July 17, 2014 at 7:37 pm

Teammates say what Tigers' Victor Martinez won't: He's one of game's elite

Max Scherzer on Victor Martinez: 'He's one of the best. He can flat out hit.' (Detroit News / Robin Buckson)

Minneapolis — Victor Martinez doesn’t consider himself one of the best hitters in baseball.

“No, because I’m not,” the Tigers’ designated hitter said this week at the All-Star Game. “There’s a lot of good hitters in the league. I know I can do some things at the plate, but I don’t see myself as one of the best in the game.”

His numbers, though, can say what Martinez won’t.

Since July 1, 2013, Martinez is hitting .348, the highest average in MLB, according to Stats, LLC. His 212 hits rank fourth in the majors, his .559 slugging percentage also ranks fourth, and his .405 on-base percentage ranks sixth.

“He’s one of the best,” Tigers starter Max Scherzer said. “He can flat out hit. He can hit it everywhere, and he has such a good approach.”

Martinez struggled at the start of 2013 as he returned from a torn anterior cruciate ligament that cost him the entire 2012 season. But after having a .232 average through the end of June, he hit .367 the rest of the season to finish the year at .301.

“I never had any doubt in my mind because I was in that spot before, and if I did it before, why can’t I do it again?” he said. “I kept my head up, kept working and finally it just turned around.”

And Martinez’s impressive run has continued into 2014 as he’s hitting .328 in the cleanup spot. But what’s more impressive are his career-best power numbers. He has 21 home runs, putting him on pace to easily surpass his career high of 25 in 2007, and his .599 slugging percentage is 94 points higher than his career high from that season.

Martinez said there isn’t anything specific that has led to his improved power.

“You see here the same guy,” he said. “Like I always say, I just make sure I go out there put good swing. I always say when you put good swings anything can happen.

“I understand my game, and I’m not even trying to hit homers. I’m hitting the ball and they carry good, but there’s nothing to change (the rest of the season).”

Martinez’s impact has been a key reason the Tigers lead the American League Central by 6.5 games, and he’s helped provide the power bat they lost when they traded Prince Fielder to the Rangers last offseason.

Second baseman Ian Kinsler, the man they received for Fielder, said Martinez’s focus makes his fun to watch.

“Every time he gets a hit or hits a home run, I tell our hitting coach Wally Joyner that I want to be like Victor Martinez when I grow up — every time,” Kinsler said. “So I think he’s getting sick and tired of hearing it because I say it pretty much every day he plays.”

Martinez has .304 career average, ranking 11th among players with at least 3,000 plate appearances, so while he’s on one of the best runs of his career, it's hardly unexpected.

In watching Martinez hit, Scherzer said it looks like he tries to pick a fight with the pitcher every at-bat, having no fear of hitting with two strikes and often getting the best of a long at-bat.

Kinsler said Martinez is among the group of All-Stars that deserve more credit, and he thinks Martinez is trying to put himself in the conversation of best hitters in the game, even if he won’t say that.

“I think I’m definitely having a good moment right now,” Martinez said. “I’m just trying to make it last as long as possible because in this game you just never know. One day you’re on and then another day you’re off, so you just try to keep the best moment as long as you can.”

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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