In a sport like baseball — where the success of individuals weighs so heavily on team success — it’s not always easy to see how effective leadership on the field can enhance a team’s chances on a daily basis. On the other hand, it’s pretty easy to spot when a lack of leadership becomes an issue.
I’m sure we all remember last year’s incident at second base between Baltimore Orioles star Manny Machado and Red Sox veteran Dustin Pedroia, right? The one involving a spikes-up slide that still haunts Pedroia’s knee and eventually led to a baseball being thrown at Machado’s head. Oh yeah, how could we forget? I remember it as the day we found out that Pedey wasn’t exactly the leader I thought he’d be once David Ortiz retired. I know that sounds a little dramatic but truth be told, it’s not all that imbalanced of an opinion.
More than a year removed from that incident and things around here certainly look a little different. Pedroia has played in just three major-league games this season, not giving him much of a chance to reverse the narrative that was established following his infamous proclamation of “it’s not me, it’s them.” With those words, he skirted the opportunity to be a true leader for a young team that needed one and opened the door a year later for J.D. Martinez to earn the five-year, $110 million contract he signed with Boston in February beyond just in the batter’s box.
Martinez has met expectations at the plate, leading the league in home runs (25) and RBI (64) through 83 games. On top of that, he has exceeded all expectations in the clubhouse. It’s rare for a guy — even an eight-year veteran like Martinez — to join a team and become a leader almost immediately, but that’s exactly what he has done. The 30-year-old seems to embrace the new-guy role, although he admits he’s not necessarily a vocal “rah-rah” type of leader, according to a recent story from WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford. He seems to lead more by example and said he has no problem sharing information with his teammates, especially when they’re struggling.
Martinez has done it so often this season that his teammates and coaches are referring to his leadership model as the “J.D. Martinez program.” He told Bradford that he gives advice on his routine when guys ask because he hates to see his teammates struggling. Manager Alex Cora said there are four or five guys in the “J.D. Martinez program” right now and one of them is Mookie Betts, who returned June 11 from a quick stay on the disabled list due to a reported oblique strain. Cora said part of his rehab process included working with Martinez, who by all accounts sounds like a crazed lunatic when it comes to his hitting routine.
“It’s just something I do because I hate to see people struggling. It’s kind of one of those things where I say things when I see people struggling, people hurting,” Martinez told WEEI.com. “I like to share information. Certain guys beat their head against the wall, not knowing what to do. I just like to show them what I think and what I see great hitters do.”
Not to take anything away from Pedroia, who has also embraced the role of coaching up his teammates in the past, helping Mike Napoli find a glitch in his approach at the plate in 2015. Following the minor tweak Pedroia and Nap discussed on a late-night flight back to Boston, the first baseman hit five home runs in his next six games. Pedroia had a similar experience with David Price in 2016, finding a small difference in the pitcher’s delivery while watching game film of himself. The outing following Pedroia’s advice was one of Price’s best that season as he sparked an 11-1 victory over Houston, giving up one run on six hits with 12 strikeouts and a walk over 6.2 innings. Price pitched into the eighth inning in seven of his next 15 starts.
This is not to disparage Pedroia or say he is a bad leader. I just don’t think he welcomed the opportunity to lead in the same way that Martinez has and that’s a little frustrating given the amount of time each guy has spent in Boston and the expectations that tenure created. Pedroia is in his 13th season with the team that drafted him, while Martinez is on his third team in one calendar year. I didn’t expect Pedroia to slide into Ortiz’s role smoothly. Never thought he’d be the guy to grab the mic after a tragedy and give an impromptu speech that inspires a city. I just felt like he never really wanted the job in which I thought he’d do so well. In more ways than one, the Red Sox are lucky Martinez came around.