2015 Player Previews: DH Victor Martinez

You usually don’t expect 36 year old players two years removed from major knee surgery to put up not just a career year, but put up a season at the plate on par with the top hitters in the game. But that’s exactly what Victor Martinez did in 2014, earning a new four-year contract that will make him one of the team’s highest paid players the next several seasons.

2014 In Review – Victor Martinez

2014 Stats
Detroit 151 641 4.4 166 .335 .316 .330 .409 .565 11% 6% 3/2 -4 -21

With Miguel Cabrera hobbled and struggling to find his power for parts of the season, in addition to the other holes in the lineup created by injury or necessity, the Tigers desperately needed an offensive infusion, and Martinez provided that and then some. He wasn’t just the best hitter on the Tigers in 2014, he was arguably one of the best hitters in all of baseball last season.

He was tied for 2nd in MLB with a .411 wOBA, just a single point behind the Pirates Andrew McCutchen for the top spot. His wRC+ of 166 was good for 3rd, behind McCutchen and Mike Trout. And his .974 OPS was first in baseball among qualified hitters. So, whether or not he was the best hitter is up for debate, whether or not he was one of the best is not. He was.

Frequently when you see a player have a career season at his age, you’d think it would be a confluence of a few things, including some serious luck on his side. But unlike J.D. Martinez, Victor’s career year wasn’t the result of a flukey average on balls in play. In fact, Martinez’s BAbip was exactly at his career average of .316, and even slightly below his expected average. Instead, Martinez got there by posting incredible walk and strikeout rates, consistently putting himself in hitter’s counts that allowed him to post a career high 32 home runs.

The walk rate was good, but not unusual – his walk rate was just shy of 11% in 2014, while his career average was just a bit under 10%. Where Martinez really saw an improvement though was a drop in his strikeout rate, striking out only about 6% of his plate appearances. Martinez has never been someone to strike out frequently, but for his career he was still over 10%, nearly cutting his career rate in half.

His power total (32 homers) and rate (.23 ISO) was unusual, but it wasn’t completely out of character. His HR/FB rate was 16%, high for him and his career, but not at the level of some others, where it was clearly an indication of either rare/elite power, or luck. Using ESPN’s home run tracker, of his 32 home runs, only nine of them were “just enough” hits, with the other 23 having plenty of distance and would have been gone in most parks. So, getting to 32 homers was uncommon for V-Mart, but he was for sure a 25-30 home run player last year.

While Martinez did get a few games at first base, and courtesy look at catcher, he did very little in the field.

Martinez used that career year at the plate to earn a new four-year deal worth $68 million from the Tigers.

2015 Player Projections

2015 Projections
Service PA WAR BA BAbip OBP SLG wOBA D-Val
ZiPS 530 2.0 .303 .302 .360 .473 .348 0
Steamer 523 2.3 .308 .309 .375 .485 .370 -14

The key in both projections to focus on is the plate appearances line item. While he appeared in more than 150 games in 2014 with well over 600 plate appearances, that’s been unusual for Martinez in his career, and neither system expects him to get there in 2015. He did hit that mark in 2013, and almost did in 2011, but then he missed all of 2012, and failed to reach 600 in 2010 or 2008.

Outside of that, Steamer is slightly more optimistic on V-Mart’s offensive productivity, based about half on about ten more points of average (which of course will vary from year to year), and the rest due to holding onto a slightly better walk and power rate. Both services are very close, even though Steamer ends up with a wOBA more than 20 points higher.

The two look at defense differently, so there’s no issue or concern there – Martinez will be the team’s backup first baseman and emergency catcher, but it’s safe to assume that he’ll spent the vast majority of his plate appearances as the designated hitter, only.

The TigsTown Take

Of course, neither projection system was aware of the torn meniscus that V-Mart suffered prior to spring training, which could result in him missing Opening Day, though that’s still to be determined, based on his rehab and recovery pace. It does lend credence to the notion however that Martinez has had issues in the past staying on the field, and that won’t improve with increasing age.

But while the injury risk increases, Martinez’s ability at the plate appears to be aging like a fine wine – getting better with age. He’s improving his selectivity and his eye, walking more and striking out less. The home runs probably aren’t going to exceed the 30 mark again, but with Cabrera, plus a full season of the other Martinez, and Yoenis Cespedes, should need them to.

Martinez might miss some time this year, but he’s a great bet to hit .300, take plenty of walks, and hit for enough power to get him around 20 home runs and 40 doubles, plenty of production from a designated hitter, even if it might be a bit of a low return for what the Tigers will now pay him. The rest gets made up by Martinez’s locker room presence and leadership in the clubhouse, as he’s widely credited with being the team’s central figure and vocal leader.

2015 Projections come from two different sources; ZiPS, and Steamer, both publicly available via FanGraphs.com and presented for information purposes only. ZiPS projections come from Dan Szymborski, and Steamer from Steamer Projections, a trio of independent academic researchers.

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