What is there to say about the season Victor Martinez put together that hasn't already been said? It was a superlative season at the plate that will long be remembered by Tigers fans whether it was his final season in Detroit or not.
We can certainly try to nitpick to satisfy some "process" of analysis in order to get to the grade this series assigns each player. Martinez can't run a lick on the bases and he provides little to no defensive value. Fine. Consider that stuff covered.
If Martinez does leave the Tigers it will go down as one of the better free agent signings the Tigers have made since the end of the Reserve Clause. This despite missing the entire 2012 season with an ACL tear and struggling mightily upon his return for a half-season in 2013. Indeed, "V-Mart" really produced for only 2 1/2 seasons of his four year hitch in Detroit.
But those two and a half seasons were chock full of incredible memories and long stretches of offensive brilliance from both sides of the plate. Martinez was a rock in the middle of the order. He also gets credit via media types and his managers for being an amazing teammate and clubhouse leader who brings teams together. We can't really rate those "soft factors" but in a six-month grind of a season one has to believe it's important to have as many good guys around as possible.
Martinez is the kind of player who actually deserves the hackneyed designation that unfortunately gets pinned on some far more pedestrian types: "professional hitter". Martinez is the epitome of the professional hitter. An incredible contact hitter when needed, power from both sides of the plate, disciplined strike zone awareness, and the ability to use all fields. This list only scratches the surface of the enjoyment he provides to those who have had the good fortune to watch him swing a bat in Detroit.
The best part? In 2014, he took it all to a new level at age 35.
The 2014 Campaign
Martinez smacked an Opening Day homer off of James Shields to help propel the Tigers to their first of 13 victories over the runner-up Royals. Little did anyone know that it was the first of what would be a career high homer binge in 2014 of 32 dingers. It also kicked off an award winning season that would earn him legitimate and deserved mention in MVP discussions in the non-Trout category.
Martinez would knock 21 of those homers by the All-Star Game and only a July power-swoon (one homer, .386 slugging average for the month) stopped him from pushing into the top five in the American League in the big-fly category. Otherwise Martinez spent 2014 morphing into the cleanup presence the Tigers hoped they had signed in Prince Fielder but never really received.
The praise can come from multiple directions. We can cite every stat. The league leading on-base percentage, the top-tier slugging percentage, the low strikeout rate, tremendous ratings in metrics like wOBA and wRC+, the numbers accrued from both sides of the plate. It all runs together and becomes a praise festival. So let's slam on the brakes and simplify it.
Simply put, Martinez hit from start to finish save one slow stretch for about 16 games in July. He was money in the bank for a lineup that needed him desperately. V-Mart was piping hot for stretches of the season where Miguel Cabrera was struggling and he came through in key situations time and again throughout the season.
Martinez had an fWAR of 4.4, which is a number kept in check by not playing defense very often or particularly well. But in an age defined by metrics, it just "seemed" that Martinez had a bigger effect in 2014 then his WAR. You can't define "presence" in the metaphysical sense and, indeed, I've probably ridiculed more than one person who has tried. I'm not talking about the "Jim Rice was feared" angle here necessarily. Martinez, however, has presence. He impacted game after game. He loomed as an obstacle for opposing pitchers impacting strategy and tactics employed on a near nightly basis.
In some sense it's probably just the .409 on-base percentage that is a major presence all by itself. Just knowing an outwill be hard to come by has plenty of value at most points in a ballgame. But if it's more than that, it is likely the confidence that filled the airwaves, the grandstand, and likely the dugout when Martinez strode into the batter's box this season. He gave us that sense. It was a sight to behold.
I toyed with the idea of putting a "minus" sign on this one. The glove work and the baserunning could ding his portfolio I suppose. I'm not going there, however. Martinez is a DH and he won the Silver Slugger at that position in 2014. The man gave a career performance from a career that was already pretty accomplished.
He put on a nightly clinic. It was an instant classic movie. It was a graduate level course in hitting. It was just about any positive metaphor you'd like to conjure up.
That's an 'A' and there isn't much else to be said about it.
It all comes down to free agency. As of this writing, Martinez had turned down the Tigers' $15.3 million qualifying offer and will be on the open market for his services. Predictably, his name is being bandied about as a match for nearly every club in the American League. There are only a few clubs so locked in at DH where Martinez isn't a fit and an upgrade.
There have been multiple reports that Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski views the re-signing of V-Mart as a team priority heading into the MLB Hot Stove season. This should shock no one. The Tigers would certainly feel the loss in 2015 if they venture into the season without a reasonable facsimile of Martinez in the middle of their order. Finding a hitter 85 to 90 percent as accomplished as Martinez will not be as easy as ordering some new running shoes from zappos.com. Much easier to just bring him back.
Age is the key factor. It weighs on the decision heavily. For as good as Martinez was in 2014, it will be a very hard act to follow and live up to as he advances into his late 30s. Which club will fork over the fourth year and commit to him until he hits sits on the brink of age 40? Is Martinez a good bet to age well like a David Ortiz or age more commonly and stop hitting like a Paul Konerko?
The one area almost certainly to regress is the homer production. Martinez just has never been the guy he was in the season's first half. Indeed, those 21 first-half homers would have been a very solid power season in total for him most years. He homered on a career high 16 percent of his flyballs on the season. That was six points over his career number and well over twice the rate he had achieved in his prior Detroit seasons. That rate was amazing in '14 and is likely a good bet to bounce back toward career norms in 2015 (I'll put his over/under on homers next season at 19.5 if he plays in Detroit).
Will the Tigers go the distance and do what it takes to keep Martinez in the fold? Do they feel they "must" sign him no matter the cost in order to win a fifth straight AL Central crown?
Or will Dombrowski draw a line in the sand that he will not cross contractually for his DH? If that line exists, where does it sit? Is Dombrowski ready to challenge himself and his minions to pocket the draft pick and pursue a new course if Martinez were to sign in Seattle or Chicago? Because it will be a huge challenge and accomplished batsmen like Martinez aren't readily available each and every offseason.
The bet here is that Martinez gets the fourth year and he gets it from the Tigers. Mike Ilitch and Dave Dombrowski aren't going to let a player of Martinez's stature walk away easily. They'll swallow hard, nod their heads, and worry about the end of the deal later.
The immediate future for Martinez looks bright enough right now. The Tigers will gladly take a good-to-great V-Mart season in 2015 as they hopefully pursue that long-sought World Series ring. If they secure the ring or even make a hard charge at one again, watching Martinez age gracefully or not will be worth the cost of having done business.