MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Hitting gurus: J.D.'s transformation a team effort

He's resurrected his career with help from teammates, mystery hitting coach

Hitting gurus: J.D.'s transformation a team effort

BALTIMORE -- You take previously untapped potential, sprinkle it with the wisdom of a secret sage and refine it with the recommendations of some seasoned tutors, and you have the story of J.D. Martinez's season.

Every team in baseball in this run-sapped environment is going to be looking for the next Martinez this winter. But the former waiver claim's rise to postseason prominence is a combination of special circumstances and "right place, right time" mentorship that will be difficult to duplicate.

The Tigers' season is on life support after back-to-back losses to the Orioles in this American League Division Series. Still, that they are in this position at all is in no small part due to the 27-year-old Martinez's emergence in the heart of their order, where he's already belted two October home runs.

  Date   Matchup/Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 2   BAL 12, DET 3 video
Gm 2 Oct. 3   BAL 7, DET 6 video
Gm 3 Oct. 5   BAL 2, DET 1 video

"He's filled a void," manager Brad Ausmus said.

And some others helped Martinez fill voids of his own.

Like so many great stories, Martinez's has an air of mystery to it.

He missed 44 games with the Astros last season because of a wrist injury, but the blessing in disguise is that the time off gave him ample opportunity to do something he had never done before -- study video of other hitters.

"I remember being so frustrated," Martinez said. "But if that didn't happen, I wouldn't have watched the video that allowed me to open up my mind to a change."

He saw several swings he liked -- Ryan Braun's, Allen Craig's, Albert Pujols' and future teammate Miguel Cabrera's among them, according to what he told the New York Times last month -- and some conversational research uncovered a personal hitting helper that one of those guys had used.

Martinez sought this helper out, worked with him, made fundamental adjustments in his swing mechanics, and the rest is, well, present, not history.

Naturally, everybody wants to know who the so-called "secret guru" is, now that Martinez, who was claimed by the Tigers near the end of Spring Training and joined their active roster in mid-April, is MLB's biggest breakout performer of the year. But the matter only becomes more mysterious when Martinez discusses why the guy, with whom he still checks in weekly, wants to remain anonymous in this instance.

"He said it's more for me than it is for him," Martinez said. "He doesn't want me to get in trouble or anything. He said, 'Just do you.' "

Such a shroud of secrecy. But I suppose for now we'll just have to respect that Martinez's special assistant isn't trying to reap acclaim for Martinez's successes this season.

"Those are the kind of guys you want to work with," Martinez said. "The guys who don't want to stick their face out. It's that much cooler to do the opposite. It's about the work. He knows he doesn't need his face out there."

Martinez's other assistants do have their faces out there, because they surround him in this Tigers lineup.

It's become a good gag, for instance, to refer to J.D. and Victor Martinez as brothers, but there is certainly a brotherly type of relationship going on behind the scenes.

"Certain pitches he sees that I get beat on, he'll talk about what he does in those situations," J.D. said. "He'll say, 'Do you ever notice I have two different swings -- one for this kind of pitcher and one for this kind of pitcher?' Little things like that have made him an influence on me."

Cabrera has been an influence in another way. When Martinez dwells on a poor at-bat, Miggy's the one to tell him, "Forget about it" and move on, although suffice it to say Cabrera often puts that phrase quite a bit more colorfully.

The biggest in-house influence, though, has been Torii Hunter, who is the one who inspired Martinez to be more diligent in his study of opposing pitchers.

"We'll sit there and watch film together and break down pitchers, and he'll talk to me about what he's trying to do and the game plan," Martinez said. "Stuff I've never sat down and talked to anybody about."

This background scouting is essential. It's one thing, after all, to come out of nowhere in April and have a hot first half. The game's history is littered with guys who did just that, then floated back into the ether from which they had arrived. If anything, Martinez's .354/.411/.594 September slash line and his quickly established prominence in this playoff series are more impressive than the 1.035 OPS he logged over three months in the first half. Because this success has come after the league had already adjusted to him.

"I remember when I was in Houston in 2012, I started off red-hot," he said. "I was killing it and killing it. What happened was when the league made the adjustment, I didn't make the adjustment to them. I wanted to do what I thought was working. But if they're not pitching you the same way, you've got to blend to what they're doing. You can't do something with the ball if they're not presenting it to you. So I think learning that [during] that year and learning it through this team -- how [others] pitch Victor and the way Victor and Miggy will sometimes just go with stuff when they really can't do anything else -- that's kind of what I learned how to do. You can't hit a three-run homer if they're not giving you anything to hit. You've got to take your base or slap a single."

Martinez, with the help of his secret sage, made fundamental changes to his approach -- lowering his hands and closing his stance. Those changes likely would have helped him wherever he landed this season. And the Astros, who let him go because of the outfield depth they felt had buried him in their system, have to be kicking themselves for letting him get away with four years of contractual control remaining.

Still, one wonders if Martinez's season would have been this successful in another situation. On a team loaded with youth, for instance, he wouldn't have had the veteran input that has allowed him to sustain this success, or the lineup depth that has allowed him to be a piece of the bigger picture, not the focal point.

"I'm sure it helps a guy like that," said Tigers president, CEO and general manager Dave Dombrowski. "We do have a great group of players, and it's a group where everybody is comfortable around one another. A lot of that is established through your leadership, your veteran leaders. Torii, Victor and Miggy -- I don't know that it gets much better than that."

For J.D. Martinez, it doesn't. With no disrespect intended toward Detroit hitting coaches Wally Joyner and Darnell Coles -- two accomplished former big league hitters in their own right -- Martinez said there's nothing like the peer-to-peer influence at this level.

"Coaches are coaches, and players are players," he said. "It's different if a coach tells you something than if a player tells you something. It speaks more volume, to me, if a player tells you something. Especially a player I respect. That's like 10 coaches coming up to me and telling me something."

Martinez has several coaches in his corner, anonymous and otherwise. A special set of circumstances have aligned to make him one of the best stories this season.

With two big swings in this series, that story has only gotten better in October.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.