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It’s Time To Extend Victor Martinez

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

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.

Victor Martinez’s 2013 Season Explained Graphically

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We’re all pretty clear on the basic structure of Victor Martinez’s 2013 season. His numbers were bad during the first few months and then he started having excellent numbers and now his season long stats are all pretty solid. I argued earlier this season that Martinez was getting supremely unlucky and those claims were supported when Martinez started crushing it.

I’d like to update you on his pace with a few graphics. I don’t have any crack analysis because I’ve already done that part. His numbers were bad, I told you why. His numbers got better, I told you why. Now I just want to show you a full picture with a few graphics. Enjoy!

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First we have his average, on base, and slugging percentage at the end of every game. Since above game 70, he’s been incredible and pulled out of his early season slide:

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If you drop a line at game 70 and split the numbers, he was not very good beforehand and is a borderline MVP after. The cutoff is arbitrary, but there are more than 200 PA on each side. Let’s check out his monthly splits by OPS, wOBA (what’s wOBA?), and wRC+ (what’s wRC+?).

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Like I said in the first citation, his bad luck on hard hit balls is regressing amazingly to the mean in his batting average on balls in play (what’s BABIP?). I drew in his career average to show exactly how amazing it is. Perfect balance:

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Martinez was having bad luck and now he’s not anymore. The two links at the top of the post break it down and these graphs sum it up. Martinez was having a lousy season as far as results went, but then the hits started to fall and he’s come racing back. We always knew they would because he’s been near the top of the hard hit average leaderboard and stands at 6th in MLB entering the day. He’s now having an above average season overall (102 wRC+) and is still on the rise.

Victor Martinez Returns Despite Never Leaving

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Victor Martinez’s early season statistics weren’t good. Most were pretty bad. He wasn’t getting on base, he wasn’t hitting for power, and because he plays a position that doesn’t utilize a glove, he wasn’t adding value on defense in the way Andy Dirks has done during his own offensive struggles.

But seemingly all of a sudden, Martinez is crushing the baseball. In the last 30 days, Martinez has a very respectable 112 wRC+ (what’s wRC+?). In the last 14 days he has a 170 wRC+. In the last 7 days, it’s 209. That is what the average person would describe as a trend, or perhaps a hot streak. Regardless of the cause or the sustainability of this performance, anyone can look at his numbers and recognize that Martinez’s performance is getting better.

I wrote earlier this year that Victor Martinez was having a particularly extreme case of terrible luck on hard hit balls. He was among the top handful of players in the game at making hard contact, but his batting average and power numbers didn’t reflect that. In fact, he was the only one near the top of the list who wasn’t hitting well above league average.

It made no logical sense that Martinez would make so much hard contact and not reap the rewards. It wasn’t really happening to any other hitter and it doesn’t really happen all that often in general. Hard contact is very highly correlated, and likely the cause of success in the batter’s box. But it wasn’t happening for Martinez?

Why?

The answer is actually so simple that it’s hard to grasp. Nothing was happening. Victor Martinez was doing nothing wrong. He wasn’t chasing bad pitches, he wasn’t hitting a dramatic number of popups or anything. Victor Martinez was the victim, if you can call it that, of something we statisticians call random variation.

Think of it this way. If a player’s true talent level is a .300 batting average, that means that over the course of the season, he’ll get 3 hits for every 10 at bats. But it doesn’t mean that he’ll get 3 hits in EVERY 10 at bats (that would mean performance uniformly distributed). Sometimes he’ll get 2, sometimes he’ll get 4. Sometimes he’ll get 8 and sometimes he’ll go 0 for 15.

Statistics are excellent and wonderful and we love to use them to measure things, but they have to be used properly. You have to understand what they mean. When Martinez was hitting .210, it meant to date he had gotten about 2 hits in every 10, but it didn’t mean that was his true talent level. He’s a .300 hitter in his career, this window was just a low point. A period of “bad luck” if you want to call it that.

Random variation means, in a simple sense and nontechnical sense, that the smaller a sample you look at the higher the likelihood is that you’re observing something that doesn’t reflect reality. Miguel Cabrera gets a hit around 33% of the time in his career, but if you look at any 3 at bats, you’re likely to see him have 0, 2, or 3 hits. That’s how sample size works.

This relates to Martinez because the underlying information about Martinez went unchanged during the slump. He wasn’t chasing pitches and he was making hard contact. The walk and strikeout rate looked fine. Good swings were turning into outs way more frequently than they usually do for him or for anyone.

And then all of a sudden it stopped. Somewhere in the last four to five weeks, Martinez just started getting those swings to turn into hits and he’s climbed all the way up to a .254/.311/.367 line after a .221/.290/.274 line in April. He’s not a different player, he’s just getting his hits to drop now and he wasn’t then. He’s taken two and half months of bad stats and is slowly erasing them.

His numbers were awful. Now they are amazing. Only two things can be responsible for that. One is a change in skill, health, or approach – none of which are evident. The other is a change in fortune – which appears likely. Victor Martinez is the poster child for a concept called “regression to the mean.”

Regression to the mean is an idea that suggests, in baseball, that when a player does something much better or worse than his previous career average it’s likely that he’s going to regress toward the previous average more often than he moves further into the extremes. You can think of regression to the mean as the correction in random variation over large samples.

In a small sample, anything can happen, but if you give something enough time, it will show its true colors. I’m boiling down a complex statistical concept, so well-versed statisticians shouldn’t analyze the wording too literally, but the amazing tear Martinez is on is essentially like the universe balancing out the really unlucky stretch he had.

It really is that simple. Take a look at his monthly performance:

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It’s getting much better, sure. But there is something in the batted ball data I want you to see. This is a bit cluttered, but take a look.

