Victor Martinez’s top PECOTA comparables are both catchers who could hit incredibly well, but eventually bounced all over the diamond. Ted Simmons did not leave his catching duties permanently, but logged a few games at first, third and the corner outfield spots. Joe Torre played more combined games at first and third base than he did at catcher, with most of the games at first base coming during those years where he had time behind the plate. Victor Martinez is more than likely going to traverse that same road, as the Indians have already started to play him at first base. Whether his bat plays well enough there is the question at hand for the Tribe.
Victor Jesus Martinez was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Venezuela by the Cleveland Indians in July of 1996. As for a fun historical note, he has been more of a success than every player the Indians drafted just a month before his signing; the next most productive career has probably that of David Riske, who was selected in round 56, 1559 overall. This draft certainly was not one of John Hart’s finer moments.
Martinez began his professional career at age 18 with the Venezuelan Summer League for 1997 and 1998 before moving on to the New York-Penn League:
AB AVG/OBP/SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% Mar.(Rk) 122 .344/.482/.443 .410 29% .099 12 20.8% 7.1% Gua.(Rk) 160 .269/.394/.369 .350 33% .100 13 16.7% 7.3% Mah.(A-) 235 .277/.346/.366 .200 20% .089 9 10.3% 11.8%
Martinez was a patient hitter who did not display all that much power early on, but he seemed to control the strike zone well, as evidenced by his low strikeout and high walk rates. His BABIP figures were very low for the level at Guacara and Mahoning Valley, although he would make up for that in a short stay with Columbus in the Sally League the next year:
AB AVG/OBP/SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% Col.(A) 70 .371/.452/.614 .400 46% .243 10 13.1% 7.1% Kin.(A+) 83 .217/.313/.301 .217 39% .084 7 11.1% 5.1%
His .387 BABIP helped inflate his rate stats quite a bit during his 70 at bats with Columbus, and his awful .231 BABIP would deflate these same rates even more while with Kinston. He continued to display excellent control of the strike zone at both levels, and even flashed some offensive potential at Columbus, albeit in 70 at-bats. Shoulder problems limited his playing time though, which hurt his stock quite a bit. He was not quite on anyone’s radar as of yet, as Baseball America excluded him from the top 25 prospect list for Cleveland; that is a given of sorts, since Victor Martinez had only 670 at-bats as a pro spread out over four years, and the only thing really interesting about them was his control of the strike zone.
2001 would help to change the lack of noise around Martinez, as would follow-up campaigns in 2002 and 2003:
Martinez’s BABIP was .366, which was well above the league average of .316 for the Carolina and Florida State League from 1996-2004. Some hitters do have higher BABIP thanks to their line drive rates, and Martinez has always been more of a line drive hitter than a flyball one. This season jumpstarted Martinez’s stock, as he ended up the #6 prospect for Cleveland on Baseball America’s 2002 list. The report for Martinez that year gives a great explanation of his defensive abilities:
…He also has tremendous poise, presence and leadership. He has unbelievably soft hands and calls a great game. Managers rated him the CL’s best defensive catcher. His arm is a little weak, so he has to rely on a quick release to throw runners out. He erased just 29 percent of basestealers in 2001, compared to the CL average of 39 percent. He’ll have to work hard on his throwing mechanics in order to control a running game.
Things have not changed for Martinez on the baserunner front, as he continues to struggle throwing guys out. Baseball Prospectus 2002 was not exactly sure what to make of Martinez as of yet:
The Carolina League MVP and organizational player of the year is a converted shortstop with an outsized defensive reputation. Martinez impressed the Indians with his handling of Kinston’s pitching staff, which included some of the system’s best prospects. He was 22 in the Carolina League, so a dose of skepticism is healthy. Like Josh Bard, he’s going to make The Show; the only question is whether he’ll be a decent starter or a career backup. How often does a team have two switch-hitting catcher prospects?
