It’s amazing that just a year ago, people were ready to abandon Victor Martinez. On May 19, 2013 he was hitting .209/.269/.297. The Tigers were playing Miguel Cabrera out of position to accommodate Prince Fielder at first. They needed the DH slot to come open soon and Martinez did not seem to be himself after missing all of 2012 with an ACL tear.
A year later, Fielder is gone, Cabrera is back at first and Victor Martinez is the best hitter in the Tigers lineup. Go back to May 19, 2013 and bring it up through Sunday morning and Martinez is hitting .331/.382/.499. That’s a 138 wRC+ in 657 PA. And it’s only gotten better from there. Start from June 22, 2013 and it’s .352/.404/.534 with a 154 wRC+ in 532 PA. This season, in 159 PA, he’s hitting .336/.384/.587, good for a 158 wRC+. He’s having the best season of his career immediately after a torrid second half of 2013.
And unlike most early season leaders, Martinez isn’t doing it with a high BABIP (which could indicate luck). He’s at a cool .305, which is actually 10 points lower than his career average. He’s always been a good, consistent hitter. He’s been somewhere between 20 and 30 percent better than league average using wRC+ in almost every season of his career. Now he’s getting better and it’s time to lock him up.
Two things jump out about Martinez this year. First, he’s not striking out. His strikeout rate is down to 5.7%, which is easily the lowest of his career, while he’s running his highest walk rate as a Tiger. Martinez isn’t really swinging at fewer pitches, he’s simply making more and better contact. When you put the ball in the strikezone, he hits it, but he’s also been continuing a trend in which he’s also getting better at making good contact on pitches outside the zone. Pretty much, you can’t get the ball by him.
Second, Martinez is hitting for more power. He’s hit 9 HR so far this year and is on pace to shatter his career high of 25. He’s also running the best slugging percentage of his career by 82 points. And despite his two stolen bases, it’s not like he’s padding his slugging percentage by going to third on a few doubles.
Martinez is getting better when most hitters should be getting worse. He’s 35. But it’s also true that Martinez is getting better at two skills that age well: discipline and power. He’s not a better runner or fielder than he used to be, but he doesn’t have to be. I’m not really buying Martinez as a true talent 160 wRC+, but the fact that he’s been doing this for an entire calendar year suggests that whatever problem he had in early 2013 is gone. My personal take was that it was really bad luck, and the well hit ball data supports that. But even if it was an issue with his knee recovery, those problems can be put to rest.
He’s be 36 next year, so you probably want to avoid a 10 year deal, but a contract extension is in order. They should worry about keeping Porcello first and foremost, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive. The Tigers are currently paying Martinez $12 million a season, so a little bump up to $15 million probably works on a yearly basis. That kind of money will buy you a 2-3 win player on the free agent market, which is probably a fair projection for Martinez. Hitting like this, he’s a 4 win player at DH. Hitting like 2011 Martinez makes him a 2-3 win guy. On a short term deal, that’s a fine bet.
Two years at $15 million a piece would be great if Victor is willing to go for it. Carlos Beltran’s 3/$45M deal with the Yankees could also be a model (same age at FA, both all bat right now). Maybe two years and an option? Something like that should work for both sides. Martinez is a DH who can play solid first base in a backup role, meaning that his market is somewhat limited to AL teams with that specific need. It’s hard to imagine he gets another 4 year deal, but something in the 2-3 range makes sense. The Tigers won’t be paying Hunter, presumably, in 2015 and it seems like it’s going to be Ray instead of Scherzer, so the money is easily there if they want to give Victor a couple million raise to keep him in a Tigers uniform.
Martinez might not be this good, but he doesn’t have to be for an extension to be the right call. There’s no reason to think he’ll age in an unusual way, and you’re only asking him to DH, so mobility isn’t really a concern. Dave Dombrowski doesn’t usually extend players midseason – I can’t think of any examples of that – but it’s probably time to have the talk with Martinez. He’s having a great year and the Tigers are going to need a bat like his in the middle of the order in 2015 and 2016 if they hope to contend. Given the sparsity of the free agent market during this extension heavy era, locking Victor up is basically a necessity.
Plus, that gets us closer to the day that Little Victor can sign a pro contract and we all want that.