Dodgers reunion has Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez back at star heights

As the Dodgers neared their free-agent signing of J.D. Martinez this winter, Andrew Friedman reached out to his superstar right fielder.

The Dodgers president of baseball operations didn’t exactly need an endorsement for Martinez, a five-time All-Star and three-time Silver Slugger Award winner who could help bolster an offense going through a marked offseason turnover.

But Mookie Betts, Friedman knew, had as much rapport with Martinez as almost anyone — the two going from teammates, to hitting partners, to best of friends during a couple seasons together with the Boston Red Sox.

“That’s just my boy,” Betts said. “It’s hard to equate it to baseball.”

So as the Dodgers closed in on a one-year, $10-million deal with Martinez, Friedman sought out Betts’ take, eager to hear how the former MVP thought the veteran designated hitter might impact the Dodgers’ young, transitioning 2023 team.

“Obviously, Mookie’s relationship and firsthand knowledge of how much he would add to our [batting] cage culture was a factor,” Friedman said. “Just the level of preparation, the way he thinks about opposing pitchers, how it would be a force multiplier in terms of impacting other guys.”

What went unsaid in the lead-up to the signing: How much Martinez’s presence might amplify Betts’ game, as well.

How a reunion between the former teammates, who were each coming off solid but unspectacular 2022 seasons, could result in bounce-back performances for each.

“I don’t know how much we factored that in at the time,” Friedman said. “But they have a great relationship.”

To this point of the season, whatever benefits the Dodgers hoped to get from the star duo have already been far exceeded, with both Martinez and Betts flourishing in each other’s presence once again.

Since returning from a back injury last month, Martinez has emerged as one of the hottest hitters in the majors. Over his last 29 games entering Thursday, he ranked third in MLB in home runs (12), seventh in slugging percentage (.641), and 19th in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.935).

According to Baseball Reference’s all-encompassing OPS+ metric, Martinez is rated as the fourth-most productive Dodgers hitter this season, trailing only Freddie Freeman, Will Smith and Betts.

Betts has gone on a similar tear of late. After batting .246 with a .819 OPS in his first 36 games, he is batting .282 with a .857 OPS — in addition to collecting 10 home runs, 22 RBIs and more walks (19) than strikeouts (17) — since Martinez’s return on May 12.

Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts homers against the New York Yankees on June 2, 2023, at Dodger Stadium.

Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts hits a leadoff home run against the New York Yankees on June 2 at Dodger Stadium.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Along with hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc — who helped alter Martinez’s as a private instructor a decade ago, before joining the Dodgers hitting staff in 2019 — they have formed a detailed-oriented triumvirate that is constantly devouring video, devising game plans and dissecting the ever-evolving task of refining their swings.

“They’re both self-made hitters,” Van Scoyoc said. “They both changed their swings at certain points in time and understand the work it takes to maintain that.”

And whether or not the Dodgers fully expected it, it has become a boon for the entire team, their lineup now being buttressed by a pair of likely All-Star-bound hitters with a bond five years in the making.

“Do we talk about hitting? Yeah. Do we talk about the game? Yeah,” Betts said. “But it’s just good to have my boy here.”

When they first became teammates in 2018, Martinez and Betts initially said little to each other, the Red Sox’s $110-million signee that offseason not entirely sure what to make of the club’s homegrown, uber-talented right fielder.

“The first three days,” Martinez recalled with a laugh, “he didn’t even really talk to me.”

That changed early on that spring, when Dave Dombrowski, Boston’s president of baseball operations at the time, called Martinez into his office and encouraged him to reach out to his new teammate.

“This is a guy they really wanted me to work with,” Martinez said. “Someone to focus on.”

So, one day, Martinez approached Betts in the cage. He started asking him about his swing.

Right away, something clicked between the two; their dry wit, direct dialogue and good-natured razzing forging a connection that felt almost instant.

“Similar senses of humor,” Martinez said with a grin.

Added Betts: “We like to talk s— to each other. All those types of things.”

From that point forward, Martinez said the two were “attached at the hip.” And though their bond quickly became “deeper than baseball,” as Betts described it, they helped each other achieve new career peaks.

Betts underwent a drastic swing change in 2018, joining baseball’s launch angle revolution to transform into an unlikely, yet unstoppable, power-hitting leadoff man — batting .346 with 32 home runs while leading the majors in slugging percentage (.640) during his MVP-winning campaign.

“I still kind of see myself as like a regular, typical, get-on-base leadoff hitter,” Betts said earlier this month, his slugging prowess having stuck despite his 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame. “But you just kind of step back and look, my profile definitely changed.”

And how, exactly, did that change take place?

“I guess, J.D. and Rob were probably the main reasons why,” Betts said. “Back in ‘18.”

Indeed, while Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers and assistant Andy Barkett helped lead some of Betts’ swing changes, it was Martinez and Van Scoyoc who helped cement them.

“Obviously I worked hard at it,” Betts said. “But those four were single-handedly responsible for who I am today, really.”

Betts leaned on Martinez a lot that spring, as he struggled initially to adapt to his new stroke.

“I think I went two for 50 or something,” Betts said, only slightly exaggerating his actual two-for-20 start to camp. “I was kind of getting into a territory where I had no clue what I was doing.”

Through Martinez, Betts also struck up a relationship with Van Scoyoc, who had helped Martinez become one of the sport’s premier sluggers with a similar, launch angle-minded swing transformation earlier in his career.

