It could be argued that Victor Martinez is the greatest designated hitter in Tigers franchise history. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
The Tigers don’t have much choice. They simply must find a way to keep Victor Martinez in Detroit for another few years. He’s too good a hitter and there are too few of options for the Tigers to let him go.
Think for a second about the great designated hitters of Tigers past. I’ll give you a moment.
Need another? Probably. Since the DH came into use in the American League in 1973 the Tigers have never really had a player associated with the role.
Sure, there have been a few aging Tigers who maybe didn’t play so well in the field any more who have been given the position. Willie Horton, Al Kaline, Gates Brown and Rusty Staub all spent at least a year in DH duties in the 1970s.
More recently the Tigers rotated players through the spot, whether to give them a day off in the field or because there just weren’t a lot of natural alternatives. In the 40 seasons the DH has been around, only eight players accounting for 11 seasons spent more than 100 games in the role with the Tigers.
Staub was one, and Martinez was the other. (So was Gary Sheffield, if we’re being comprehensive, but few seem to remember his time in Detroit fondly.)
Martinez arguably has been the best in franchise history in the DH role and continues to be one of the team’s best hitters.
During 2011, his first year in Detroit, Martinez hit .330 with an OPS (on-base-plus-slugging) of .850. Looking at only the 112 games he spent as DH, those numbers improve to .340 and .903.
Martinez missed 2012 due to an offseason knee injury and started 2013 cold for the first two months. Since then, he’s been nothing short of remarkable. He finished the year having hit .301 with a .795 OPS. June through September, the figure was a more memorable .336 with .884 OPS.
That march has continued this season, with Martinez hitting .325 with .954 OPS. Martinez has more home runs (eight) than strikeouts (six) to start the year. He knows the strike zone so well and spoils pitches so well that nearly a full calendar year -- 154 games, including playoffs, and 579 at bats -- passed between Martinez being put out on a called third strike. He struck out swinging just 45 times during that period.
Martinez is such a skilled hitter that he makes contact with 89 percent of pitches he offers at outside the strike zone, per Fangraphs.com. He only chases 31.7 percent of the time. For comparison, Cabrera makes contact 70 percent of the time outside the zone and offers 32.5 percent. Inside the strike zone, Martinez makes contact at 96.5 percent of pitches he swings at.
When Prince Fielder was traded, the question arose as to who would protect Cabrera in the lineup. These days, the real question is who’s going to protect Martinez. He’s already seen seven intentional walks, and his career-high is 12.
There aren’t exactly any replacements inside the organization. And even if the upcoming free-agent market were teeming with possibilities, Martinez would be the name at the top of the most-coveted list.
But it’s not. In fact, this next offseason doesn’t seem real promising, with names like Pablo Sandoval, Adam Dunn and Michael Cuddyer among the highlights.
Add to that the obvious level of respect Martinez receives from his teammates in the clubhouse, and you’ve got a player the Tigers will find hard to replace at a time they can ill-afford to lose him.
Whether the Tigers can get a deal done in-season or if they’ll have to wait until the offseason, they’d be wise to something done to keep Martinez in Detroit beyond this year.
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.