What’s Wrong With Victor Martinez?

Victor Martinez is having one of the worst offensive seasons of his career to begin 2015. What’s wrong, and – most importantly – can it be fixed? 

The Detroit Tigers have been an American League power house the has lasted several years, winning their division four years in a row, but failing to get a ring. Last year, the stars seemed to be aligning with Detroit landing four very food pitchers. Miguel Cabrera did his normal damage and Victor Martinez was simply amazing. This year, Cabrera is off to a hot start, but V-Mart is a virtual no show.

April 14 2015: Detroit Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez (41) walks back to the dugout after striking out during the ninth inning in the game between the Detroit Tigers and Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Victor Martinez finished last year with a .974 OPS, which was the highest of his career. There was a strong MVP a case for Martinez because of his contributions to the Tigers. This offseason, Martinez suffered a knee injury, which is a trouble point for his career. While that is a factor is his struggles, it isn’t everytbing. Martinez needs to produce if the Tigers want a shot at the World Series.

06 May 2015: Detroit Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez (41) batting in a baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers at US Cellular Field, Chicago, Il

One of the main differences with Martinez is his hard-hit rates. Last year, Martinez made hard contact on 39.4 percent of balls in play. That helped lead to his career year. This year, Martinez is making hard contact on just 28.1 percent of balls in play. Age regression probably plays some part in it, but Martinez just isn’t boxing the ball up. In fact, Martinez is currently hitting 18.8 percent of his balls with soft-contact, which would be the second worst number of his career.

As I write about quite often, Martinez’s line-drive rate has also fallen from 21.3 percent to 18.8 percent. That drop-off isn’t what Martinez or the Tigers needed. The most surprising drop-off for Martinez is his home run to fly ball rate, which was 16 percent last year. This year, Martinez is hitting home runs on just 2.9 percent of his fly balls. That’s not only a marked regression, but puts Martinez amongst the worst in baseball. According to FanGraphs, last year’s 16 percent rate put Martinez in “great” range of 15-20 percent. This year’s number, 2.9 percent, puts Martinez somewhere between “awful” and “poor,” not what you want from someone coming off an MVP-caliber season.

If the Detroit Tigers want to compete for the American League Central crown and a shot at the World Series, they are going to need Victor Martinez to turn it around. Despite his struggles, I believe it is fair to assume that Martinez will turn it around. His current .242 BABIP would be the lowest of his career–but hey, you do make your own luck to a certain extent. If Martinez isn’t squaring balls up, the BABIP is going to be lower. While they say a lot of BABIP comes down to luck, it also comes down to speed (which Martinez has never had, but lacks even more so coming off knee surgery) and the ability to hit the ball hard. Weak contact, which is plaguing Martinez, is far less likely to fall in for hits.

Victor Martinez

The main concern going forward with Martinez is his injury history. Lower body injuries to aging players, even designated hitters, don’t play out well. The lower body for Martinez appears non-existent this season. If Martinez wants to return to 2014 form, he has to be healthy. If not, it may be best for the Tigers to put him on the DL and see if there is a rehab process for Martinez. Hitting in the middle of the lineup with a .603 OPS just doesn’t make sense. There is a lot of baseball to play this year and the Tigers need Victor Martinez to get healthy.

While the Tigers have been able to weather Martinez’s ineffectiveness (after all, they sit tied atop the AL Central with a 24-13 record), they will need him to provide insurance behind Miguel Cabrera for the Tigers to maintain the offensive numbers they’ve put up thus far. Right now, it doesn’t look likely.

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