Victor Martinez was a dangerous man in 2014. He had a 166 wRC+ as he combined a .230 ISO and a 6.6 K%. That’s a crazy power/contact combination and it worked beautifully. He parlayed that into a big $70 million extension for the Tigers this winter and subsequently went and tore up his knee.
The risk of injury was always present when the deal was signed, but Tigers fans probably hoped it wouldn’t happen before he stepped into the box on the new four year deal. But things looked up as he made it back in time for Opening Day. The problem, however, was that he was very bad to start the season.
Over his first 130 PA, he hit .216/.308/.270. That’s good for a 50 wRC+. That’s not pitcher hitting levels, but there’s virtually no way (pinch runner?) to be a position player in the majors with that hitting line. He walking and strikeout out at acceptable rates (about 10% each), but the power and authoritative contact was absent. He did not look right and he went on the DL.
Martinez took a month off and has put together 120 PA since returning in mid June. Since then, he’s hit .319/.358/.531, which is good for a 148 wRC+. This is also happening with a 3.8 BB% (which should increase), and a very normal .323 BABIP. VMart came off the DL and started hitting a lot like the VMart we saw in 2014. He’s not totally the same guy because that would be outrageous, but after getting some time to get healthy, he’s hitting very well.
The whole question regarding his new contract was about his big power spike in 2014.We knew it wasn’t totally going to last, but if it was a new leap forward to some extent, the $70 million over 4 years made a lot more sense than if it was an aberration. I think we all understood he was hurt in the opening months of the season, but the concern was more that VMart with a weak leg was clearly not a $17.5 million player and this might be a recurring thing.
No one doubted his ability to be an above average hitter at full strength, but if he wasn’t going to be at full strength very often, his value was non existent. He provides nothing in the field or on the bases, so if he can’t hit, he can’t play. Presumably, the Tigers were fine paying a little more to Martinez thanks to his clubhouse value and his history with the club, but $70 million doesn’t work for a DH who can’t hit at all.
Thankfully, he’s passed the first test. Not only did he recover enough from the injury to return to the field, he’s recovered enough to rake over a small sample of PA. 120 PA doesn’t make a season, but it’s a very good sign that he’s back on track. You can luck into all sorts of stuff, but having watched him play, this isn’t a guy who is getting a bunch of cheap hits or turning singles into doubles with his legs (LOL).
It’s small sample again, but it does appear as if he was struggling to make contact with those borderline pitches before the DL stint and now he’s able to foul pitches off and take the outside pitch the other way a bit more. We’ll have to watch it, but it might have been the cases that it wasn’t just his power that was affected, but also his ability to get the bat to certain pitches.
The two other indicators are a big jump in his pull percentage and a big increase line drives (at the expense of grounders). That’s fewer ground balls the other way in exchange for more line drives to the pull field. That’s a big swing in production even if you ignore the fly balls that are likely going farther.
This isn’t to say VMart won’t break down again or that he’s definitely a top ten hitter in the game for years to come, but it is comforting to see VMart come back from a serious injury and put up very solid power numbers once again. He’s very close to crossing the league average hitter threshold for the full 2015 season and he’ll wind up above replacement level not long after. The first two months were bad, but the more important thing here is that it looks like the 2014 VMart wasn’t a product of randomness. We might not get to keep him forever, but at least we have him for now.