Martinez Strives To Be The Best

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- Eric Wedge says it is time that Victor Martinez got credit for being more than a great hitter. The Cleveland Indians' manager says the two-time All-Star's reputation should change from great-hitting catcher to great catcher who can hit.

"What he can do behind the plate far exceeds what he can do for us at the plate," Wedge said after a quick workout at the Indians' spring training camp. "You're talking about handling 130 pitches as opposed to three or four at-bats a game."

That's saying a lot when you consider that Martinez, a 29-year-old switch-hitter, has a .301 career average and is coming off a season in which he had career highs of 25 homers and 114 RBI.

"I won the Cy Young last year because of Victor," 19-game winning left-hander C.C. Sabathia said. "He knows every hitter in the league better than any of us pitchers do. I can't tell you how much he helps me in every way.

"It's like pitching to myself behind the plate. He knows what I'm thinking without me saying anything. That's weird, man. But it's really cool to have confidence in each other like that.

"The other day in warmups, Victor didn't say a word, just started putting down signs. It was scary how he called just about each pitch I was thinking of in sequence."

Martinez admits he's come a long way since nearly quitting the game when asked to switch to catcher in his second pro season back in 1998.

"I cried when they asked me to move," said Martinez, who signed as a shortstop at age 17. "I had never played anywhere else and thought they didn't like me.

"I never wore a catcher's mitt, didn't know one thing about playing there -- but I thought about it and took it as a challenge. Now, I love catching because you're part of every pitch."

Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said that turning a shortstop into a catcher ordinarily would be looked at as a radically unsound move – but not with Martinez.

"You could see had unbelievably soft hands, an unquestioned work ethic and a body that was going to fill out," Shapiro said of the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder. "He wasn't going to be a shortstop, but we thought we might have something if we could turn a guy who hits like he does into a catcher. I don't think anybody dreamed it would turn out this good."

In recent years, Martinez had a typically pudgy catcher's body, but this past offseason, he dropped about 10 pounds and added upper-body strength.

"We didn't have to suggest it," Wedge said. "He did it on his own. That tells you a lot."

Martinez's improvement behind the plate does, too.

In 2006, he threw out only 14 percent (16 of 116) of base stealers. Last season, he stopped 30 of 100, the third-best mark in the AL.

"I owe that to my pitchers," Martinez said, crediting the staff with bettering their skills in holding runners close to the base. "They improved 100 percent. I worked on some things, but the results were all about them."

Wedge, a former catcher, says Martinez worked on his footwork and not rushing his throws.

"Victor is very good and keeps getting better," he said. "It's been a consistent climb and he's earned a great of confidence and respect from all the pitchers."

At the plate, Martinez is such a natural that it seems he doesn't have to work at it, but he still spends hours honing his swing from both sides.

"What he has, you either have it or you don't," hitting coach Derek Shelton said. "You can't teach the way he allows his hands to stay back so he can get into the path of the ball. He has an unbelievable feel and never gets in an off-balance position because his hands are so good. "You have to be mentally tough to do all the things he does at the plate and behind it, too."

Martinez has averaged 133 games a year behind the plate over the past four seasons, a grinding workload. In order to keep his productive bat in the lineup and give him a break, both physically and mentally, Wedge has moved him over to first base for 22 and 30 games the past two years.

He's the best defensive first baseman on the team, making only one error there in 355 total chances, but if Martinez had his way, he'd catch every inning of every game. And the last game would be to win the World Series.

"First base is fun, but catching is more important," he said. "To me, catching is not hard work, but you must work hard to make sure your team wins.

"Last year we went to the postseason and it was the most fun I've ever had. I want to go back. And I want to win."

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