In 2014, Renae Martinez was a redshirt freshman catcher for UC Irvine, which ended its season playing at the College World Series in Omaha.
Three months later, Martinez had relocated to the not-so-friendly confines of El Camino College just west of Compton, Calif.
Could there possibly be a more precipitous drop in collegiate baseball status than going from TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha to Warriors Field at a community college located on Crenshaw Boulevard?
Choosing to make the 35-mile transfer from UC Irvine to El Camino was anything but easy. “It was a tough decision to make,” Martinez explained. “I loved Irvine, but I lacked opportunity.”
Martinez could have remained with the Anteaters, who stunned top-seeded Oregon State to advance from the NCAA Corvallis Regional, then swept No. 4-seeded Oklahoma State in the Stillwater Super Regional to advance to the 2014 CWS, where they defeated No. 6-seeded Texas in the first round before getting eliminated after falling to No. 5-seeded Vanderbilt and in a rematch against Texas.
At UC Irvine, Martinez was a backup to redshirt junior catcher Jerry McClanahan, a second-team All-Big West Conference selection who hit .304 in 65 games. McClanahan was expected to leave college after getting selected in the 2014 amateur baseball draft, but instead he returned for his senior season and was drafted in the 19th round by the Baltimore Orioles in 2015.
Martinez played in just 23 games (five starts), had 33 at-bats and hit .152 in 2014. When it became known McClanahan would return for his senior season, Martinez approached his UC Irvine coaches, who informed him the 2015 season would pretty much play out in the same manner with limited playing time as a backup.
Martinez' Career Stats at OU
Martinez chose El Camino because it was close to his hometown of San Pedro, where he was named the Marine League's Most Outstanding Player and also earned First Team All-CIF and all-city honors in high school.
Though he knew nothing of El Camino College itself, Martinez was no stranger to the area. He grew up playing baseball at the Urban Youth Academy in neighboring Compton and knew several coaches there. “They've always given me a place to play,” Martinez said of the academy. “They're really special people who go out of their way to help kids get to the next level.”
Martinez indeed returned to the next level after one season at El Camino and transferred to Oklahoma in hopes of someday reaching the sport's pinnacle again.
"I wish I could take all our freshmen and drop them there for two days so they could see what sacrifice really is in becoming great at this game."
-- Pete Hughes
When evaluating his team's biggest shortcomings after the 2015 season, Sooners coach Pete Hughes determined he needed a junior-college transfer to help alleviate his team's vast inexperience at catcher. Returning from a trip to Hawaii, Hughes flew to Los Angeles and took a peek at Martinez, who hit .308 with 24 runs, 19 RBI and five steals in 36 games at El Camino.
Hughes only needed a brief chat with Martinez. “We talked to him for about five minutes and committed to him,” Hughes said. Martinez' determination and attitude made an immediate impression on Hughes.
“I wish I could take all our freshmen and drop them there for two days so they could see what sacrifice really is in becoming great at this game,” Hughes explained. “It's a tough road to go JC-wise to get to here. You can see it in the way he [Martinez] comes to practice. Every day you can tell that kid feels privileged to put on this uniform, to walk in the clubhouse and to play for this school. It was a hard road for him to get back here. What an asset he is to be around our younger guys. He's seen it all and he's grateful for everything.”
Martinez is fourth youngest in a family of 10 children. “It's definitely first-come, first-served,” Renae joked about eating meals alongside A.J., Alexa, Anissa, Chazz, Danett, Heather, Jazmine, Mondo Jr. and Raime. Martinez was raised by his father, Mondo, who played high school baseball and track and later played professional softball.
Martinez got the chance to play in front of his family at Dodger Stadium in 2016.
“My dad is a big person in my life and has always pushed me,” Martinez said. “He used to take me to the field all the time growing up – Thanksgiving, Christmas, whenever. Those were our days off, going to the baseball field. Whenever I've lacked confidence, he's always been my rock to lean on. He's always pushed me and told me nothing comes easy in life, especially coming from a big family. Everyone in our family is hard-working and never feels sorry for themselves. You're always trying to take a step forward. If I ever need someone, I've always got my big family to go back to.”
Martinez began last season with the Sooners as a backup to starting freshman catcher Domenic DeRenzo, who wound up being selected as a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball News. DeRenzo set an OU freshman record with a .592 slugging percentage with eight home runs, six doubles and three triples in 44 games (33 starts). His season ended with Tommy John surgery after injuring his right (throwing) elbow on a throw to second in last season's Bedlam series at ONEOK Field in Tulsa on May 14.
