Victor Martinez returned to catching Friday night, and performed well. So well in fact that Jim Leyland says there is a 99% chance that he will return on Sunday.
Victor Martinez arrived in the big leagues with the Indians in 2002 as a catcher. From 2004 to 2007 he caught over 120 games a season. But his bat was too good and as happens with all good hitting catchers, the manager found ways to keep his bat in the game. Remember Alex Avila in 2001, slugging .506 and playing five games at third base and designated hitter? Martinez started playing a little first base in 2006. By 2009 he was playing nearly as much first base as catcher, though he was traded to the Red Sox mid-season. But while a catcher who can hit .300 with a little power is extremely valuable, a first baseman that can do the same is merely average. With Boston in 2010 Victor returned to the role of the starting catcher. In 2011 with Detroit he was the backup catcher, creating an offensive force at the position with Avila's career year.
Victor has a reputation as a good hitting but poor fielding catcher. Over his career he has thrown out 24% of would-be base stealers, below the league average of 29%. Alex Avila has been above league average in his first four seasons, but has fallen all the way to 17% this year. Brayan Pena has also been above league average throughout his career until this year, as he has dropped to 24%. If he could lose the hitch in his throws to second base, the rate would rise. The Royals took advantage of this in the last series with Detroit, stealing six bases off Pena and nine overall. Bryan Holaday is at 8% in limited action. The below-average rate for all Tigers' catchers may indicate that the pitchers are holding runners on base less effectively than most. But Victor Martinez at catcher would not likely harm this already weak link.
The Tigers have only three more interleague games during the regular season. The last three games of the season are in Miami, which means no designated hitter. If first place is not wrapped up by then, there will be larger problems to solve than the catching position. But the ultimate goal is the World Series. Thanks in part to Jim Leyland's "playing to win" strategy during the All Star game, the American League team will have at most three games at the National League park. There will be no designated hitter. These are the games where Victor is needed at catcher, so that his bat is in the lineup.
To prepare, Martinez should catch Sunday in New York. Then he could catch once a week for the rest of the season. The final weekend, he could catch Friday and Sunday in Miami.
If the Tigers were desperate for wins, they could push this further. Victor could catch more often, freeing the designated hitter spot. But I suspect that Leyland would just plug Brayan Pena in, believing that his 2013 numbers are not an aberration as compared to his career .258 / .294 / .362 line. The designated hitter could occasionally be a platoon, perhaps Jordan Lennerton and Nick Castellanos after September call-ups. But would Leyland play a rookie or Don Kelly? The Tigers are not desperate, this is inconceivable, and it adds risk.
The Tigers are a very good team. Looking toward the postseason they can improve by small measures in certain areas. Catching is one, especially in a game hosted by a National League team. Victor Martinez's return to the position will move the needle just a bit on their chances to win each game.