J.D. Martinez has appeared in more than 800 games in the outfield during his 11-year career in Major League Baseball. That means he has had to run, jog, walk or whatever other form of inducing forward momentum to the outfield from the dugout thousands of times, and that’s just considering his MLB career. Across all of those jaunts to the grass, Martinez probably tripped, stumbled or slipped a few times, but perhaps no accidentally erroneous footwork seemed as dire as when he tweaked his ankle on the second base bag while running out to right field during the Red Sox’s regular season finale against the Washington Nationals earlier this month. Martinez would eventually be pulled from the game, but when the Sox escaped with a 7-5 win to lay claim to a playoff spot, Martinez’s injury was far from the top headline.
However, the injury continued to linger and Martinez not only missed the Wildcard Game against the New York Yankees, but he also missed game one of the American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Red Sox managed to survive without him against the Yankees, but in that series opener against the Rays, the Sox didn’t score a single run in a 5-0 loss. That’s not to say Martinez would have solved that problem all by himself, but not having one of their best bats in the lineup certainly hurt the Red Sox and it could have been devastating if it lasted any longer.
Luckily, Martinez made it back to the lineup for the rest of the ALDS and his presence made more than a nominal impact. Across 15 plate appearances in the series, Martinez slashed .467/.467/.733 with a 226 wRC+. Of course, Martinez made the biggest splash in his return to the field in game two. Martinez singled in his first at-bat of the game and then flied out in his second, but he produced the Red Sox’s most important hit of the game when he came up in the top of the fifth inning with two runners on base and smashed a three-run home run to center field to help the Red Sox push ahead 8-5 after they fell behind 5-2 in the first inning. The home run caused a roughly 24 percent swing in win probability, according to Baseball-Reference, lifting the Red Sox’s win expectancy to 84%.
Martinez and the Red Sox kept trucking from there, with Martinez finishing with a 4-for-5 batting line and the Red Sox securing a 14-6 victory, sparking their run to the series win. Martinez’s win probability added (WPA) for that game was .305, which was higher than any other player on either team. Through the next two games, although Martinez actually had negative marks in WPA, he still managed to keep hitting, as he went 3-for-10 and also knocked in a run during the five-run third inning in game four of the ALDS.
Now that Martinez’s small stumble against Washington is a forgotten memory and the Red Sox are looking forward to the American League Championship Series, let’s take a moment to look back just a little bit. After all, another reason a potential lengthy injury to Martinez was so frightening was because after a mostly rough second half, he had finally started to get back to hitting like the All-Star he was earlier in the season.
From Sept. 3 to Oct. 3, Martinez slashed .289/.362/.518 with a 129 wRC+. He turned it up even more during the Red Sox’s final sprint to the playoffs, slashing .300/.364/.550 with a 144 wRC+ over the final seven days of the regular season. Such production was in stark contrast to the month-long slide Martinez fell into at the plate in August when he was essentially a league average hitter (104 wRC+) while his walk rate plummeted to a horrid 4.8 percent and his strikeout rate rose to 26.9 percent. Both of those marks were the worst Martinez recorded in any month this season in case you were wondering.
As Martinez slumped, so too did the Red Sox. In August, they went 12-16, marking the only month of the season in which they had a losing record. They then bounced back to go 14-11 in September (and 3-0 in October) as Martinez rediscovered himself in the batter’s box. Obviously, one player can’t be responsible for turning things around for an entire team (otherwise Shohei Ohtani or Mike Trout would have figured out how to do that for the Angels), but it’s certainly not a coincidence that the Red Sox played better when Martinez played better.
Even if the bulk of Martinez’s return-to-form production during that last week of the regular season was in the disappointing Baltimore series, the hope was that if the Red Sox got into the postseason, he would keep up the momentum of September and continue shedding the slump of August. It may have just been from three games, but it looks like those hopes are coming to fruition and helping fuel a lengthier playoff run than many may have predicted for the Red Sox.
Martinez is no stranger to spearheading an advance through the postseason for Boston, as he slashed .300/.403/.520 with a 139 wRC+ in 62 plate appearances during the Red Sox’s quest for the 2018 World Series title. If the Red Sox are going to replicate that result, the offense will need to keep up the offensive surge behind their playoff success, especially what they showed against the Rays, and although there are plenty of hitters on the roster capable of carrying the day, having Martinez mashing again is a critical component.