February 17, 2014 at 11:47 am

Kurt Mensching

Tigers' Victor Martinez should catch handful of games this season but no more

Tigers designated hitter and catcher Victor Martinez (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

President Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy: Speak softly and carry a big stick.

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus’ early catching policy: pretty much the same.

With five of the Tigers’ first 11 games this season scheduled for National League parks, Ausmus decided to keep Victor Martinez’s bat in the lineup rather than allow his designated hitter to wither on the bench.

"I wouldn't want to leave it to the first week of the season and ask Victor to put on his catching gear,” Ausmus said last week. “I was hoping he'd be open to the idea."

And he was. It’s a good idea, too, so long as it’s one kept in check as the season progresses.

The bigger bat

It makes good sense, and not just due to keeping Martinez ready for Detroit’s return to the American League. It’s about putting the best lineup on the field. During his two active seasons with the Tigers (he missed 2012 because of injury), Martinez has hit .314 with a .367 on-base percentage and .449 slugging average.

Tigers incumbent, and too often recumbent, catcher Alex Avila has batted .254 with a .350 OBP and .420 slugging for his career, with those numbers dipping to .227/.317/.376 last year.

Avila will almost certainly rebound from a down season, but he still shouldn’t be expected to put up anything near the numbers Martinez will in 2014.

Fortunately for the Tigers, using Martinez as a catcher doesn’t have to be an everyday thing, and suggestions that it should be are well-meaning but misguided.

The 35-year-old Martinez has not started 100 or more games at catcher since he was with the Red Sox in 2010. He combined for 29 games started for the Tigers in 2011 and 2013, with just three of those coming last year. You can debate how he compared to average at the position during the peak of his career (likely below it), and advanced metrics in catching have always been difficult to put concrete figures to, making facts murky. But as he aged, Martinez took rather a large drop down the ladder from Avila.

On top of all that, the reason Martinez missed the 2012 season was a knee injury. So it makes little sense from the start to expect too many games out of him without injury fears at least creeping into the mind.

Earning his place

Then we have the chemistry thing. It’s not difficult to believe Tigers pitchers have a better battery relationship with Avila, the man who has caught them for years. You can see this in the success starters have had over the past few years. In each of the past three seasons, Justin Verlander has had an earned-run average a third- to a half-run better with Avila behind the plate compared to other catchers. Max Scherzer shaved more than a run off his ERA with Avila catching in 2013 and had even more dramatic results in 2011. The trend holds for Rick Porcello, whose ERA with Avila was 3.38 last season and with all the other catchers was 6.12, and Anibal Sanchez, too.

Once or twice can be chalked up as a fluke, but repeatedly seeing the same results tells us we’re on to something: In preventing runs, Avila’s the best one to have behind the plate.

Beyond chemistry, some explanation for that may be Avila’s ability to frame pitches for the umpire.

Baseball Prospectus estimated Avila saved 23 runs more than an average catcher through the end of August, making him the third-best catcher in the stat. Tigers sabermetric blogger Lee Panas combined that statistic with others to estimate Avila saved 14 more runs than average.

He’s clearly the Tigers’ best bet for starting catcher, and all the more so if his bat returns.

Keeping Martinez in good catching shape is the smart move. Finding opportunities to put him behind the plate, especially in National League parks, makes good sense.

Just don’t ask Martinez to catch in more than a handful of games, otherwise the price of that big stick will be too high.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com

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