Victor Martinez was a big part of the Tigers deep October run in 2011 and his absence sent shockwaves through the 2012 roster. Two months into the 2013 season, it looked like his career was on its last legs.
Then, as it often does, everything changed. He found his footing and regained his timing and went on an absolute tear during the second half of the 2013 season, posting a 147 wRC+ after the break. It was enough to make us believe he was going to be productive this year, but pretty much everyone was shocked to see him throw down the best offensive season of his career at 35.
His BABIP, the usual suspect during a career year, is actually a few ticks below his career average. He’s walking a touch more, but the big key for Martinez is the huge power surge coupled with a drop in strikeouts. Read that last sentence again. He’s hitting for more power while striking out less.
In today’s game, striking out isn’t frowned upon. If you’re productive, big league teams aren’t worried about the kinds of outs you make. As MLB expanded the strike zone over the last few years and offense has fallen, more guys have started selling out for power at the expense of contact later in counts. Except the guy who wears number 41 in Detroit, he’s hitting for more power without sacrificing an ounce of contact.
First, the particulars. Among qualified hitters, no one strikes out less frequently than Martinez who owns a 7.2% strikeout rate entering Tuesday. Sure, Michael Brantley and Albert Pujols are in the top ten with solid power, but a lot of the names near the top are Jose Altuve, Ben Revere, Kurt Suzuki, and Nori Aoki who feature very little pop.
Martinez is sporting a .234 ISO. To give you some perspective, among qualified hitters, the next best strikeout rate among players with a .200 or higher ISO is Edwin Encarnacion who ranks 43rd with a 14.5% strikeout rate. In other words, among players with very high isolated power, the next lowest strikeout rate is twice as high as Martinez’s.
Flip the script and look at the list of baseball’s best ISOs and five of the ten players ahead of Martinez are striking out more than 20% of the time. No one in the top 29 besides Martinez are even in single digits.
Since 2008, there have been just two other seasons in which a qualified hitter struck out less than 9% of the time and had an ISO greater than .200. Both were Albert Pujols.
He’s sporting a career best 161 wRC+ and 28 home runs with a month of baseball left.
But it’s not just that Martinez is avoiding strikeouts, it’s that he never swings and misses. You could imagine a player who sells out for power early in the count and then turns on his contact skills with two strikes and picks up a few extra singles. That’s not what’s happening here, either.
Before Monday’s action, only Denard Span and Ben Revere were making contact on a higher percentage of swings than Martinez. This contact ability isn’t new, as it’s right in line with the last several years. But his ability to combine it with extra power is what has set him apart.
It could always just wind up being a fluke. We know Martinez is one of the game’s premier contact hitters, but the power could just be a few really well timed horrible pitches. When it comes to home run power, we’re dealing with such a small percentage of the season’s overall pitches that oddities do occur. But it does certainly appear as if Martinez isn’t simply running into good luck from a visual perspective.
It’s been an amazing season for Martinez even if we’re all betting on at least some power regression in 2015 and beyond. You may want to believe in Martinez, I certainly do, but this particular level is too high to sustain forever. In fact, since 2008, there have been just two other seasons in which a qualified hitter struck out less than 9% of the time and had an ISO greater than .200. Both were Albert Pujols, in 2008 and 2011.
That’s the kind of season we’re talking about here. Martinez’s overall value is muted by the fact that he’s a DH and doesn’t offer anything on the bases or in the field, but at the plate, he’s been one of the five best hitters in baseball. That’s right, by wRC+, it’s Jose Abreu, Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen and then Martinez among qualified hitters.
The Tigers are trying to survive a hobbled Cabrera, but Martinez is simply taking over at the plate. It’s not a perfect remedy, but if you thought the Tigers would get 160 wRC+ from Cabrera and 135 wRC+ from V-Mart, does it really matter that they simply traded places if we’re only talking about 2014? Not really.
This huge season is going to make Martinez a desirable free agent. The Tigers will certainly extend the qualifying offer and unless he gets hurt between now and November, he’ll be sliding it back across the metaphorical table with a hearty “no thank you.”
The Carlos Beltran contract is probably a good model, paying out at 3 years and $45 million. Martinez is probably a good bet for 2-3 wins per season and at the going rate of about $6 million per win, that’s a fine deal for both sides. The Tigers don’t really do in-season extensions, but the sooner they re-up with Martinez, the better.
He’s a quality hitter even if he isn’t this good of a hitter and they aren’t likely to find someone to replace him who is younger and/or cheaper. And this is to say nothing of the leadership qualities he possesses.
The Tigers don’t seem concerned about risking a good deal of money on Cabrera into his late thirties and they shouldn’t be any less willing to lock up Martinez. At his worst, he’s a quality contact hitter who flashes power and at his best he’s a top flight bat. And given that his skills tend to age well and the fact that he’s already bottomed out on defense, health is your only real worry.
If the Tigers survive the regular season and make a playoff push, Martinez will have been a big reason why. His ability to mix contact and power has been incredible. The best hitters can usually run below average strikeout rates with good power, but Martinez is excelling at both in a way that only Pujols has in the last several seasons.
Enjoy it now, because we might not see a season like this again for quite some time.
Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44