After a tough series in Cleveland, one of the Tigers’ biggest weaknesses became crystal clear. Two weeks into the season, Victor Martinez looks like a shell of his former self. A lot of Tigers fans have been clamoring for Victor to be bumped down further in the lineup since last season. If Martinez continues as he is, this may leave the Tigers with no choice but to adjust his place in the order. Even a temporary slide down until he finds a better rhythm might be a smart move. Thus far, he hasn’t produced at all this season and it’s starting to take a toll on the Tigers offensively.
In Martinez’ last eight games he’s 6-for-30, with two runs batted in, a walk, seven strikeouts, and sixteen men left on base. He also has just one multi-hit game and no extra base hits all season, but has three multi-strikeout games out of the twelve games he’s played. His batting average is currently .195 on the season. Not only is he not hitting, he’s not allowing himself to see the number of pitches per plate appearance he used to. The long at-bats and tough pitches fouled off haven’t been at all in evidence so far. His 2016 strikeout rate of 14.8, which was by far the highest of his career, already felt like a harbinger of doom. So far, he’s at 19.6 this year.
The concern has to focus, in part, on Martinez’ whiff percentage. He’s only swinging at an additional three percent of hard pitches this year versus last year, yet his whiff percentage on hard pitches is almost four percent higher than 2016, which was already his career high. He’s also struggling with off-speed pitches. He’s currently only five percent above a career low in swing percentage on off-speed pitches, but his whiff percentage is at a career high of almost 13 percent. He was only above seven percent whiff percentage on off-speed pitches in three previous seasons.
What this means is even though he’s swinging at almost the exact same amount of pitches, he’s missing the ball much more often than in previous seasons. It’s still early, of course, so he doesn’t have a ton of at-bats, but these numbers are concerning.
The lack of overall production, combined with Martinez’ diminished power so far this season should be enough evidence for the Tigers to consider bumping him down. Currently there are only seven hitters this season with at least 30 plate appearances and an isolated power of zero. One of those ten is Victor Martinez. Among those ten batters, Martinez has the highest batting average on balls in play by over 20 points with .250, so it’s hard to say he’s been unlucky when compared to those guys. Currently he’s on pace to set career worsts in: batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and strikeout percentage.
There’s even more evidence of his dwindling power. Martinez’ average exit velocity on contact is 88.9 mph, down from 90.8 mph last year. Even his estimated swing speed has dropped a full mile per hour since last season, according to Statcast. That loss of swing speed would explain the huge increase in whiff percentage. He’s not chasing pitches, or simply swinging more aggressively. He just can’t square the ball up to the same degree he once did.
Sure we’re only two weeks in the season, but if Martinez doesn’t start producing in the cleanup role pretty quickly, it’s time to consider other options. Potentially this is just an early season slump, but his age, contact and whiff rates all suggest a rapidly degrading skill set. If the power and drive in his swing are gone for good, he’ll have to radically change his approach. He needs to swing less and take a few pitches to try walking more, or at least strikeout less so he can see something he can put in play.
Obviously Brad Ausmus can’t just give up on him. But he’s quickly become a liability in the Tigers’ offense. As the cleanup hitter, his struggles may begin to impact the way Miguel Cabrera is pitched to. Ausmus may have no choice but to move him down the order while he tries to get his bat jump-started. Should things turn around for the Tigers’ designated hitter, he can always return to the cleanup role. Hopefully, Martinez can shake off this funk over the coming weeks. Otherwise, the Tigers will have to take decisive action before it drags down the offense.