J.D. Martinez opens up about his quest to show why 2020 was an aberration

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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There might not be a player on the entire Red Sox roster who is starving for the 2021 season to begin like J.D. Martinez.

It's really not that complicated. Once the games begin next week, that's when he can officially cut ties with 2020. That has been the light at the end of the tunnel. And now, it's all starting to get brighter. For Martinez, the dark days of 2020 are ready to be buried.

"Obviously I'm excited," Martinez told WEEI.com. "I just want (expletive) to go back to normal, honestly. I just want it to be a normal season. I'm kind of tired of being judged on two months."

The exasperation isn't difficult to decipher.

The arduous path Martinez took to become of the game's premier hitters has been well-documented, only to now open the door for doubts thanks to his 237 plate appearances a season ago. It is a downturn the 33-year-old clearly has worn throughout recent months, first devoting himself to an offseason of non-stop hitting near his Miami-area home, leading into the 40 Grapefruit League trips to the plate taken thus far.

That uneasy feeling born from 2020 hasn't totally been washed away, but the feeling of progress has left Martinez with a much-needed spring in his step.

"Honestly, it does," said the Red Sox' designated hitter. "It feels like I'm getting closer. It feels like everything is getting more normal besides the masks and everything. But it is starting to feel a little bit normal."

So, what wasn't feeling normal? "I feel like it's everything. It's constantly being asked by the media, 'J.D., you had a terrible 2020 ...' It's non-stop. Dude, let me grind, let me work. Stop putting the negativity around me. I just want to go out there and hit and do what I know what to do, grind, and get back in the swing of things. Just getting back out there, putting numbers up there again and everyone will say, 'Oh, OK. This is what happened.'"

There is that matter of what actually did happen.

The turn Martinez took for those two months seemed so out-of-nowhere for a player who not only had dominated in his first two seasons with the Red Sox, but was coming off first round of spring training carrying a swing (and .968 OPS) that seemed in line with his image.

Yes, 2020 was a small sample size, but it still was a stretch that seemed so out-of-the-ordinary for Martinez people were scrambling for answers. For instance, before being traded to Arizona in 2017, Martinez had five fewer plate appearances with Detroit than he ended up with last season. That last stint with the Tigers he hit .305 with a 1.018 OPS and 16 homers. This time around? Martinez finished was was perceived as an entire season with a .213 batting average, .680 OPS and just seven home runs.

Everyone knew this was not the norm. But not everyone understood the particulars of what had changed since leaving Fort Myers a year ago.

All we had Martinez's proclamation on Zoom at the outset of this spring training where he noted, "It was obviously a tough two months. I felt like I wasn’t prepared for last year. It kind of caught me off-guard. It was my fault. I take accountability for that."

So, again, what did happen?

"I'm just finding out the source of where everything ... I created bad habits, I'm not going to lie," he explained after taking additional swings on the Fenway South back fields Monday morning. "Last year, me not being able to look. Me not being able to breakdown my swing throughout the year I created some really bad habits and the whole thing is trying to break them now. It's different in the cage when you're getting a flip or BP or when you're getting 98 (mph) at you. It's hard to think about mechanics when you're having a 95-96 mph ball come at you."

The lack of video and Martinez's constant scrambling for answers during last August and September is only part of the story. The real impetus for this path, as he explained, began upon ending Spring Training 1.0.

"Honestly, I felt like it was created during that time," Martinez said of the hiatus between the first and second spring trainings. "I remember for last year's (original) season I was ready. I felt great. Like in our original spring training. I went back and looked at my swings and they were completely different in our summer camp. A lot of that was when I went home and the doctors were freaking me out because I have bad asthma and with the whole COVID thing. They were like, 'J.D. don't do anything. Don't go outside.' I was like, 'Can I hit?' They're like, 'No. Is somebody going to flip to you?' I'm like, 'Yeah.' So they were like, 'No.' I was kind of freaking out at the time. I'm like, 'Can you work out?' They were like, 'No. You can work out but not with any a trainer or anything.' I ended up spending two months sitting on my butt trying to stay alive during this whole pandemic. Then they were like, 'Hey, you've got three weeks to try and get ready before you have to report.' It was crunch-time. I was trying to crush everything in three weeks after sitting down for two months.

"That's what I think happened. I think I got into some bad habits during that time. A part of me didn't even think we were going to play at the beginning of the season. I thought there was no way, especially when teams were testing positive left and right for COVID. I didn't know if they were going to keep it up."

Martinez tells the story of 2020, but not without quickly wanting to move it forward to 2021.

He is on pace to get more at-bats than any spring training as a member of the Red Sox. ("I always told Alex, 'I need a lot of at-bats, bro. That's how I work.' Every spring training I have got a lot of at-bats, and I want them," he said.) And while the results have come slowly -- with Martinez seemingly starting to adjust to a constant wave of outside-corner offerings from his Grapefruit League competition -- the original middle-of-the-order threat is starting to emerge.

The uneasy feelings, born from such things as not rotating his hips on swings ("It's a bad habit I started creating and I didn't realize it, really," he added,) are starting to get fewer and fewer.

He has just more than a week to go. That's when Martinez is banking on normalcy making its return.

"Totally," he said when asked if things are starting to feel like before 2020. "Just being able to get into it again. It's been great."

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