As a child growing up in southern Florida, J.D. Martinez the Miami born outfielder who clubbed 29 homers in just 62 games with the D-backs this season picked up the game of baseball at a very young age, due to a little push from his father, who wanted to ensure that his son stayed away from more injury-prone activities.
“I started playing ball when I was 4 years old,” said Martinez, who was named NL Player of the Week for Sept. 4-10 and Sept. 11-17, which also translated into NL Player of the Month Award honors. “I played street basketball for a while and wanted to play competitively, but I was so used to the street-style of game that I would have fouled out by the end of the first quarter. The main reason my dad put me in baseball, though, was to keep me off the streets and out of trouble.
“But my parents did a great job of giving me a fantastic, well-rounded childhood. I have so many memories of going fishing and camping as a kid, and my dad had season tickets to watch the Marlins — and that’s where I fell in love with the game.”
With his passions clearly defined, Martinez began to refine his craft every day. He had a little help, though, from former Major League All-Star catcher Paul Casanova.
“When I was about 10 years old, I met Cassie,” said the 30-year-old outfielder. “He was my mentor growing up. The way he would tell stories about his time in the Majors is what I loved the most. He had so many stories about guys he played with, like Hank Aaron or the day Dick Allen came to the ballpark. His stories were so cool to me. I remember thinking as a kid, ‘I want to be able to tell stories like this when I get older.’ And he had so many pieces of Cuban baseball history in his house, that it was like a museum. They actually called it the ‘Cuban Museum,’ but it was a hitting academy.”
For Martinez, the time at “Cassie’s” house taught him more about himself than anything else. Martinez said that although he already loved the game when he met Casanova, his passion for hitting only strengthened as time passed.
A 20th-round Draft pick in 2009, Martinez broke into the big leagues in 2011 and hit .275 with six home runs and 35 RBIs in 53 games for the Astros. In 2014, he signed with the Tigers as a Minor League free agent, and within a year he’d go on to win the 2015 Silver Slugger Award and make the American League All-Star team. But he did so with a completely reworked swing.
“When I was with the Astros, I watched as my teammate Jason Castro was having an incredible year,” said Martinez. “At that time, I wasn’t playing very well, so I went and watched video of his swing and realized that mine was way different. I began studying the swings of guys like Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols and asked myself, ‘What am I doing?’
“At the end of the 2013 season, I dedicated myself to changing my swing. I traveled to California to work with the team that worked with Jason and they helped me change my technique. After that, I went to Venezuela in 2014 to try out my new swing and in the first three games, I felt a change in the force I could put behind the ball. It was something I never thought possible, and I haven’t been the same player since.”
D-backs executive vice president and general manager Mike Hazen, who wasted little time bringing Martinez to Arizona 13 days before the non-waiver Trade Deadline, spoke highly about the impact that the slugging outfielder had on the ballclub.
“We were fortunate to get J.D.,” said Hazen. “He certainly carried us there, offensively, for the better part of a couple months. It’s pretty amazing, pretty impressive what he did. His consistency in the middle of the lineup was something we needed.”
Martinez’s teammate, closer Fernando Rodney, played for seven teams over his 15-year career before signing with the D-backs this past offseason, and he said Martinez adapted to the change of scenery seamlessly.
“For J.D., the change was interesting to watch, because I feel like he came into a comfortable environment here in Arizona,” Rodney said. “The companionship we had here was very good, as was our communication. There was a climate here filled with good teammates, and I think that really helped him adjust to his new team.”