Martinez would collect all but 32 of his at-bats at Double-A Akron, where he would again post a high BABIP relative to the league average, and an even more impressive batting line than the previous year:
Martinez had 62 extra-base hits and jumped his walk rate back up over 11 percent while only striking out 12 percent of the time. This was an impressive piece of hitting, and would help to erase some of the negativity surrounding his old for the level dominance of the Carolina League in 2001. Martinez would win another batting title and MVP Award, and Baseball America would make him the #2 prospect for the Tribe behind Brandon Phillips, with a few positive things to say:
Martinez is a natural hitter with tremendous strike-zone discipline and an uncanny ability to produce from either side of the plate. He rarely swings and misses. His power numbers jumped in 2002 as he got stronger. He has shown an ability to pick the pitch and count that allow him to drive the ball. Martinez’ skills at calling a game and blocking and receiving pitches are also major league ready. Martinez’ throwing needs work. It’s a matter of getting his footwork and arm action aligned. He struggles to stay mechanically consistent…He’s Cleveland’s long-term catcher and a future all-star.
Baseball Prospectus 2003 voiced the same dual excitement and concern:
That no one saw this coming contributed to Einar’s four-year deal with a club option for 2005. Then Martinez won the Eastern League batting title and MVP after winning the Carolina League MVP the year before. Scouts say his defense makes him an incomplete package, but he has good receiving skills; the perceived deficiency is all in his arm strength…The problem is whether there’s much to do for him; there’s a limit to how fast you can get rid of the ball after you’ve mastered your footwork, and if you can’t get it screaming to second, the speedsters are going to be able to steal on him consistently.
2003 would be another fine offensive season for Martinez, who spent time at Akron, Triple-A Buffalo and Cleveland:
AB AVG/OBP/SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% Buf.(AAA) 274 .328/.395/.474 .234 29% .146 19 8.3% 10.2% Cle.(MLB) 159 .289/.345/.333 .126 11% .044 4 7.5% 12.1%
His BABIP was fairly lofty in Cleveland, but he underachieved considerably given his very high line drive rate of 25.6 percent. Chalk it up to a case of bad luck and a smaller sample.
Baseball Prospectus 2004 was optimistic that Martinez could stick, but emphasized that he would need to keep on hitting more like 2002 than 2003:
He’s improving his English, which helps with his game-calling, but struggled to control the running game in the minors. However, once he got to the big leagues, he was better off, and having pitchers like Sabathia and Davis, who do a great job of holding runners, will help. The real problem is that he has to be the hitter we saw in 2002 to hack it as a big league regular. If he doesn’t, he’ll be an even bigger letdown than Sandy Alomar in the Tribe’s history of catching disappointments.
PECOTA pegged Martinez for .261/.326/.399, which seemed somewhat odd. Martinez was a .288 hitter in the majors during a short stay, and had always been a high-average player, even when his power game was down. The built-in pessimism is understood, but the average seems a bit low given his high BABIP figures at all levels of the minors and during his short time in the majors. One can understand the low projected slugging percentage though, as Martinez had fallen back a bit in 2003 after his excellent 2002, and had not slugged very well in the majors as of yet either.
What came next is one of those things that are both shocking yet expected. Given the starting job from the start, Martinez ended up sharing the Silver Slugger award with Ivan Rodriguez at the end of the year after hitting .283/.359/.492 in his first full season for the Tribe. His 2005 and 2006 seasons were equally impressive, although for different reasons:
AB AVG/OBP/SLG EqA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2004 520 .283/.359/.492 .286 42% .210 39 10.3% 13.3% 2005 547 .305/.378/.475 .296 32% .170 33 10.3% 14.3% 2006 572 .316/.391/.465 .293 29% .149 37 11.0% 13.6%
What we have here is a player who is getting more hits over time while keeping his walk rate basically steady. All of these extra hits seem to be singles though; Martinez’ batting average has risen the past two years, but his slugging percentage has fallen, which has contributed to a .061 point drop in Isolated Power during that time frame. A lot of this has to do with what types of batted-balls Martinez is getting at the plate:
Year P/PA FB% LINERD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Dif. 2004 3.7 43.3% 16.4% 40.3% 9.6% 11.6% .290 .284 -0.06 2005 3.8 31.4% 21.1% 47.6% 6.7% 13.4% .327 .331 +0.04 2006 3.7 34.4% 21.6% 44.0% 6.4% 9.3% .345 .336 -0.09
His flyball tendencies have decreased the past few years, and Martinez has become more of a line drive and groundball hitter. Part of the reason this was not noticed as much in 2005 is because Martinez’ homeruns per flyball were at a higher rate than in 2004, there were just a lot fewer flyballs to work with. In 2006 there was no such occurrence, as his flyballs were roughly 10 percent lower than they had been in his 2004 campaign, while his homerun rate was down a bit at the same time.
