By Marc Normandin
Not that long ago, Victor Martinez was something of a forgotten man. In 2011, his first season with the Tigers, he was his usual great self at the plate, batting .330/.380/.470. Unfortunately, a knee injury suffered during the next off-season cost Martinez all of 2012 and played a role in bringing Prince Fielder to Detroit. After more than a year of rehabilitating the knee, he was still a shadow of his former self for the start of 2013.
The injury and those struggles are what have been forgotten now, however, as all Martinez has done since the All-Star break last summer is mash. Over his last 111 games dating back to the start of the second half of 2013, Martinez has batted .353/.406/.544. Entering play on Wednesday, Martinez was leading the American League in batting average (.341), OPS (1.001), and was second in the Junior Circuit in OPS+, at 170. With Miguel Cabrera taking some time to get going this season -- a problem that has since been rectified in typical Cabrera fashion -- Martinez has been the heart of the Tigers' lineup, and he's a significant part of the reason they find themselves as the potential class of the American League (and maybe all of MLB) as of the end of May.
Martinez's numbers deserve a closer look, more than your standard "wow" at the eye-popping nature of his line. He's tied for fifth in the American League in home runs with 12, yet he's struck out just 13 times on the season. He's not walking all that much -- the career .304 hitter has always been more about contact than drawing a free pass, and that's only become more unbalanced as he's aged -- yet he still has more walks than whiffs. He's already earned 10 intentional walks, matching last year's entire total accrued over 159 games and 668 plate appearances, and just two away from his career-high, set back in 2007 when he was 28 years old and on his first team, the Indians. His line isn't completely perfect, as he's already grounded into seven double plays in just under two months' time, but we can probably give him a pass on that when you consider every single other thing he is doing at the plate.
When this is happening for Martinez is also fascinating, for a few reasons. He's in his age-35 season, his 12th in the majors, and entered the year with a career 121 OPS+. He's been improving as a hitter as he ages, and while his batting average on balls in play is a healthy .315 during his career, his real secret is the quantity of balls in play: Martinez has struck out under 11 percent of the time over nearly 5,700 plate appearances, and it's resulted in far more opportunities for hits. Since joining the Red Sox in 2009 in a trade that netted the Indians Justin Masterson, Martinez has punched out under nine percent of the time -- his career rate prior to that deal was 12 percent. Many batters tend to see their strikeouts climb as their bat slows down, but Martinez has managed to maintain his bat speed and natural ability while adding experience to the mix. The result has been tremendous.
That raises an intriguing question for both Martinez and the Tigers at the end of the season. The four-year, $50 million deal he signed after 2010 is up this winter, and he's an older but better player now that it's ending. He's thriving, relatively unnoticed, at a time when people are openly wondering if Boston's David Ortiz is the Last True Designated Hitter we'll see in this age where the DH has become something of a rest stop for regulars on most clubs: Martinez will be heading into his age-36 campaign as a free agent, but that will still leave him three years Big Papi's junior. There's life yet in the DH scene so long as Martinez is mashing at the position along with his former teammate.
So, do the Tigers attempt to lock up Martinez, who has only seemed to improve with age and experience? The Red Sox let Martinez walk for a four-year deal in Detroit in part because they had already acquired a catcher in Jarrod Saltalamacchia, felt Martinez's days behind the plate were coming to an end anyway, had Ortiz at DH, and had machinations in place to acquire long-time Theo Epstein target Adrian Gonzalez from the Padres in the last year of his deal. At the time, under the previous collective bargaining agreement, letting Martinez sign elsewhere would result in two first-round draft picks, which in a roundabout way helped to offset the cost of trading for Gonzalez. In short, there were reasons to not re-sign Martinez, and they all had to do with the shape of the roster. The Tigers don't necessarily have those excuses.
Martinez is the primary DH, but he's also the backup first baseman and one of the team's catchers. He's been behind the plate in just two games this year, and three last season, but he remains an option in a pinch. The Tigers don't need him for first base necessarily, but having someone with Martinez's bat to fill-in when Cabrera needs a day or is dealing with an injury -- a more common occurrence over the last year than it had ever been before -- is a positive when you consider just about anyone can hop in and DH when needed, within reason. The Tigers don't have any hitting prospects on hand who can easily replace Martinez, and the free agent market isn't going to give them any Martinez clones, either, especially not at the price they might be able to grab Martinez back for.
Ortiz has helped set the market a bit for designated hitters in their mid-to-late-30s, inking a two-year, $26 million deal for his age-37 and 38 seasons, and then signing a one-year extension for his age-39 campaign that came with two vesting options. Assuming he maxes out the incentives on those options, Ortiz could make up to $74 million over the life of those five years, or just under $15 million per year. Carlos Beltran signed a three-year, $45 million contract with the Yankees this past winter that will cover him from ages 37 through 39.
Martinez, successful as he's ever been at 35, looks like a fit for this group, worthy of a deal that pays him around $15 million per year. Whether that comes from a multiyear offer from Detroit or merely in the form of a qualifying offer, which is expected to be in the $15 million range this winter, remains uncertain, though Martinez' representatives have surely taken notice of what happened to Nelson Cruz, Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales when they declined to accept.
It's not far off from his current contract, and it would represent a raise while also adjusting for the fact that, great as he is, he's still trending in the wrong direction so far as calendars are concerned. With the Tigers locking up younger stars like Justin Verlander and Cabrera -- and at least attempting to do the same with Max Scherzer -- it would be surprising to see them draw the line at keeping Martinez around. If you had to bet, betting on him remaining in a Tigers' uni would be the smart play.
Regardless of whether he changes addresses or sticks in Detroit, though, Martinez is likely to be a joy to watch. He's been underrated for years, but maybe never so much as he is right now, when he's playing the best baseball of a long and productive career.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin