On May 31, Mike Petriello wrote a piece for ESPN Insider titled "Detroit Tigers Should Bench Victor Martinez." (Subscription required.) To this I say, "No, Mike Petriello. They should not."
Petriello claims, essentially, that Martinez provides no value in the field (obviously, since he's the DH) and that he provides a negative value at the plate (what?). His solution: bench Martinez, find a new third baseman, and move Cabby back to first in a split 1B/DH role with Fielder.
There are lots of issues with Petriello's argument, and I discuss those in greater detail and with more cussing on my blog. But, for now, here's what I have to say on this idea.
There are, in my eyes, three major reasons why Petriello is wrong about this. So, let’s talk about them.
1. Victor Martinez is a solid, professional hitter who has quality at-bats every single year.
In his last three full Major League seasons, Victor Martinez batted .303, .302, and .330 respectively. His OBP numbers over those three years: .381, .351, and .380. In his career, Martinez has hit .300, with an OBP of .366. In his time with the Tigers, Martinez has drawn a walk in about 7.3% of his plate appearances and has struck out in only about 10% of his at-bats.
This season, Martinez’s numbers are down a bit. To me, that’s to be expected. The guy did not play Major League Baseball last season. But anyone who has watched the Tigers with any sort of regularity this year knows that Victor still gives Detroit quality ABs. While his average is only .230 at the moment, his OBP is .280 — consistent with the same fifty-point numerical gap he had in 2011 and 2010. He is not giving away at bats. He continues to draw walks at the same consistent rate, and while his strikeouts are up a touch (12.4% of his ABs have ended with a K) they are still not too concerning. Victor’s BABIP numbers confirm what everyone who is a true Tigers fan already knows: that he has been hitting the ball, but has not been rewarded consistently. This year Victor’s BABIP is .247; interestingly, Martinez has not had a BABIP lower than .300 since the 2004 season. It is highly unlikely that this trend would continue for an entire season. In the meantime, the Tigers are in the best position to be successful by keeping Martinez’s intelligent, professional bat in the lineup.
2. Victor Martinez offers better protection to Prince Fielder than any other player on the Tigers’ roster can offer.
Given the numbers I’ve already mentioned, and given the fact that we’ve all watched the Tigers more than one time, this point doesn’t need too much discussion. There are certainly those who may point to Jhonny Peralta’s excellent start to the season and suggest sliding him into the five-hole, right behind Prince. I mean, maybe. Peralta is definitely off to a hot start, but his BABIP (.405) is through the roof. A perfect example of the kind of season Peralta is having came yesterday on this bloop single RBI. When you’re hot, you’re hot. I love Jhonny Peralta, but despite his hot start I’m not sure he could offer more protection to Fielder than Martinez could: Peralta’s strikeout rate this season is 21%. Meanwhile, Peralta and Martinez each have 26 RBI, so it isn’t as if Peralta is a greater threat there in terms of run production. Sitting Martinez on the bench isn’t going to help him get back into the groove of playing a full Major League season; the only thing that will, and that will ultimately lead his numbers right back to where they’ve consistently been throughout most of his career, is to continue to play him every day.
3. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are not as good offensively when they DH as they are when they play the field.
Some guys thrive in the DH position. Names like David Ortiz, Jim Thome, and Edgar Martinez come to mind. But for many other players, the task of sitting on the bench or taking swings down in the cages for the vast majority of the game while waiting to bat is a difficult one. Lots of players need the routine, need to feel part of the entire game. When they aren’t, their offensive numbers struggle.
According to his career statistics, the best way to turn Miguel Cabrera into a human on the baseball field is to have him play as the DH. In 142 plate appearances as a designated hitter, Cabrera has hit just .242 with an OBP of .317. He has hit six homers, driven in seventeen runs, and struck out twenty times. Those numbers are fine or whatever, but when you compare them to what he’s done as a position player throughout his career, or to what he’s done this year, they’re not so good.
Prince Fielder’s sample size as a DH is smaller than Cabby’s, having played much of his career in the National League. Still, they’re worth considering. In 98 plate appearances as a designated hitter, Fielder has hit .250 with an OBP of .296. He has hit three homers, driven in eight runs, and struck out twenty-eight times.
Cabby and Prince are far more effective hitters when they both sides of the ball. The DH spot has not treated either of them all that well. Additionally, Petriello would have Cabby and Prince split time at DH and 1B, making it even harder for either of them to develop any sort of consistency or routine. To me, this seems like an obviously bad idea.
There will come a day when Prince and Cabby are better suited to play DH than to play the field, and if they’re interested in lengthening their careers, they’ll make the transition with a smile when that time comes. But, quite simply, now is not the time.
Benching Victor Martinez at this point in the season would be irresponsible. If the Tigers were to employ Petriello’s managerial strategy, then any player replacing Cabrera at third would have to be better than Martinez offensively in order for that strategy to be productive. While the Tigers could likely find a guy who is currently hitting better than Victor’s .230, such a move would be incredibly shortsighted. The likelihood of finding a third baseman better offensively than Martinez over the course of an entire season is slim. Martinez’s track record shows that he is too good a hitter to take out of the lineup, especially considering the adverse effects such a move would likely have on both Cabrera and Fielder offensively. Not only that, but Martinez is too valuable an asset to the Tigers as a team leader. Benching a guy like V-Mart just doesn't make much sense to me.