DETROIT — In 2012, when the Tigers were desperately seeking a right-handed bat, they tried to acquire outfielder J.D. Martinez from the Houston Astros.
Now, in 2014, when they have a crying need for left-handed hitters in a right-handed-heavy lineup, the Tigers call up ... J.D. Martinez?
And, yes, he’s still right-handed.
How is that going to work? And why didn’t they go with the left-handed Ezequiel Carrera, who is hitting .364 at Toledo?
Well, there are several factors that make the move make sense.
One, the Tigers have decided to ride Rajai Davis as the starter in left field, rather than platoon, so you don’t necessarily need a left-handed platoon partner for him. You need someone who does something that he doesn’t.
In this case, it’s hit with power.
“Well, (Martinez) obviously can play the outfield, spell someone in the outfield. He’s got power off the bench, as a pinch hitter, late in the game, if it’s a close game, which has to give the opposing manager a little bit of a pause, on what reliever they bring into the game,” manager Brad Ausmus said.
“He’s a threat, whenever he’s in the box.”
Before adding Martinez, the Tigers’ bench players had combined for 27 career home runs — 23 of them by Don Kelly. Martinez had 24 in three seasons with the Astros and 54 in six minor-league seasons, including an minor-leagues best 10 at Toledo this year.
Figuring when he might spell one of the corner outfielders, Davis or Torii Hunter, might be a little more difficult, since you can’t just go with a lefty-righty matchup.
“Well, he’s going to have to get some starts against right-handed pitching. That’s just the simple fact. Because the spot to use him to spell the most would be either with Torii or Rajai, but they’re also right-handed,” Ausmus said. “So he’s going to have to play against some right-handed pitching, to be honest with you. But he has that ability to drive that ball over the wall, which we don’t have a ton of on this team.”
It helps that Martinez has hit relatively well against right-handers in his career, and very well in the minors this year.
In the majors, Martinez hits .249 (.294 on-base percentage, .381 slugging percentage, .675 OPS) against right-handed starters and .257 (.314/.401/.715) against left-handed starters.
Of his 24 career home runs, 16 are against right-handed pitchers, including one off Max Scherzer last year. That came in a series in which he went 5-for-10 with four extra-base hits against the Tigers, most of that damage done against three right-handed starters: Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez (one double) and Doug Fister (two doubles).
With his remodeled swing, it’s even more pronounced this year: He’s hitting just .125 in 16 plate appearances against lefties, and .367 (.415/1.000/1.415) against righties. Nine of his 10 home runs are against right-handers.
“I feel like the ball travels a lot more now. It’s not just a line drive anymore. It’s more like they go,” Martinez said of his new swing. What did he change?
“Everything. I can’t even describe it. I changed everything, top to bottom. It was just more to try to drive the ball, hit the ball in the air, moreso than on the ground. ... I saw a lot of big-league stars that had similarities, and just wanted to make mine as similar to theirs as I could.”
Four of his 10 home runs came in one concentrated burst on Saturday, when he hit three in the first game of a Toledo doubleheader, and another in the nightcap. The last Toledo player to have a three-homer game was Brad Eldred on April 24, 2012, three days before his call-up to the Tigers.
“It was a fun day. It’s not really a you can schedule for, ‘I’m going to do this today.’ I showed up, there was no BP, nothing. Just show up and play,” Martinez said. “I just — I don’t know — it was one of those things where you just kind of black out.”