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Valuing Victor Martinez's contributions to the Tigers

So, with Victor Martinez injured and likely to miss the entire 2012 season, what are the Tigers going to miss out on?

The popular answer in some stories and comments has been a .330 average, .380 on-base percentage, .470 slugging average and 103 RBIs. That is a wonderful recap of what happened last season but not necessarily predictive of what would happen this season.

I realize I'm oversimplifying it a bit. Some people may even want to look at this as sour grapes or trying to make the best of a bad situation. So let me state up front: I don't want to downplay Martinez's contributions or the flexibility he provided manager Jim Leyland with the lineup. He's a consistent above-average, switch-hitting batter. That's important.

But I feel it is also important to view Martinez through the lens of what he really is as a batter rather than just how he did in the most recent year. Furthermore, the protection he "provided" to Cabrera can easily be overstated.

Let's start with the basics.

Martinez's average in 2011 was .330. His career average is .303. Before joining Detroit, his highest average was .316 back in 2006. His BABIP was .343 in 2011, 27 points higher than his career average. Given the consistency of his average in most years, I think it's safer to mark him down as a .300 hitter than a .330 one.

Martinez's on-base percentage moves around quite a bit. .380 last year, but .351 the year before. .381 in 2009, but .337 in 2008. I'm not one of those people who believes that a see-saw like that will continue, but I do believe this is evidence you couldn't just pencil Martinez down as an automatic .370+ OBP. For the most part, this is because Martinez doesn't take walks as frequently as he did earlier in his career. The 7.4% in 2010 and 7.7% in 2011 were the lowest walk rates of his entire career.

I don't really have much to say about the isolated power. That was down a bit in 2010, as Martinez's HR:FB ratio slipped below his career average. So it's possible that could have inched up a bit.

What about the clutch aspect? There is no doubt, in 2011 Martinez hit well with two outs and runners in scoring position. His average, OBP and slugging all jumped, resulting in a .930 OPS. His wOBA in high-leverage situations zoomed to .546 from .333 in low leverage. ... In 2010, it was just the opposite. Martinez was .347 wOBA in low leverage and .230 in high leverage. If you keep going back through the years, you'll notice that some years he's better in high leverage, some year he's not. To me, that inconsistency kind of mitigates any possible true clutch factor that may exist.

By the way, for all the talk of Marinez being a .300 hitter with two strikes, his career average there is .231. As recently as 2009, he batted .199 with two strikes. Again, while it's possible he made adjustments that he could carry the rest of his career, in all likelihood he was just getting lucky.

In total, based on recent years performance as well as a projection into the future, we could probably expect a batting line that looked more like .300 average, .360 on-base percentage and .450 slugging. As a batter, he's probably worth 20-23 runs above average. That's pretty valuable and it puts him around some pretty big names.

What about baserunning? Using Fangraphs' figures, Martinez has gone from being slightly below average to nearly 5 runs below average. So offensive production may be closer to 15-18 runs above average. We could view him as a Nick Swisher, basically.

As a fielder? Well, that wasn't in the plans. The Tigers signed Gerald Laird because Martinez was going to spend most of his time at designated hitter. He could fill in for Miguel Cabrera at first base. He's never played in the outfield. So the Tigers aren't really losing anything there.

Now, you say, what about protecting Miguel Cabrera?

Well, about that ... Quick quiz.

What year did Cabrera have the highest walk percentage of his career?

... 2011. With Martinez "protecting" him. Cabrera was also intentionally walked 22 times.

Who protected Cabrera in 2010, by the way?

Cabrera did have a terrific season with Martinez behind him, batting .344 and winning the batting title. He also saw his fly ball rate and power both drop, as he hit more balls for line drives and ground balls and had a corresponding boost to is BABIP.

The real loss in Martinez is flexibility. Martinez provides a switch-hitter in the middle of the lineup. He pushes every other batter down a spot to give opposing pitchers fewer chances to rest. The best suggestions for replacing Martinez all involve substituting two players for one, costing a lineup spot and its corresponding flexibility.

The loss is also that creating a fresh hole to fill may keep the club from other moves that we felt it was necessary to make. Now, money might have to be spent in the free agent market. Now, prospects might have to be used on acquiring a replacement rather than held for other uses.

Unquestionably, you'd rather have Martinez happy and healthy and with the ballclub.

But I have a hard time believing this is the end of the world. And it's far from the worst news the Tigers could have gotten. (Miguel Cabrera anyone? Alex Avila? Jhonny Peralta? Maybe even Austin Jackson? And we haven't even mentioned any MVP pitcher's name yet.)

If the Tigers can replace 75-to-80% of the production Martinez provides, that's enough to say this is a setback, not a complete disaster. In my next posts, I'll see how likely that possibility really is.