The first weekend of the 2021 season for the Red Sox was terrible. There is no sugarcoating it. You can certainly hammer home that it is too early to say the season is over or anything like that, because these three games did make up 1.8 percent of the season. You can’t argue with math. But that doesn’t mean people can’t or shouldn’t be discouraged by a team that came out flat and sloppy and seemed to press more and more as the games went on. There was plenty of reason to be skeptical of the roster coming into the season, and they’ve given no reason through three games to feel otherwise. So yeah, don’t write them and the season off completely, but also don’t just ignore the bad for the good.
That said, things were so bad I really struggled to isolate just one thing to talk about today. Ultimately it seemed easier to pick out a positive to take a look at and focus on. It’s also probably better for my mental health, and folks, self-care is important.
That brings us to J.D. Martinez. The weirdest part of this series is that it wasn’t the pitching that was so brutal to watch, as was the expectation for the most pessimistic among us. Instead, the pitching was really solid for the first two games before imploding a bit on Sunday. The offense, though, was a mess. Like I said, they were flat and it seemed like they were pressing by the time Sunday came around. But amid all that, J.D. Martinez put some really nice swings on a few pitches, and gave a little bit of hope in a weekend that was largely void of it.
There were obviously a whole lot of concerns for Martinez coming into this season. He was probably the biggest disappointment on the Red Sox in 2020, who were probably the biggest disappointment among all teams last season. Over his 237 plate appearances last summer, he hit only .213/.291/.389 for a dismal 77 wRC+. That means he was 23 percent worse than the league-average hitter. It is 62 points worse than the previous season, and 93 points below his mark in 2018. That he didn’t look good in spring only added fuel to the fire. Early struggles from him this season certainly would have caused an outcry of panic.
That’s not what happened though. Instead, Martinez was one of the few reliable bats the Red Sox could call upon this past weekend against the Orioles. All told, the slugger hit the team’s only home run of the series and went 4-8 with a pair of doubles to go with the homer. Christian Vázquez was the only other Red Sox player with more than two hits, going 3-7. It obviously needs to be said that, just like it is too early to hit the panic button entirely based on the sweep, it is too early to say definitively that Martinez has turned it around.
That said, it’s encouraging, and it does provide a bit of relief for those of us who had some amount of confidence he’d find a way to bounce back after the rough 2020. And it was a valid position to hold coming into the year. First and foremost, it was 2020. There is an enormous grain of salt to be taken with any individual player’s numbers over that season, particularly those which varied so much from career norms. And then with Martinez specifically, the lack of video, something on which he relies so much to keep his mechanics in check, was a major factor. And then with the spring, that’s something he’s always experienced. Even back in 2018 when he was one of the very best hitters on the planet he had a bad spring.
The thing that seemed to be missing so much from Martinez’s game last year was driving the ball. This had been his bread and butter for so many years, but in 2020 he seemed to be rolling over or popping up hittable pitches in every other at bat. It was really frustrating. He did swing through a few of those this weekend too, but that’s always going to happen. No one is hitting 100 percent of the mistakes they see. But Martinez punished a few as well, not only depositing a home run into the Monster Seats but driving a pair of doubles as well.
It’s hard to overstate what a bounce-back from Martinez would mean for the Red Sox. Regardless of how the series against the Orioles went, it’s still a safe bet any success from this team will come from the offense rather than the pitching. The better the offense, the more games they can win just on the backs of the lineup. Martinez has the highest upside in this lineup, and an ability to carry the group on his back that maybe one or two others in the group has. Plus, if you want to think negatively of the team after what you saw at Fenway to start the season, a bounce-back from Martinez makes him a hell of a target for contenders in July. I think it’s certainly too early to think that way, but it’s worth throwing out at least.
Nobody is drawing major conclusions based on three games of a 162-game season. Or, perhaps more accurately, nobody should be. That goes for the negatives that result from the Red Sox being swept by a team who FanGraphs projected to have a 0.0 percent chance of making the postseason before the season. (Those odds are now up to 0.1 percent thanks to the sweep.) It also goes for the positives, in that J.D. Martinez could certainly go 0-fer in this upcoming Rays series and the picture has totally changed. That said, he was one of the most polarizing players on the roster this year with major questions after a brutal 2020. You had to search for positives in this lineup over the weekend, but Martinez certainly stands out as a rare, and important, one.