Martinez defying all odds, turning heads

Martinez defying all odds, turning heads

Martinez defying all odds, turning heads
J.D. Martinez wasn't supposed to be this good. As a 20th-round pick in the 2009 Draft, it seemed unlikely he would even make the Major Leagues. And if he did, it would probably be two or three years from now, and even then, as a part-time player.

Sure, he was a powerful force at a Division II school. But he was not a great fielder, not a fast runner and already had a bad knee.

So far, Martinez's weaknesses have been overshadowed by his strengths. The fact that he is already playing well in the Majors is not surprising. He's hit like a big-time slugger at every stop along the way. Fact is, if he had been a No. 1 pick, he probably would have been in the Astros' outfield even sooner.

More often than not, big league teams elevate early-round picks faster than guys they've draft later. It's human nature. You draft the guy No. 1, and you want to confirm your judgment. A guy like Martinez comes along and you think it's a fluke.

Then in 2009, Martinez hits .348 between Rookie League and low Class A ball, and you say, "Well, he's a college guy who has been successful. He thinks he can hit, and at this level, he can. But this is a far cry from the Major Leagues."

But if you're the Astros and your Minor League system is barren, you promote to high Class A in 2010, and when he hits there, too, you move him to Double-A Corpus Christi just to prove to yourself that he's not really that good. But when the season ends, he's hit a combined .341 with 18 home runs and 89 RBIs in 537 at-bats. All of a sudden, he's getting interesting.

In 2011, you give Martinez a quick look in Spring Training -- 16 at-bats -- and he gets four hits, including a double, a home run and three RBIs. But he doesn't run well and his hitting style is unconventional. He just doesn't look like a real baseball athlete, so you send him back to Double-A. By the All-Star break, he's still hitting. In fact, he is hitting better. In only 317 at-bats, he has 13 home runs and 72 RBIs. Since you are buried in last place, you trade Hunter Pence for prospects and bring Martinez up to take his place in the outfield. This, you say, is where he'll meet his match. Here the pitchers will throw harder, with better offspeed pitches and better control. The advance scouts will break him down and the pitchers will pitch to the scouting reports, and that will be that.

The scouts may be right in the end, but Martinez already has a few of them shaking their heads. He's only got 107 at-bats, they might say. That's not enough to prove anything. But in those at-bats, he's hit .280 with five home runs and 26 RBIs. Over 162 games, that's the equivalent of 29 homers and 150 RBIs.

Watching him, I can't explain it. Martinez has an odd stutter step in his swing. And he takes it when the pitcher starts his delivery -- too soon. What's more, he holds his hands too far from his right shoulder, which elongates his swing. He shouldn't be able to hit like that. But I guess nobody told him.

If you break it down further, you can say he's just been lucky, at least at the big league level. At this juncture, he's hitting .164 with the bases empty and .452 with men on base. When these statistical incongruities even out, he'll stop driving in so many runs. But even if he does, it's still .280. And even if you cut his home run and RBI totals in half, it's still 15 homers and 75 RBIs. And he just turned 24. I suppose most baseball fans haven't been paying much attention to the Astros. Why would they? But there may be a fantasy player out there who has noticed and may benefit from some bottom fishing.

There is just one thing that's bothered me. As a former pitcher, I wondered why Martinez is playing in the outfield. He'll never be better than average out there.

The other night I was sitting next to Astros coach Jamie Quirk at a charity dinner. I had to ask.

"Jamie," I said, "we have this promising athlete Jimmy Paredes playing third because he was having trouble at second. He is a very fast runner. Then we have Martinez, who is not fast, in the outfield. Why?"

Quirk told me that Martinez has a knee problem, which would make it difficult for him to play in the infield every day.

That said, I dug a little deeper.

Is there a new knee brace? Is there a way of taping his knee? Is there any way he can play third base? Coming out of Spring Training, Chris Johnson was the Astros' third baseman. He's still young and has a lot of power. Toward the end of the 2010 season, he hit a lot like Martinez is hitting now. But the league caught up with him this year and he was recently demoted to Triple-A. The league may catch up with Martinez, too. Because Martinez has much better Minor League numbers, including more walks and fewer strikeouts, my guess is that he'll be more consistent than Johnson.

Still, I'm aware of my own scouting weaknesses. As Yogi Berra once said, "In baseball, you don't know nothing."

Larry Dierker played in the Major Leagues for 14 seasons and guided the Astros to four National League Central titles in five seasons as manager from 1997-2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.