“[J.D.] and Rob were like the teachers,” Betts said. “I had never heard of that stuff. So I had to talk to them.”

Boston Red Sox's Mookie Betts, left, celebrates a home run by J.D. Martinez against the Baltimore Orioles on Sept. 26, 2018.

Mookie Betts, left, and J.D. Martinez, celebrating a home run by Martinez on Sept. 26, 2018, against the Baltimore Orioles, were part of a Boston Red Sox team that beat the Dodgers in the World Series that season.

(Michael Dwyer / Associated Press)

And though Martinez was having his own career year that season — collecting an MLB-high 130 RBIs and finishing fourth in MVP voting while being pushed by Betts behind the scenes — he also made time to lend advice on Betts’ swing.

“He told me what I needed to do,” Betts said. “The principles I needed to hit in the swing.”

Often, Betts recalled, Martinez would give him “tests” in the batting cage, challenging him to perfect a certain aspect of his new mechanics at the plate. Other times, the two would review film together, Martinez noting checkpoints in Betts’ rapid progress.

“The thing with him is, he’s not like Mike Trout, he’s not like [Paul Goldschmidt], these guys that are just naturally so good,” Martinez said of Betts. “Yeah, he’s a freak athlete. But as far as the hitting, he’s had to work for it. And that’s what he got to. He understands he has to work on his swing every day. Find it. Tweak it.”

When Betts was swinging well, Martinez would reinforce it with encouragement. When Betts was scuffling, Martinez would remind him to keep working, but also to relax and trust his talent.

“Obviously, it’s a double-edged sword,” Martinez said. “Sometimes we’re like, ‘All right, you’re being too much now.’ There’s a fine balance between it.”

By the end of that season, the two had reached an equilibrium.

During the Red Sox‘s run to a World Series title over the Dodgers, Martinez hit .300 with 14 RBIs in 14 playoff games. Betts batted just .210 in the postseason, but had a key three-hit performance in Game 2 of the World Series. In the Red Sox’s clinching Game 5 win, Betts and Martinez homered.

“In Boston, they got super close and they’ve had a good friendship ever since,” Van Scoyoc said. “[Mookie] trusts J.D. So having someone around that you trust when you’re not feeling great, to help you through things, it’s always super valuable.”

Even after Betts was traded to the Dodgers ahead of the 2020 season — following a 2019 campaign in which he and Martinez again were All-Stars — the connection with Martinez didn’t fade.

Instead, with Betts playing on one coast, Martinez got in the habit of staying up late on the other, routinely tuning into Dodgers games and keying in on how the right fielder was playing.

“I could tell [how he was feeling] right away,” Martinez said. “I could tell when like, ‘Oh, he’s locked in right now.’ Or, ‘He can’t hit anything right now.’ I’ve seen him enough. We’ve spent so much time together.”

Martinez continued to pass along his wisdom, texting Betts on a weekly basis, and sending observations in a group chat they shared with Van Scoyoc.

“If he saw something with Mookie, he would tell me, and all of us would text,” Van Scoyoc said. “We were always talking about that kind of stuff.”

During Betts’ slumps — which dogged him last season as he battled newfound inconsistency — the exchanges would serve as a needed reprieve.

“He would text me, panicking,” Martinez said. “Then we would talk [and I would] show him what he’s got to do, show him what I see.”

During Betts’ peak stretches — which helped carry his overall production, with the outfielder still finishing fifth in MVP voting in 2022 — Martinez would offer up reminders, urging him to “just continue to grind and sharpen his blade.”

“When he does that,” Martinez added, “that’s what makes him good.”

Dodgers' J.D. Martinez drops his bat after an RBI single against the Tampa Bay Rays on May 26 , 2023, in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Dodgers designated hitter J.D. Martinez drops his bat as he watches his RBI single against the Tampa Bay Rays on May 26 in St. Petersburg, Fla.

(Chris O’Meara / Associated Press)

This season, those same conversations have continued. Only now, they’re back to being on a daily, in-person, face-to-face routine again.

“The banter between Mookie and J.D. has been a lot of fun to witness,” manager Dave Roberts said.

So too has been the production of their recent coinciding hot streaks.

With Betts, this latest stretch has been all about his elbows; a lever in his swing that, when in position and on the right plane, makes him the kind of hitter who “should never swing and miss,” Martinez said. “I think he’s that talented.”

Martinez’s resurgence came much more piecemeal. After developing a series of self-described “bad habits” over a couple injury-plagued seasons in Boston, the 35-year-old worked on everything from hand placement to his hip rotation and how he incorporates his legs into his motion.

It just feels like the culmination of a lot of small things adding up,” Van Scoyoc said. “And then eventually, you get over the hump.”

For both Betts and Martinez, though, this year’s reunion has been about more than the stats.

“It’s like being with your best friends,” Martinez said of Betts and Van Scoyoc. “I’m with them all the time. It’s fun teasing, messing around, joking around.”

“I’m just happy that he’s here and doing well,” Betts echoed, enjoying the scenario he envisioned when Friedman reached out this winter. “Even if [J.D.] wasn’t playing well, obviously that would suck, but it doesn’t change my perspective on him.”

Indeed, in a sport where friendships can be fleeting, and clubhouse connections shallow and transactional, Betts’ and Martinez’s companionship is more reminiscent of “The Shawshank Redemption.”

Two old friends, separated and then reunited, creating their own Zihuatanejo in the heart of Los Angeles.

“I appreciate everything he’s done for me,” Betts said. “But we’re boys, so I don’t think we really look at it that way.”