Mookie Betts is having a brilliant year so far. He leads the league in batting average, slugging percentage, and OPS while playing at a Gold-Glove level in right field. His WAR is second only to the greatest player of our generation in Mike Trout. But a few batters after the Red Sox leadoff hitter, one player is quietly putting together a great season of his own.
J.D. Martinez was one of the big prizes of this offseason, signing with the Red Sox for five years and $110 million dollars after spring training had already started. The deal is a good salary but not at the level of the top modern-day contracts, and many teams passed on a great slugger to have in the middle of their order until late in February.
Front offices must have forgotten his brilliant year last year, and frankly, most of the United States missed it as well. Between being traded in the middle of the season and playing for the struggling Tigers and then going out west to play for the Diamondbacks, who don’t get many national TV appearances, we missed the player with the third-most home runs in the league. Martinez was often injured, only playing 120 games. But he still smashed 45 home runs, behind only the 50-home run hitters in Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, who had historic seasons in 2017.
That’s not to mention that, had Martinez qualified, his single-season slugging percentage would have been the highest in 13 years since the inflated numbers of the steroid-era. After being the Tigers’ main offensive threat, he was plugged into an Arizona lineup that was stacked with RBI machines in Jake Lamb and Paul Goldschmidt last year. In the desert, he hit for an astounding 29 home runs and 65 RBIs in 62 games while slugging .741. Arizona won the wild card game, but wasn’t able to get past the NL champion Dodgers. Their pitching struggled, and Martinez tried to carry the offense that did not get much offense from Goldschmidt or Lamb.
This season, Martinez is now an integral part of the most potent lineup in the league. With Betts leading it off, second-year phenom Andrew Benintendi in the two hole, and Martinez batting cleanup, the group leads the league in runs. Boston is currently tied for the best record in the league at 41-19.
Martinez continues to be a home run machine, tied for the league lead with 19 big flies, hitting it to all fields seemingly effortlessly. At the same time, his 50 RBIs lead the league as well. His swing is a thing of beauty, and it allows him to hit the ball to the opposite field all the time, including a league-leading 19 home runs there last season.
His combined stats from the last two years add up to an absurd pace of 59 home runs and 142 RBIs per 162 games, with a 1.052 OPS; the first two best in the league and the latter just behind the brilliant Trout. In a year with record-pace stats, most people are missing the best hitter of the last two years.
You would think that, with all the mind-blowing stats, Martinez would have garnered some MVP votes. But the trade between leagues made it impossible last season. And there are the other knocks on him related to his defensive performance and his durability. His WAR is always negatively affected by his defense, with a career defensive WAR of -7.1. And he his missed more than 39 games in all but one of his seven seasons.
This year, though, those weaknesses are being neutralized. With Boston’s brilliant outfield of Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Betts, Martinez doesn’t get to play the field that much, taking that negative out of the game as the former Tiger shifts to designated hitter. And with the Red Sox designating Hanley Ramirez for assignment, Martinez will now be the primary option at designated hitter. Similarly, Martinez’s durability, which needed a clause in his contract due to his frequent injuries, has been very good this season. The slugger has missed just three games on his way to the sixth-best offensive WAR in the league.
Sure, a player who primarily plays DH has never won MVP before (Don Baylor played 65 games at DH in 1979), and the American League is stacked with players having historic seasons. But we often forget one of the catalysts of the best offense in the league. The Red Sox will surely make a run into the playoffs, and the acquisition of Martinez could help this stacked roster get over the hump of the ALDS and past the rival Yankees.