Before the 2011 season, the Detroit Tigers, despite knowing that his days as an every day catcher were most likely gone, signed Victor Martinez to a 4 year 50 million dollar deal. The first year of the deal looked pretty good, as Martinez clearly slotted in as an above average regular, hitting well enough to off-set defensive or baserunning concerns. However, before the 2nd year of the deal, Martinez tore his ACL practicing and missed the entire 2012 season. While he has come back in 2013, he has been one of the worst players in baseball, at least one loss worse than a “replacement” player and up to 2 losses worse than an average player (even with some defensive metrics dubiously rating him as positive). The simple explanation is that he simply isn’t healthy (and that maybe he will never be healthy again at age 34). He has been a really nice player in the past, but through nearly half way in the 2013 season, he has been anything but.
2011: 3.4 Swinging Strike Percentage, contact plays on 21.8 % of pitches. Average batted ball distance of 196 feet (per BaseballHeatMaps)
2013: 4.6 Swinging Strike Percentage, contact plays on 20 % of pitches. Average batted ball distance of 203.81 feet
So there is some regression when it comes to whiffs and contact, though the previous rates were insanely good, but he may actually be hitting the ball harder, which is hard to imagine. Could this really just be a BABIP thing? Let’s take a look at his spray chart broken down by (since he is a switch hitter) which side he is batting from. The percentage numbers are taken from the way Baseball Reference breaks down pulled/opposite field (etc.) balls, with the 2011 number on top and the 2013 number below it. The picture of Comerica Park is from baseballpilgrimages.com. Here is Martinez as a lefty, his most used side
He is pulling the ball a lot less so far in 2013 and instead going the other way or up the middle much more. Could Martinez be struggling with velocity, that is, he can’t get around on pitches?
2013: LHH Swinging Strikes 87.01 MPH, contact plays 88.92 MPH
2011: LHH Swinging Strikes 86.15 MPH, contact plays 88.62 MPH
Probably not. To make sure, I looked at the 100 fastest pitches (93.4-98.8 MPH) he has seen as a left-hander so far in 2013 with a strike zone labelled with results:
He isn’t getting pitched inside very much at all by hard pitches. It is not like he is being busted up and in and having his bat speed exposed. Pitchers are keeping it away from him, and Martinez is showing good plate coverage by going and getting some pitches outside of the strike zone and putting them in play. As a left-handed hitter, here is where Martinez has been pitched on average in 2011 and 2013:
He has always been pitched away, and the only real difference between the two years is where his swinging strikes are. In 2011, his swinging strikes were located away from the rest of the pitches, just down in the zone (not inside or outside). This year, his swinging strikes are in a very similar place as the rest of the pitches he has seen. This would seem to suggest that the pitches he was once able to hit, he is no longer able to hit, but again, we didn’t see that he was having a lot of problems with hard pitches, and the average MPH of swinging strikes compared to 2011 says he is having less of a problem with soft pitches. The problem may be that he is just having problems with average pitches, or at least, more than he was before. Let’s see if his average locations as a right-handed hitter says something similar:
This chart shows that pitchers are much less worried about keeping the ball away from him when he bats right-handed. Again, his swinging strikes in 2011 are further away from the other locations, while his 2013 swinging strikes are in the general area of the rest of the pitches, suggesting the same thing as above. There are more subtle differences in the chart though. In 2011, he swung at more pitches on the inside part of the plate than the outside part of the plate, and his average contact was in a similar place. This year, he is swinging at more pitches that are lower and more pitches that are outside. Overall on the year, Martinez isn’t swinging more than he did in 2011, and is actually chasing less pitches in the zone. However, he is swinging at more pitches in the strike zone, and I think it shows here. He is being a little bit less discriminate on pitches that are strikes. His spray chart as a right-hander is actually reverse of what it is as a left-hander (actually the tendency is the same, as he is hitting more balls to the left-side), as he is pulling more balls, nearly completely forgoing going the other way
You would think that this would lead to more power, except it obviously isn’t. When you see that he is swinging at more pitches on the outside of the plate, and simultaneously, pulling more balls, it is not a combo that usually leads to success. While this is his lesser used side, I think it help explain some of the BABIP and power losses (remember, it is a misnomer that Martinez was a power hitter when he was hitting well, most years showing average power, with good contact and walk rates, but the point stands since he isn’t getting on base.
I think BABIP can be helpful when looking at Martinez as he still has good K/BB rates, somewhat similar to his career rates. As far as just home runs go, he is hitting them at virtually the same pace as he was in 2011. He should “regress” at least somewhat, meaning he should get a little better. With that said, his pull rates from both sides of the plate (not pulling as many balls as a lefty, pulling more as a righty despite more balls being on the outside part of the plate) are concerning. Him missing pitches in the places where he normally hits them are concerning. This is not the Martinez that the Tigers originally signed or played in 2011. I think his numbers will correct somewhat, but he just isn’t as good of a hitter as he was before the injury, at least not now.