situations in his career, Martinez has excelled.
You can start with just last season. He was traded to the Diamondbacks in mid-July, at a time when the NL West was extraordinarily competitive. There would be no catching the 65-29 Dodgers, no. But Arizona held a half-game lead in the wild-card race over Colorado. The Brewers and Cardinals remained in the wild-card picture through the rest of the season, so there was no point in time when the Diamondbacks could have fully relaxed, knowing their position in the postseason was set.
And during that run with the Diamondbacks, Martinez raked. He blasted 29 home runs in just 232 at-bats, a rate at which Babe Ruth would even marvel. He hit consistently, too, with 13 doubles and a .302 batting average. He posted a 1.107 OPS as the Diamonbacks’ best hitter. He was named the NL Player of the Month for September.
That run included a four-homer game against the Dodgers, as well as the walk-off single on the day when Arizona clinched a playoff spot.
In the wild-card playoff against Colorado, Martinez didn’t produce, going 0-for-4 and only reaching base on an intentional walk. But in the NLDS against the Dodgers, Martinez went 4-for-11 with a home run. That homer came off Clayton Kershaw … albeit when the Diamondbacks were trailing 7-1. He went 3-for-4 in Game 1, accounting for three of Arizona’s eight hits. Martinez didn’t necessarily dominate in his brief postseason run, but he played fairly well against the best team in baseball.
But 2017 wasn’t Martinez’s first experience in a playoff push. In 2014, his first year with Detroit, the Tigers fended off the Royals to win the AL Central in a divisional race that went back-and-forth over the final month-and-a-half of the season.
After leading the division by as much as seven games on in late July, the Tigers fell out of first place on Aug. 11. They regained first place for a day on Sept. 9, fell behind by a half-game on the 10th, and then regained first place on Sept. 12. They’d hang on for the rest of the season.
And from that date when the Tigers lost their hold on first place until the end of the season, Martinez batted .333 with eight home runs, 10 doubles, a triple, and 12 walks for a .915 OPS. In the month of September alone, he hit .354 with six home runs in 26 games, helping to carry Detroit to that division title — along with Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez.
Though J.D. Martinez went just 3-for-12 as the Tigers were swept out of the ALDS by Baltimore, he made those hits count. He hit a pair of home runs and a double, leading the Tigers with an .833 slugging percentage. (The Detroit pitching staff allowed 21 runs in the three games, including 19 combined runs in Games 1 and 2.)
Martinez’s postseason numbers overall aren’t exceptional, but they’ve come in an extremely small sample size. The larger point is that in two late-season pushes to secure postseason berths, Martinez has been dynamite.
And for as well as Martinez has performed in a couple of seasons to lock down playoff spokes, all of that pales in comparison to the most pressure Martinez ever faced in his career. That moment came in the spring of 2014, after Martinez was released by the Astros following two disappointing seasons. Martinez signed a minor league deal with the Tigers and desperately needed to prove himself in order to salvage his career.
He started the 2014 season with Triple-A Toledo, and by blasting 10 home runs in 17 games with a 1.212 OPS, he quickly proved that his revamped swing was effective, and that he was too good for the minors.
So the Tigers called him up in late April. At that point, Martinez was coming off a season of hitting just .250 with a .272 OBP and seven home runs in 296 at-bats. Succeeding in the minors was one thing, but the 26-year-old needed to prove he could contribute at the major league level. He did just that.
He got off to a moderate start, batting .263 with two homers and five doubles in his first 21 games (13 starts). Suffice it to say, his mission to save his MLB career could have gone one of two ways at that point.
Then he exploded in the month of June, hitting .345 and clubbing seven homers and nine doubles while driving in 21 runs in just 84 at-bats. He kept it going in July, when he posted an identical .345 average and hit five more home runs.
Overall, from June through the end of the season, Martinez hit .323 with 21 home runs, 25 doubles, three triples, 65 RBIs and a .931 OPS. He successfully established himself as a big-league talent, and he hasn’t slowed down since.
If he can respond in that moment the way he did, then living up to a big contract in a place like Boston shouldn’t be a problem.