- Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez are two of the best hitters in the game. It's no surprise that talking hitting binds their friendship.
After the greatest achievement of Mookie Betts’s professional career, his mentor tried to beat him up.
Five hours earlier, Betts had stood behind the Red Sox’ turtle—the portable cage that teams use to protect spectators during batting practice—and lamented. “I suck,” the rightfielder told Boston DH J.D. Martinez. “My swing is trash today. I can’t figure it out.”
Martinez let him complain for a bit, then turned on him.
“Dude, whether you like it or not, people look up to you,” he said. “You can’t go around saying that stuff! It’s O.K. to be in panic, it’s O.K. to go to the cage and say, ‘What the f---?’ when it’s me, you and [hitting coach Tim Hyers], but in front of the guys, you just have to fake it sometimes. … When you’re the best player on the team, that’s what you have to do.”
That August evening in Toronto, Betts hit for his first career cycle.
When Betts returned to the dugout after a ninth-inning home run completed the feat, Martinez slapped him affectionately. “Bro, I can’t with you,” Martinez said. Betts just laughed.
As the team prepares for the World Series on Tuesday against the Dodgers, the only sight more common at Fenway Park than red socks is that of Betts and Martinez, deep in conversation about hitting. They spent much of the season locked in a race for the AL MVP award. Only one will win—likely Betts, with his baseball-leading 10.9 WAR—but Martinez finished five home runs and 16 points of batting average shy of the Triple Crown. Neither had ever had such a successful year, and each credits the other’s involvement for the improvement. Boston’s two best players are among one other’s best friends.
They make a striking pair: the 5’ 9”, 26-year-old Betts, whose natural talent exceeds that of almost anyone else in the game, and the 6’ 3”, 31-year-old Martinez, who can discuss hitting with the precision of a physicist. Betts is a homegrown prospect made good; Martinez arrived in Boston this winter as a free agent on a five-year, $110 million deal. But they understand each other in a way they have never really encountered with anyone else.
“People call me psycho,” Martinez says. “I met my other person that’s psycho with me.”
Their first interaction was not auspicious. The day he arrived at spring training in Ft. Myers, Fla., Martinez walked into the clubhouse. Betts said hello and walked away. Then … nothing. For three or four days.
“I thought he was full of himself,” says Martinez. “I was like, Oh, this guy’s kind of a douche.” (Betts denies this account. “I let him warm up,” he says.)
Shortly thereafter, Betts approached Martinez with a question about hitting, and Martinez discovered the truth: Betts was just shy. Betts quickly began to remind Martinez of himself.
“He has that sense of insecurity,” Martinez says. “It’s kind of the same way with me too. You’re battling, you’re working, because you don’t want to let it fall. Other guys are like, It’s not gonna slip up, and they’re casual about it and very confident and he’s not like that. That’s what makes him great.”
Betts finished second in AL MVP voting in 2016 and was widely regarded as one of the two or three best players in baseball, but last season was something of a disappointment by his standards: He hit .264 and slugged .459. Enter J.D.
Martinez loves to think about hitting and talk about hitting. He had an OPS of .687 over parts of three seasons with the Astros. Over the 2013–14 offseason, he worked with hitting tutors to rebuild his swing, focusing on aligning his swing path with the angle of the pitch. He started to think of himself not as a ball-hitter but as a plane-matcher. The change came too late for Houston, which released him that spring, but he signed with the Tigers, where he broke out. Over the years, he has tried to engage teammates in conversations, but few people see the craft in the same mechanical way he does. He uses what appears to be the detritus from a field day—a kickball, a few Frisbees, some elastic bands—to ingrain the right motions in himself. Video coordinator Billy Broadbent films every one of his batting practice sessions and sends him the footage.
Martinez used to be alone in his mania. Now he and Betts spend the beginning of batting practice in the batting cage with assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett. There is J.D., holding the kickball under his front elbow to track whether his arm is moving the right direction. There is Mookie, tossing the Frisbee to practice his rotation. They do one-handed drills and then head upstairs to hit on the field—where Broadbent films both of them. After nearly every round, Betts scurries over to Martinez with a question about approach or mechanics. They simulate the swing motion and pick it apart, while Hyers looks on, beaming. The staff jokes that Martinez is the third hitting coach, a position he can only maintain because the first and second are so supportive of his help. Hyers in particular checks in with Martinez occasionally about Betts’s state of mind.
“Make sure you tell Mookie he’s O.K.,” he will remind Martinez when Betts seems down on himself.
“I have to remind him sometimes how good he really is,” says Martinez.
And in the end, those conversations are probably even more important than the ones about swing plane and timing mechanisms and two-strike approaches.
“I could sit here all day and talk about what I’ve learned [from Martinez],” says Betts, “But the most important thing is to trust your work. … That’s something you can apply to life, not just baseball.”
The street is not entirely one-way; Betts pushes Martinez to improve his baserunning. “Bro, you could’ve run on that!” he will admonish his friend when he returns to the dugout. They argue about who is the better athlete and whether Martinez, who most often starts at DH but will likely play some outfield at Dodger Stadium, is a real outfielder. (“There’s four of us!” Martinez insists. “J.D. wants to be a part of us,” says Betts, laughing.)
A few months ago, Martinez showed Betts video of himself hitting a three-pointer on the first try as proof that he can ball. “That shot looks like my swing last year!” Betts said disdainfully.
They have become so close that they mirror each other’s speech patterns—count the uses of “it’s just one of those things” in their press conferences—and habits. Martinez is used to spending hours in the batting cage, swinging until a coach tells him to go home. Now he’s the one kicking Betts out. Then they head to their separate homes, where they text each other videos of their swings. “When we’re not on the field hitting,” Martinez says, “We’re at home resting or thinking about hitting.” Occasionally Betts will insist on an extra session or an extra drill and Martinez will laugh at him.
“You’re a nut!” he’ll say.
Betts will roll his eyes. “You can’t even talk! You’re the same way!”
And Martinez smiles and says, “I know.”