J.D. Martinez is perhaps the foremost hitting expert among major league players, but he had no idea what his hitting coach was talking about.
“You’ve been hitting sideways for the last four years,” Robert Van Scoyoc told him in May.
“What does that even mean?” Martinez asked.
This was an unusual position for Martinez, who tends to be the person confusing others with hitting terminology. In 2013, Martinez was on his way to a .650 OPS season with the Astros when his teammate Jason Castro put him in touch with Van Scoyoc and Craig Wallenbrock, who were then working as private hitting coaches. Martinez revamped his swing at their direction, then became an evangelist for the science of hitting. He travels with a green duffel bag stuffed with props—a two-by-four, a deflated playground ball, a towel attached to a stick—that he uses to help correct small mechanical flaws. He scours video. He has tried and can demonstrate every drill ever conceived. Over five years as the Red Sox’ DH, and this season in the same role with the Dodgers, he became something of a backup hitting coach, working with teammates to unlock their offensive potential.
J.D. Martinez already has eight more homers than he did last season in 248 fewer plate appearances.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports
But now he was lost. Van Scoyoc, who in 2019 became the Dodgers’ hitting coach but continued to work with Martinez on the side, had been mentioning rotation to his protégé for years, but Martinez never really knew what he meant.
“I’m rotating my hips as hard as I can! I’m rotating! I don’t know how to rotate faster!” he would gripe.
But now his power had evaporated—his 2022 slugging percentage of .448 was his lowest full-season mark since he met Van Scoyoc—and he was ready to listen. Martinez is more of a kinetic learner than a verbal one, but Van Scoyoc managed to convey to him, Martinez says, that “I’d been hitting without opening up my chest, almost.”
He struggles to explain now how they fixed it, but they did. Martinez hit four home runs in 98 plate appearances in March and April before developing lower-back soreness. When he came back from the injured list in mid-May, Van Scoyoc delivered his suggestion; since then, Martinez has 20 home runs in 250 plate appearances. At 35, and playing on a one-year, $10 million deal, Martinez has a .568 slugging percentage, fifth in the National League.
Just Dingers in Texas? You Otto believe it. pic.twitter.com/uD8AZ5RPi9
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) July 22, 2023
This is the scenario Martinez envisioned when he signed with the Dodgers before this season. “They offered me the same contract they offered [former L.A. third baseman Justin Turner] and said, ‘Do you want it?’” he says. “It was one of those things where, like, what, I’m gonna make another three or four million dollars somewhere else, and you don’t know where you’re gonna end up? I’ll take the [financial] hit now and hopefully get back to the old me and sign a deal next year.” (Turner signed a two-year, $22 million deal with Boston. He has a 122 OPS+, to Martinez’s 130, and Turner has played DH, first base, second base and third base. So the swap worked out pretty well for everyone.)
He wanted to get back to being “the old J.D.,” he says, and he thought working daily with Van Scoyoc would help him get there. “We’re the only ones that can, like, get in there,” Martinez says.
So what did they do?
“S—, if I told you you’d never f—— know!” he says good-naturedly. “I don’t know how to explain it to you. Like, you’d have to go in the cage and—I don’t know, this is stupid. You’re not even going to understand. But I’m doing the one-hand drill with my arm out, like a pull-push feel. Then the other one’s like the ball on the back elbow and just kind of like, ‘Hey, I want you to throw the ball out here.’ And then the other one is, ‘O.K., I want you to open your chest up. It’s gonna feel like you’re opening up at the third baseman, but you’re not.’”
Well, at least he understands.