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He was hitting fewer groundballs than normal in April, and now he is hitting more to compensate. He was hitting fewer than normal line drives for the first three months, now his is hitting more. He was hitting way more flyballs that normal to start the year, now he’s hitting fewer. Everything is correcting itself. It’s not that he is now hitting like the career averages he set for himself, it’s that he’s now playing at the other extreme to balance out what happened before. The process for Martinez was good, but the results we all out of whack. Now the process is the same and the results are good.

This is a simple case of regression to the mean. There wasn’t anything wrong with Martinez that time couldn’t fix. The Tigers did just fine while he was “struggling” and now they’re getting the hot-hitting version of him as the race gets going.

In general, this should be a lesson to you that surface statistics can be deceiving. If you thought Martinez was a good hitter entering the season, you shouldn’t change your opinion so quickly when he has a low batting average for six or eight weeks. Almost always, unless a player is hurt (he never looked hurt), he will regress to the mean. He may not ever have the season he had in 2011, as that was likely his career year as a hitter, but he will look very much the player you expected. He’s been a 120 or so wRC+ hitter for most of his career and there is no reason not to expect something around 110 now that he is entering the downswing of his career.

Enjoy Victor’s hitting streak and power explosion now because you certainly earned it while he wasn’t getting hits. It’s often hard to take a step back and see the world with a wide angle lens, but it’s something we should do a lot more often.

More on VMart’s Bad Luck

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Early this week, I wrote about Victor Martinez’s tough luck on hard hit balls this season and showed that his Hard Hit Average is all out of whack with his on field results. I’d like to offer a little more data to illustrate the point as Martinez made some post game comments today regarding the hard hit problem:

I took a look at Martinez’s wRC+ this season relative to league average, his 2011 season, and his career average entering the day and broke it down by groundballs, flyballs, and line drives. I think you’ll find it interesting.

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Notice how Martinez is a little below where we would expect him to be historically on line drives, but not so far off that we would think anything more than some aging at work. But look at the other numbers. My goodness, look at them. On groundballs, he has a 1 wRC+ which is about 20% lower than we’d expect. On flyballs it’s even worse. He’s at -3 despite a general expectation he’d be north of 100. I’m not saying Martinez isn’t declining or having a down year, I’m providing evidence that he’s been unlucky. It might not be everything, but it’s something.

I showed you earlier this week that Martinez is hitting the ball hard, and now I’m showing you how exactly that bad luck is playing out in his results by batted ball type. The great thing here is that the odds are in his favor. There’s no way this keeps up, and it might already be turning around. Don’t look now, but the hits might just be starting to fall.

Victor Martinez Shouldn’t Play Vegas

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I’m sure most Tigers fans are aware that Victor Martinez’s number this year aren’t very good. He’s had a few productive games, but on the whole they don’t look great. He’s hitting .230/.280/.319 good for 59 wRC+ in 225 PA. I don’t have to tell you that isn’t enough from a full time DH.

But there is more to the story than that. I know this is going to sound like an excuse, but Victor Martinez has been terribly unlucky. I’m serious, I have data to prove it. This isn’t just an eyeball test, it’s a real thing. I’ll show you.

First of all, the walk rate is almost identical to his strong ’11 season and he’s swinging at fewer pitches outside the strikezone so far this season (26.8% versus 30.2%). So it’s not like he’s chasing bad pitches or anything. There are two explanations. First, he’s getting unlucky. Second, he’s not hitting the ball with as much authority as he used to.

I’m going to argue this is mostly about luck, but I’ll give some credence to the type of contact he is making. He is hitting fewer line drives this year in favor of more flyballs, which is generally bad for your production, but it’s not dramatic enough that you would expect someone to lose .100 off their batting average. His 2013 ratios are very similar to his 2007 ratios and in that season he hit .301/.374/.505.

So yes, the trajectory of the ball is slightly off his 2011 numbers, but he’s been successful with the 2013 numbers before. He’s not walking less. He’s not chasing bad pitches. This is a story about bad luck.

A number of people have commented, myself included, that Victor is hitting a lot of balls hard that are turning into outs. That’s true. ESPN Stats and Info tracks hard hit balls (balls can be soft, medium, or hard) and ESPN Stats and Info Researcher and former podcast standout Mark Simon often posts the statistic on Twitter. Here is his most recent update (June 3):

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As you can see, Martinez is 6th in MLB with 24.4% of his PA ending in a hard his ball. The average MLBer hits 17% hard hit balls. That’s 7% better than league average, but if you look at his batting average, it doesn’t reflect that. You have to drop pretty far down the list to find someone with a lower average than Martinez (Ruggiano at 22). In other words, it’s very rare to have someone hit the ball hard this often without getting better results. How rare? I asked Simon and this is what he said:

The picture he posted in accordance with that tweet indicates that all but one of Martinez’s hard hit balls at home have turned into outs:

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So what you can see here is that your eyes aren’t deceiving you. Victor Martinez is hitting the ball hard and has nothing to show for it. He’s been unlucky in a very uncommon way. We should expect this luck to even out over the course of the season and his hard hit balls will start to fall for hits. Everyone above him on that list is crushing the ball and Martinez has been at the top of this list all season long.

You may look at his .230 batting average and say he’s having a bad year. That’s only partially right. The results have been bad, but based on everything I’m looking at here, the process has been good. And good process will yield good results, even if it hasn’t over the first third of the season.

That said, I still wouldn’t advise Victor Martinez spend any time in Vegas, just in case he’s pissed off the God’s of probability.

Editor’s Note: A follow up piece on the same subject can be found here.

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