Gardenhire: Martinez still best option for DH, cleanup spot

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez is batting .242 with 26 RBIs through 67 games.

Cleveland — It’s an inconvenient truth, perhaps. But the reality is, from where manager Ron Gardenhire is sitting, Victor Martinez is not only his best option to be his designated hitter every day, he’s also his best option to remain in the cleanup spot.

“Look at our choices,” Gardenhire said. “We just don’t have enough people who can go there.”

He’s talking about the cleanup spot. Miguel Cabrera is out for the season, so that impacts the No. 3 spot in the lineup. But he’s tried John Hicks, who has scuffled of late. Neither Niko Goodrum nor Jeimer Candelario flourished in the four-hole.

“There’s just not any options, that I see,” Gardenhire said. “I don’t see enough (other) options. He’s going to be in there hitting, I can tell you that. He’s going to be in our lineup.”

Martinez is 39 and probably playing the final season of what has been a productive, 16-year big-league career. But, although he is relatively healthy, his numbers are down. He and the Twins' Logan Morrison are at the bottom of nearly every statistical category among designated hitters.

Martinez has knocked in 26 runs in 67 games. His slugging percentage, .338, is seventh lowest among all qualified hitters in the American League. His weighted on-base average (wOBA) is .276 and ranks eighth lowest. His weighted runs created (FanGraphs) is 21, sixth lowest in the American League.

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“I get it,” Gardenhire said. “But he’s going to be there…It is what it is with this lineup right now. This is who we have. He has hit the ball hard. His problem is, he’s hitting these bullets and they’re playing the shift and they can still turn two.”

Martinez’s batting average against a shifted defense, according to Statcast, is .196. He’s hitting .295 against traditional defensive alignment. He hit a ball Friday night with an exit velocity of 94.2, up the middle. Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor, playing on the right side of second base, made a brilliant stop and turned it into a double play.

He turned an RBI single into an inning-ending double play.

“He hits it right on the screws and they end up turning two,” Gardenhire said. “That was a rocket. What else do you want him to do? All you can do is hit it hard. He hit a bullet and they made a helluva play on it and they got two.

“The unfortunate part is that he can’t run anymore. So there are going to be double plays. Still, he’s barreling the ball.”

Martinez is hitting a lot of balls hard, but he’s only hit 10 balls at 95-mph or better, a 3.9 percent barrel percentage per at-bat, which ranks 179th among qualified hitters in the Major Leagues. His average exit velocity on balls put in play is 88.4 — 112th in baseball.

Compounding the problem for him, 42 percent of the balls he puts in play are on the ground, with the vast majority of them pulled into the teeth of the shift. His average launch angle is 14.3- degrees — which should generate a higher fly-ball rate than his 37 percent.

“It’s probably more about how they are pitching him more than anything else,” Gardenhire said. “They are trying to force him to pull the ball because that’s where they play him. They don’t throw him pitches out and over the plate that much. That probably has a lot to do with it.”

Age, bat speed, leg strength — it all plays into it to some degree.

“Nobody knows more than he does and nobody understands the frustration more than he does,” Gardenhire said. “He wants to help this team. He really likes this team.”

But Gardenhire seemed resolute. Martinez is staying in the lineup and for now, he’s staying in the cleanup spot.

“I feel really good with him,” Gardenhire said. “He gets a lot of hard contact and he gives you a quality at-bat. He doesn’t always get hits, but he hits the ball hard.”