(Photo credit to Keith Allison)
As a principal town of Miami, and with not many points of interest, you could easily drive through Davie, Florida before you even knew you entered it. However, I would recommend that any baseball fan finding themselves in Davie visit Nova Southeastern University. Why? Because it is the alma mater of the sport’s newest superstar, and our September winner of our Plucked From Obscurity award.
Drafted in the 20th round of the 2009 Amateur Draft by the Houston Astros, J.D. Martinez never had any real expectations coming into pro ball. So not only was it surprising when he got the call to replace the recently traded Hunter Pence in 2011, but he also produced a solid .274/.319/.423 slash line over 53 games. However, his improvement stagnated, with regression in many areas. This ultimately led to his release in Spring Training of 2014 from a team that had lost 324 games the past three years and would lose another 92 in 2014. Where does one go after being released by the worst team of the past half-decade? Apparently to Detroit and the path to superstardom.
Keep in mind Martinez was released outright by the Astros. Not traded, not optioned, but simply given up on by a team sorely in need of any talent. Of course, the Astros have made plenty of wise moves throughout their rebuild, including signing our July Plucked From Obscurity winner, Jose Altuve. So why did such a wise front office let go of a future All-Star for nothing? Because even the smartest organizations have trouble accounting for what their players do during the winter.
During the offseason between the 2013 and 2014 season, Martinez made only one adjustment to his swing. Of course though, we all know now that the adjustment changed the trajectory of a woebegone career. Compare film of Martinez in Houston to his time in Detroit and now Arizona, and you’ll notice one thing fairly quickly: his bat spends much more time in the strike zone thanks to an almost uppercut swing. This has led to more consistent contact, allowing his naturally prodigious power to show through to the tune of 99 home runs, a .300/.361/.551 slash line, 147 OPS+, and 12.6 WAR over 458 games in Detroit from 2014 to July 2017.
Of course when you share a lineup with luminaries such as Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Tori Hunter, Victor Martinez, and Justin Upton throughout your career, it’s hard to make a name for yourself no matter how well you play. Because of the presence of these players, and Detroit’s overall lack of playoff appearances during Martinez’s time in town – their only postseason experience came in the form of a sweep in the 2014 ALDS – the casual fan had scarcely heard of the former NSU Shark. So what’s the best way for a player to gain national exposure? Being thrown into a playoff chase certainly doesn’t hurt.
Martinez got traded to Arizona on July 18th and continuing his theme of undervaluation, only brought back three mid-range prospects from good-not-great Diamondbacks’ farm system. Perhaps tired of being overlooked, Martinez has been absolutely scorching since arriving in the sweltering Arizona desert, especially in September.
Just how proficient has he been this month? Not only did he hit four home runs on September 4th (becoming only the 18th player in history to perform such a feat), he has also hit a ludicrous .414/.453/1.011 while tying the National League home run record for September with 16 heading into the final day of the regular season. Perhaps, though, no accomplishment has been greater than leading Arizona to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
From tiny Division II NSU to leading the charge to the NL playoffs, it’s easy to marvel at the journey Martinez has taken. Perhaps most interesting is that no one knows the next step. With his contract expiring at the end of the season, Martinez enters free agency as an established major leaguer for the first time. With the large contracts of Zach Greinke and Yasmany Thomas already on the books, and a tough decision to make about a potential Paul Goldschmidt extension looming, it is entirely possible we could see Martinez in yet another uniform next Spring. However, no matter where he ends up, one thing is for certain.
This player once almost lost to obscurity will be obscure no longer.