Sunday, August 10, 2014

Martinez Mashing

For more than a year now, playing in the shadow of Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez has quietly been one of the best hitters in baseball.

It all started midway through last year, with Martinez scuffling at the plate after missing the entire 2012 season because of a torn ACL. Towards the end of June the then-34-year-old was hitting just .225/.283/.332, still shaking off the rust despite playing everyday for almost three full months.

Then, finally, the hits started falling for the slumping switch-hitter. He ripped off a 14-game hitting streak just before the All-Star Break, part of an incredible July in which he batted .390/.429/.581 with 41 base knocks. V-Mart remained red-hot through the dog days of August, roping 44 hits and batting .386/.449/.491 as a follow-up. In September he finally cooled off, but still strung together a 12-game hitting streak and batted .315/.367/.483 for the month to notch his fourth straight .300 season and seventh overall. All told, Martinez hit .370/.422/.519 over his final 82 games of the season, helping the Tigers go 49-33 in those games in narrowly beat out the Indians for the AL Central crown.

This year's been even better for Detroit's designated hitter, who's hitting for more power now than he has at any other point in his career. His .238 ISO and .560 slugging percentage are easily career bests, with the latter mark good for fifth in baseball among qualified hitters. His 23 home runs have him tied for ninth with Oakland bash brothers Brandon Moss and Josh Donaldson and are only two short of his personal high.

Even at Martinez's advanced age (35), it's not unusual to see him hitting .321 or getting on base more than 38 percent of the time. The five-time All-Star is a .304 career hitter who's career walk to strikeout ratio is nearly even. He still retains the tremendous bat speed, sharp reflexes and remarkable strike zone recognition needed to keep up with today's flamethrowing hurlers.

No, what's curious about this year is his unexpected power resurgence. While Martinez has always been a great hitter, his power appeared to be declining. His slugging and isolated power decreased in the two seasons since he left the Red Sox, and he swatted only 26 home runs in those years after exceeding 20 five times between 2004 and 2010. Given his advancing age, diminishing HR/FB rates, and the cavernous outfield dimensions of his home field, Martinez losing power was only natural. It seemed unlikely to ever return.

He's reversed that trend this year, however, by trading a good number of ground balls for fly balls. With more elevation in his swing, he's kept his GB/FB rate under one for just the second time in ten years. More fly balls typically translates to more big flies, but Martinez is also benefiting from the best HR/FB rate of his career. At 16.2 percent, it's more than double his rates from the last two seasons (both in the low sevens) and much higher than his career rate of 10.5 percent.

Could it be a small sample fluke? Maybe. Martinez crushed 20 home runs through June 25th but has only three since, which could be an indication that regression under way. According to ESPN's nifty home run tracker, seven of V-Mart's bombs have qualified as "just enough." Take those wall-scrapers away and he's sitting on 16, still a good number but nowhere near the pace that has him on track for his first 30-homer season. But with an average true distance of 389 feet and average speed off the bat of almost 104 miles per hour, many of Martinez's dingers have been legit. Five qualify as no-doubters and eleven left the yard by plenty. Even without the aforementioned "lucky" shots he'd have already exceeded his home run totals from his two most recent seasons. His HR/FB rate would be 11.3 percent, still above his career average and the highest it's been since 2009. Put simply, his power surge is not an aberration.

By improving his pop at 35, Martinez has found a new way to defy baseball's aging curve. Ballplayers typically don't have their best power seasons in their mid-thirties unless they're using certain performance enhancing substances (see Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds) or move to a hitting-friendly venue (Adrian Beltre, Hank Aaron). Comerica suppresses home runs, so that means the second explanation is out. I don't mean to suggest that Martinez is on something, but in this day and age a semi-suspicious power spike from a 35 year-old former catcher does make one wonder.

But Victor Martinez has always been a great hitter and displayed the ability to hit for power before, so I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Great hitters like him stay great longer, especially when they don't have to play the field. All I'm really trying to say with this post is that V-Mart is a phenomenal hitter, and has been one for a long time. This year, he's been a great power hitter, which hasn't always been the case, especially recently, and that merits a closer look.

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