Paul: V-Mart must ditch switch-hitting, for now

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Victor Martinez will hit again. Victor Martinez will be an All-Star again. Victor Martinez will more than live up to the four-year, $68 million contract the Tigers gave him practically the minute the 2014 season ended.

These things I can say with much certainty.

I'm not confident he's going to hit anytime soon with any authority from the left side of the plate.

And, so, the time might've come for one of game's best designated hitters to shelve switch-hitting, for the time being, not forever.

Martinez, 36, deserves all the credit in the world for busting his butt to get in shape and into the Opening Day lineup, against all odds after having January surgery on his left knee.

But it's beyond clear that the left knee, while probably technically healthy, doesn't have anywhere near 100 percent of its strength back. Casual baseball fans often are surprised to know that hitting isn't in the arms, but rather it's all in the lower body.

And with Martinez's left knee still building back strength, he's not able to push off that knee when he's batting left-handed, and therefore he's been almost an automatic out from that side of the plate.

As a team, you can be patient with such a scenario, if said hitter is your eighth hitter.

But Martinez bats cleanup, and usually left-handed since most pitchers are right-handed, and he's been a pretty significant rally killer through the first six weeks of the 2015 season.

It's not a coincidence the Tigers offense really came alive four games ago, when Martinez was benched.

Numbers are telling

The back leg is most pivotal when hitting, and Martinez had surgery on his left leg — which is why he's really scuffled from the left side while sizzling from the right side.

The numbers are tough to stomach, so if you have a weak tummy, you might want to turn away now. From the left side of the plate this season, Martinez has a slash line of .150/.255/.163 for an OPS of .418.

That was before he pinch-hit late in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Cardinals, and popped out weakly to third base.

For a little perspective, Don Kelly's slash line in his time as a Tiger was .234/.297/.349 for a .620 OPS.

Martinez's sample size this year isn't huge, of course. It's only May.

But hitting from the left side has accounted for 75 percent of his plate appearances this year. That's typical, as most pitchers are right-handed.

Because of Martinez's struggles, the Tigers' cleanup hitters (mostly Martinez) rank seventh-worst in all of baseball, and third-to-last in the American League (behind only the Twins and Angels).

The Tigers say they won't put Martinez on the disabled list, and I get that. He's really not hurting that much; even the back issue he battled earlier is gone. The problem is lack of strength in the knee, just like it was in 2013, after he missed all of the 2012 season.

Martinez didn't turn it around that year until the second half, and when he did, he was tremendous.

Given the state of the division these days, I don't really think the Tigers can afford to wait until the second half for Martinez to get it together. They probably need to be proactive here.

And that means urging — OK, demanding — Martinez hit right-handed, exclusively, for now.

Martinez has said he has no plans to do that, but it really shouldn't be his call. The Tigers are his employer, and an employer that is paying him so handsomely, at $17 million a year.

It's possibly time for Brad Ausmus, Dave Dombrowski and Co. to step in and make the call for Martinez.

Because his right knee wasn't operated on, Martinez is just fine from the right side of the plate, batting .462/.516/.654 with a 1.170 OPS. He has his one homer as a righty, more RBIs as a righty, and as many hits righty and lefty, despite less than a quarter of his at-bats coming as a right-handed batter.

One-sided argument

If Martinez continues to bat left-handed, and in the cleanup spot, you're going to see more managers do what Terry Francona did — intentionally walk Miguel Cabrera, over and over and over.

You're also going to see managers bringing in right-handed relievers late in games to face Martinez. The Tigers are a right-handed-heavy lineup, and that wouldn't help their cause much, either.

The Tigers have another option: They could move Martinez down in the lineup when he's batting left-handed, but is that really the best move? You're just moving the rally killer. It's like paying off one credit card with another credit card. No progress.

He needs to bat right-handed, only, until he gets his left-leg strength back.

Yes, it'll be awkward at first, a career-long switch-hitter batting righty against a rigthy. But awkward still is better than awful.

Martinez, by the way, has batted right-handed against a right-handed pitcher in his major-league career — in nine games, to be exact, probably usually against a knuckleball pitcher. The last time he did it was 2011, his first season with the Tigers. The sample size is miniscule, but for what it's worth, he hit .368/.478/.579 with a 1.057 OPS.

So, it can be done. Remember, Shane Victorino ditched switch-hitting back in 2013 when injuries hampered him from the left side, and you'll probably also remember — and cringe — that he hit a huge homer from the right side, against Tigers righty Jose Veras, in Game 6 of the ALCS.

Who knows how Martinez will do right-handed vs. right-handers. But it can't be worse than he what he's doing left-handed.

It's worth a shot — not a permanent one, but a necessary one right now.