Victor Martinez: Today's Joe DiMaggio

Patrick McDermott

Argue if you must, but the numbers say that the Tigers' DH is authoring a season of historic significance.

There is still magic in the name DiMaggio.

It's a name of baseball royalty. And even though there was a trio of men who played under the surname, when you say DiMaggio everyone knows you're talking about Joseph Paul.

At the tender age of 22, the child of Italian immigrants who grew up in Northern California's Bay area, Joe DiMaggio authored one of the most unbelievable seasons in big league history.

DiMaggio was 20 and playing for the Pacific Coast League's San Francisco Seals when the New York Yankees swooped in, as they were wont to do when there was raw talent to be had. The Yanks pilfered DiMaggio from the Seals for a few players and $5,000 in cash.

The Yankees may as well have been wearing masks and holding a gun.

In his second big league season, in 1937, DiMaggio did something that was at first considered mind boggling---until he kept doing it over and over.

In '37, DiMaggio batted .346 and drove in 167 runs. The OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) was in the stratosphere---1.085.

But here's the most amazing thing of all: DiMaggio slammed 46 homers and struck out 37 times.

Think about that for a moment. More home runs than punch outs, and when the homer total was near 50, no less.

You don't fluke your way through that, but just to be certain, DiMaggio repeated the feat the following year: 32 home runs, 21 strikeouts.

In fact, he did it for five straight seasons---from 1937 to 1941. Here are the numbers, courtesy the good folks at www.retrosheet.org: 1937: 46 HR, 37 K; 1938: 32 HR, 21 K; 1939: 30 HR, 20 K; 1940: 31 HR, 30 K; 1941: 30 HR, 13 K.

Not even a four-year stint in the military during World War II could stunt DiMaggio's growth. He missed 1943-45, and came back in '46 with 25 homers and 24 strikeouts.

So close were the homer and strikeout totals for the rest of his career that when he retired, Joltin' Joe DiMaggio hit 361 home runs and struck out 369 times.

Compare that to today's slugger, who is likely to have a strikeout-to-homer ratio of at least 3-to-1.

Unless you're Victor Martinez.

Martinez is the Tigers' designated hitter---and no player in the game today has a more apt title.

We all knew that Martinez was a fine hitter---a career .300 guy at age 35. But in 2014, Victor is, as Emeril Lagasse would say, kicking it up a notch.

V-Mart drilled yet another home run in the Tigers' thrilling 4-1 win over Baltimore on Tuesday night. It followed Miguel Cabrera's three-run shot and came with the Camden Yards crowd still trying to pick itself up from off the concrete.

The four-bagger was Martinez's ninth of the season. That in of itself is something to crow about, as he's on a pace to hit over 30 dingers, something Martinez has never done.

But Martinez has paired, with those nine home runs, just eight strikeouts.

Almost a quarter of a way through the 2014 season, Victor Martinez is acting all DiMaggio-like.

Never before in his MLB career, which began in 2002, has Martinez come close to pulling off what Joe DiMaggio did seven times out of 13 seasons---hit more home runs than times striking out.

Martinez is 35 but his career seems like it's just getting started. He had one year off, in 2012, which he missed due to a knee injury. So he's a young 35 if you're one of those glass-is-half-full people.

Manager Brad Ausmus must grin devilishly every night before bed, knowing that he can write in Cabrera's name in the lineup and then follow it with Martinez's. The best hitter in the game followed by the best aging.

The Tigers didn't really need Martinez's solo blast on Tuesday night, but Victor hit the baseball with a ferocity that was almost punitive in nature. Then, his behavior in the dugout after rounding the bases was as fiery as he's ever been. Torii Hunter, for one, was subjected to an in-your-face, pointing and jabbing diatribe.

Baseball people all over are starting to ask what the Tigers are putting into Martinez's drinking water. This isn't how a player in his mid-30s is supposed to age.

It's not over the top to say that Victor Martinez, at the quarter pole, is having an MVP-type year.

How could it be over the top, when he's aping Joe DiMaggio, for crying out loud?

The batting average is .336. The hits pace is around 200. The OPS is .987. His production is giving Cabrera some pitches to hit that Miguel probably didn't figure he'd see, with the off-season trade of his buddy, Prince Fielder.

Then there are those nine homers and eight strikeouts.

That screams MVP to me.

For all of Cabrera's greatness, imagine the Tigers season thus far without Martinez.

There has been clutch hit after clutch hit from the DH. There has been Martinez's ability to handle the mental challenges of being mostly just a hitter---which many players can't successfully contend with, by the way.

There has been production as consistently excellent as any in baseball this year.

This is Victor Martinez's finest hour. Never before has he hit a baseball in this manner, with such aplomb and with such an acute ability to make contact.

Never before with such power and with so few strikeouts.

He is today's DiMaggio.

Where in the world did this come from?

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