Hughes commended Martinez for maintaining a positive attitude last season even when he wasn't a starter. Martinez stepped in and batted .246 with a .415 slugging percentage and .380 on-base percentage in 34 games (23 starts) and finished last season on a tear by hitting .423 in the final nine games.
Good defensive catchers are a must in collegiate and pro baseball, but catchers who also can hit for average are worth their weight in gold.
“It's definitely a position where you err on the side of defense,” Hughes said of catchers. “You'll be able to live with good defense, so having an offensive production is a bonus for you. Those guys have to be rested a little bit. You can't catch them all 56 (regular-season games).”
"It's probably been my desire to understand my approach and what I needed to work on."
-- Renae Martinez
Prior to joining the Sooners, Martinez said his primary focus as a collegiate catcher had been to improve his defense. “I've always had to work hard defensively, and I still am,” Martinez said. “My main priority has always been defense. Everyone loves defensive catchers, but hitting has always been a plus.”
After closing out last season with a hot bat at OU, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Martinez continued to excel at the plate last summer and was selected as an All-Star in the California Collegiate Baseball League while playing for the Neptune Beach Pearl, hitting .303 with 23 runs, 17 RBI and two home runs.
“He had been a one-dimensional guy in the past,” Hughes said of Martinez prior to his arrival in Norman, “but I think (OU assistant/hitting coach) Mike Anderson has done an excellent job with him and developing him into an offensive player for us.”
Instruction alone won't make the difference, however. “You can have all the guidance you want,” Hughes said of coaching his players, “but if you don't have the work ethic, you're not going to make the jumps Renae has made. His work ethic is through the roof. He's gotten great instruction and guidance and has a nice set of eyes. But you have to have a kid who'll listen and wants to be great, which he does, or it's not going to happen.”
Martinez is the team's leading hitter with a .355 average this season, tied for the team-lead in doubles at 12 and has contributed five home runs, a .533 slugging percentage and .434 on-base percentage. A contact hitter, Martinez has struck out just 14 times in 152 at-bats and twice this season he has pieced together seven-game hitting streaks.
Martinez is greeted by teammates after an opening day home run vs. Long Beach State.
Because of this consistency, Martinez steadily has climbed the OU batting order. He has batted eighth, seventh, sixth and now occupies the third spot. “I love it. I'm fired up about it,” Martinez said of his ascent, which has boosted his confidence even more.
When Martinez is given an occasional day of rest behind the plate, he remains in the lineup as a designated hitter – a double-duty rarely granted to a catcher. “It's nice to be able to slide him into the DH spot and keep his bat in the lineup,” Hughes said.
Asked to explain his improvement as a hitter, Martinez said, “It's probably been my desire to understand my approach and what I needed to work on. I really focused on those things during the summer to become a better hitter, to be more mature in my approach. I also came back a little stronger and figured out some things with coach Anderson.”
Martinez spent extra time hitting throughout fall ball and – while other team members remained on Christmas break – he returned to Norman on Dec. 27 to continue his regimen. “I used the batting cages, used the facilities and clued in on what I needed to work on,” Martinez said. “During the fall, if I had a bad practice, I'd stay after. I just tried to go step-by-step. If I felt bad, I'd try to work on little things and went to the coaches to see what I could do to become a better all-around hitter.”
Martinez has become so proficient at the plate, opponents have used various shifts in defensive positioning. Not all alignments have been the same, which is a compliment in itself. Early in the season, teams often would shift to the left for the right-handed, pull-hitting Martinez. Michigan, however, played him more up the middle and robbed him of a couple of hits. Martinez now makes hitting adjustments depending on defensive positioning. “One thing I really focused on was trusting my hands, letting the ball come to me and know that there aren't many pitches that could beat me,” Martinez said.
Martinez has yet to be drafted. He wasn't selected out of San Pedro High School, nor after his lone season at El Camino College. “I got a little bit of attention out of junior college and a few phone calls during the draft, but nothing big,” Martinez said. “That's definitely the goal this year.”
OU has five seniors – Martinez, first baseman Austin O'Brien, center fielder Ben Hollas, third baseman Jack Flansburg and right-handed reliever JB Olson. Four are everyday players, while Olson serves as the team's closer.
“It's really important,” Martinez said of having a senior class influence. “I didn't realize how important it was until coach Hughes was talking about it last year. It's been big for us.”
OU players selected team captains this fall. Usually one or two are chosen each year, depending on the voting. Olson and O'Brien were this season's top vote-getters, but Martinez almost snuck his way into the top two despite his limited playing time last season.
That's when Hughes made an executive decision to go with tri-captains by adding Martinez. “I'm sure the players agreed with me,” Hughes said. “It was a no-brainer to include Renae. We need this kid's leadership and he deserves it.”