It can be hard to justify major changes when a club is riding along at 17-10 while doing just fine in the early season standings. It is also very easy to overreact to a small sample in baseball and venture into kneejerk moves that typically solve nothing that couldn't have been solved easier via patience.
However, it seems to be time to put the cards on the table. The Tigers' offense is stagnant and quite a bit of the problem stems from the inability of Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez to provide a consistent threat from the fourth and fifth spots in the batting order. Change has to be in the offing or else the Tigers plan to live with the massive sinkhole in their lineup for the time being. Flipping around the batting order isn't a surefire fix by any means, but options need to be explored.
The question is now in the hands of Brad Ausmus. Will a change in the Tigers batting order do something to shake up the all-too-often-moribund Tigers offense? Is there a reasonable change that can be made to boost production in the middle of the order?
The lineup has had its moments, especially early on against a weak Twins pitching staff, where it lit up the scoreboard. But starting during a series win in Pittsburgh their offense has shown it can be held in check on a consistent basis. The Tigers have scored two runs or less in 12 of their last 20 games (12 of 27 overall).
When Ken "The Hawk" Harrelson proclaimed the Tigers lineup to be the very best the American League had to offer during Tuesday's broadcast it was nearly laugh inducing. Sure, Hawk, it might be a great offense in time. But it hasn't been very often of late. Quite simply the "Martinez Dyad Vortex" is sucking up potential rallies and failing to put an exclamation point on many innings. This deep hole in a vital part of the lineup is killing run production for Detroit on a steady basis. It's one thing for Nick Castellanos and Alex Avila to be struggling at the back end of the lineup, but those who inhabit the upper half of the lineup need be counted on and that's in question.
"The Bell Tolls for Vic's Knee"
For Victor Martinez we all know the score. His knee is hampering him badly. Simply dodging a routine inside pitch from Jeff Samardzija on Tuesday put a hitch in Martinez's giddy-up and stopped play for a few minutes. There is a definite issue. For a player with a history of knee injuries and surgeries, its a massive concern. This doesn't appear to be a slump that everyone would have to simply shrug off and say "VMart will figure it out."
Is it reasonable to believe that his knee will see significant improvement while he continues to play? This seems dubious. Ausmus seems to believe, at least publicly, that Martinez will fight through it. There is no doubt that Martinez is doing everything in his power to fight out of the quagmire he's in right now.
But it's plainly obvious to see that the knee has sapped all his power. He's taking lunging rips mainly with his upper body at some pitches and producing modest contact. Warning tracks aren't even threatened.
Martinez is getting challenged by a fastball nearly 60 percent of the time (the highest rate he's seen during his time in Detroit) and he's overmatched. His "hard hit ball percentage" has fallen drastically as one might imagine after being among the league leaders during his epic 2014 masterpiece offensive season.
For a while it seemed that perhaps he could survive as a singles hitter in Wee Willie Keeler-mode trying to "hit ‘em where they ain't," but that has now dwindled as well. Martinez can't run a lick, so playing slap-hitter isn't really in the cards.
Martinez took the collar on Tuesday night once again. The performance dropped his line deeper into Ray Oyler territory at .203/.316/.215. It's a sad sight to see and, frankly, shocking. Despite the knee issues and concerns it was easy to just assume Martinez would find a way to get by on natural talent even if his body was betraying him. However, he's not. How much longer can the Tigers decide to live with absolutely no production from the cleanup slot? With Ian Kinsler and Miguel Cabrera on the bases at a frequent clip, something must be done to keep the train moving from the four-hole in the lineup.
The Gauntlet has been thrown down for J.D.
Exacerbating the issue of Victor Martinez's inability to produce has been his fellow Martinez. J.D. has been struggling mightily forming a gaping chasm in the Tigers lineup after Cabrera. "JDM" has now struck out in 20 of his last 40 at-bats.
JDM just appears to not be seeing the ball well right now. He's swinging through high heat and waving at terrible breaking stuff well out of the strike zone. The "0-2" count is his seemingly constant companion of late.
Martinez does have six homers and six doubles thus far on the campaign. If there is a bright spot, there is still power when he makes contact. However his contact rate is plummeting from his tour de force summer in 2014. He's striking out 33% percent of the time while walking at a pitiful 3.7 percent rate.
A scary stat for Martinez can be found at Fangraphs. JDM is getting out while seeing more pitches in the strike zone than he did a year ago. It's not solely a matter of him fishing for poor pitches and needing a dose of discipline. That would surely help, but to see an increase of pitches in the zone right now may tell us that his issues run deeper. He's just getting beat. His swinging strike rate is up and his percentage of seeing a first pitch strike is way up. He's being challenged by pitchers right now and he's not meeting it very often.
It's a troubling development. Quite a bit of the Tigers' hopes this year were pinned on JDM's summer of fun in '14 being legit. He started off in fine enough fashion in the early weeks, but this slump looks very disconcerting based on the optics and the numbers.
Certainly JDM's season is only a month in. A hot stretch could easily change perceptions in a matter of days. Unlike VMart and questions surrounding his injury, JDM is healthy to our knowledge. That makes it easier to hope there is a solution looming for him via an adjustment and hard work with Tigers hitting coach Wally Joyner. We haven't reached the point of "panic" or the point of searching for a replacement. But the point of being concerned is officially here until further notice.
Will Ausmus be passive or proactive?
So where does Ausmus go? MLB.com's Jason Beck has quoted him as saying the Martinez boys will just have to "hit their way through it." That's fine. It's not like Ausmus has options for wholesale changes. The "right play" could easily be a big dose of patience and belief in his guys.
But it would seem logical to move Yoenis Cespedes up one or two notches in the batting order to get him immediately after Cabrera. Cespedes' power game would seem to be a nice fit right now for a club that hasn't seen too many extra-base hits break open games of late.
If Jose Iglesias continues to spray hits all over the place perhaps he should be moved into the second spot with Kinsler moving down in the order after Cespedes. This would seem to be grouping the Tigers best offensive players in a cluster that could possibly generate a few rallies which have been missing.
The argument often gets made that the Tigers would have too much of a run of right-handed batters and Victor Martinez is needed to break up that stretch. Usually this would be completely true. But if Martinez is hitting around .100 as a left-handed batter, does it really matter? Wouldn't nearly any competent right-handed bat beat that by a fair margin? It would seem so. For that matter, Martinez is hitting better from the right-side in limited at-bats. If his knee is less troublesome from that side, could it really hurt to think about taking all at-bats as a righty? This ploy worked for Shane Victorino in Boston a couple of years ago as he fought through an injured campaign.
Everyone is rooting for a re-emergence from both Martinez men. It would solve plenty of ills and make Ausmus' life much easier by not having to adjust his lineup and soothe any hurt feelings. Certainly the elder Martinez has earned the benefit of the doubt for a bit longer after his yeoman work over the years. That benefit has to have an expiration date however.
A contending club's offense can't continue to post one or two runs on a such a continual basis. However, as long as two players in such vital spots are producing like they have been, the bet made here is it's going to continue until a proactive move is made by Tigers management.