HOUSTON -- To see J.D. Martinez and Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow chatting amicably beside the batting cage in the hours before Friday’s game -- laughing and trading pleasantries -- you’d almost forget what happened two years ago.
The Astros, after all, are the team that essentially gave up on Martinez.
On March 22, 2014, the Astros unceremoniously released Martinez, with Luhnow claiming that the then-26-year-old outfielder was “a victim of our own success,” in reference to a strong farm system and a logjam of talented prospects. This despite the fact that Martinez was a promising young talent in his own right, who was only a few years removed from a 2011 that saw him post a batting line of .274/.319/.423.
Some felt the Astros lost patience with Martinez, despite his high character and strong offensive abilities, and at least one person familiar with the team’s thinking pointed to a particular incident from the year prior that might have expedited the fallout well before Martinez’s release, when then-manager Bo Porter pulled Martinez during a loss to the Mariners in April of 2013 and afterwards called him out publicly for a mental mistake at the plate. Instead of taking him aside privately, Martinez was subject to widespread ridicule.
Whether that was the impetus to Martinez’s eventual estrangement or merely a contributing factor remains up for debate. But it was embarrassing to a young player who had always worked hard and been a good teammate.
One scout told ESPN.com that Martinez was “really scuffling” in Houston, with a swing that looks dramatically different from what he shows today -- one that had a long, uphill look to it. Martinez would get beat with a good fastball and he would chase secondary pitches, said the scout, who said Martinez's transformation since arriving in Detroit has been “night and day.”
"He’s a hitter now," the scout said. “Not a swing-and-see-what-happens guy.”
Regardless of the hows and whys that led up to Martinez’s departure, you know how the story goes from here.
The Detroit Tigers scooped up Martinez two days later, signing him to a minor-league contract in what will go down as one of the most shrewd signings for the organization in the last decade. General manager Al Avila, then working as an assistant GM, was more than familiar with Martinez. Martinez played little league baseball for Avila’s brother and went on to play high school ball in Avila’s hometown of Pembroke Pines Pines (the team played practically in Avila's backyard) before he became a college teammate of Avila’s son, Alan, and nephew, Nick, at Nova Southeastern.
Avila had actually called the Astros the winter before Martinez' release and, with consent from then-GM Dave Dombrowski, explored Houston's interest in a trade that would send him to Detroit. That deal never came to fruition, but when Martinez was surprisingly released late in spring training, Avila told his son, Alex, to text his former college teammate and let him know the Tigers wanted to sign him. Two days, later he was a Tiger.
Martinez went on the sort of tear that has to make the Astros shake their heads every day, with a breakout 2014 season that was followed up with the type of year in 2015 that proved it was no fluke. Martinez led the Tigers last season with 38 home runs and drove in 102 runs, earning him a 2015 AL Silver Slugger award. He finished with a team-high 5.0 WAR rating and made huge strides defensively as well, leading the club with 15 outfield assists.
Avila readily admits that when he signed Martinez, he never expected him to have the monster year he had last season, but he's certainly thrilled that he did.
"That could have been one of the most important things we've done in many years," Avila told ESPN.com. "Without J.D., I don't know -- his bat in the lineup has been so huge. Take his bat out of the lineup and we would have been in deep trouble, deeper trouble than we were already in last year."
Martinez, who inked a two-year, $18.5-million extension this offseason, insists he has no lingering resentment toward the Astros. He takes full accountability for what happened in Houston and feels all worked out for the best.
“When I left and everything like that, of course I was kind of bummed out and upset about it, but at the end of the day I have no animosity towards them. They gave me the chance. I came here. I didn’t do what I was supposed to. They had a bunch of guys coming up and my time ran out,” Martinez said before Friday’s 1-0 loss to the Astros. “The best thing they did is what they did -- and that's let me go.”
Perhaps bitterness would come easier for a player whose first shot at the major leagues was scuttled only to result in a quick demise. But for Martinez, who has begun the 2016 season on an offensive tear, it’s unnecessary.
“I worry about me and J.D. and what I can do wherever I’m at. I don’t think there's enough time to sit here and worry about them, ya know?” said Martinez, who still keeps in touch with several of his old Astros teammates. “All that stuff is a waste of energy, a waste of thought, clutters it all up.”
The 28-year-old, who is borderline obsessive about his work and routines, worries far more about the time logged in the batting cages or having the proper gameplan at the plate. Modeling an approach after his mentor and star teammate Miguel Cabrera, Martinez has been studious about tailoring his strategy to each at-bat.
Early this season, the Yankees were going after him with off-speed pitches, he recognized, and after he hit those, the fastballs started coming his way. Pittsburgh went in on him for a few games, so he made sure to keep his heel down and take his bat knob past the ball. Once he hit a home run off Jonathan Niese, they went up against him, and then down, and so on and so on.
When he’s seeing the ball well, he’s adapting quickly, Martinez explained, and if his early numbers are any indication, he’s adapting pretty damn well right now.
Martinez hit safely in the first seven games of the season and is 14-for-34 with a .412 batting average and a .475 on-base percentage in the first week and a half of play.
“He hasn’t chased out of the strike zone on pitches,” manager Brad Ausmus explained earlier this week. “He’s doing a much better job of recognizing a pitch and not chasing after it.”
If he can continue to do that, he will again play a vital role as part of one of the most offensively-stacked teams in baseball.
Ausmus said he didn’t see Martinez play in Houston enough to know the particulars of his rapid turnaround, but is impressed nonetheless with how far he has come.
It’s been a stunning about-face for Martinez -- a combination of fate, opportunity and hard work. And the journey isn’t even over yet.
“It’s kind of a remarkable story to be a guy whose released and then become this Silver Slugger, hits 3o-something homers, drives in 100 [runs]” Ausmus said. “And I don't think it’s gonna slow down.”