You should also notice that although Martinez’ BABIP figures continue to climb, he is never really too far above or below his expected BABIP. A lot of this has to do with the type of hitter he has become; flyball hitters-like Martinez in 2004-generally have lower BABIP than line drive or groundball hitters. As the rate at which Martinez hit liners and grounders climbed, his flyball rate dropped, and his BABIP was the better for it. This explains the boost in average and rise in hit totals.
Of course, Martinez as a .465 slugging first basemen really does not have the same value as Martinez the .465 slugging catcher. PECOTA forecasts a .290/.367/.456 line; I’d lobby for a higher batting average based off of additional singles. The only reason I mention this instead of using say, his 75th percentile forecast, is due to the increase in slugging that PECOTA gives Victor as you climb the ladder. For example, I find it possible that Martinez hits .320 in 2007, but I don’t expect him to slug .527 when he does it, as his 90th percentile suggests. Given his 2004 batted-ball data, this would certainly make sense, but probably not given his 2005-2006 tendencies. Of course, if he goes back to his old style of hitting the ball in the air more, PECOTA will rule the day.
Martinez seems to have a bit of distance on the balls he hits the past few years, according to these charts from MLB.com:
You should notice that the distance for the flyballs has decreased steadily throughout the three year period above, and that his home runs have also decreased somewhat in right field. In 2006, the groundouts appear to be much more common than in the two years prior; in fact, Martinez had 88 groundouts at Jacobs Field in 2006, against 65 and 67 in 2004 and 2005. He was basically the reverse in 2004, with 84 flyouts against 68 in 2006.
Martinez is also a very different hitter from opposite sides of the plate. From the left, he is much more of a power hitter, with a line of .312/.378/.503 from 2004-2006, whereas from the right side of the plate he is a .283/.374/.426 hitter over the same time frame. We can look at his batted-ball splits from 2004-2006 to see just why this is:
Left-Handed Right-Handed Year FB% LINERD% GB% Year FB% LINERD% GB% 2004 38.3% 16.1% 37.6% 2004 29.5% 11.6% 47.9% 2005 28.5% 20.4% 47.9% 2005 28.9% 14.8% 50.7% 2006 31.9% 21.7% 41.9% 2006 23.0% 19.8% 49.2%
His flyball rates are usually much higher from the left side, as are his line drive rates. From the right side, he’s an extreme groundball hitter, which is part of the reason he grounds out so often. It would be interesting to see what kind of hitter Martinez would be if he consistently batted left-handed, or if the Indians were able to find an adequate first base platoon partner for him. There’s nothing wrong with his stat line as a catcher. Most teams would kill for .283/.374/.426 out of their catchers, never mind having it as their line from the weak side.
Victor Martinez has quite the problem with keeping runners honest, but his bat carries him behind the plate. If the Indians go through with moving Martinez to first base more often, they may need to find someone to hit lefties for him if they want to keep his value up as high as possible. The Indians are certainly not averse to platoons, and Ryan Garko was fantastic against left-handed pitchers at Buffalo last year, posting a .277/.377/.545 line in 101 at-bats, and only .237/.344/.374 against right-handers. For now, Martinez remains the starting catcher, and will find most of his playing time comes there. What the Indians do when there is more of a vacancy at first base is a question for a later day.