As frustrating as 2017 has been for the Detroit Tigers, it can be hard to fault the offense for the team’s shortcomings. The runs may only be at league average, but a 101 team wRC+ ranks seventh in baseball, putting the Tigers on pace to finish in the top 10 for their eighth-straight year. At the end of the day it comes down to scoring runs, but advanced metrics are a big fan of the team’s performance at the plate.
Since joining the Tigers, Victor Martinez has been a large part of this offensive output, hitting .302/.362/.465 with 124 wRC+ and 96 home runs between 2011 and 2016. He earned himself a four-year, $68 million contract after the 2014 season right before turning 36, which was essentially doomed to end poorly from the very beginning.
Tigers fans hoped for the best, but saw Martinez struggle in an injury-filled 2015. He recovered nicely last season, posting a .303 average and 120 wRC+, but every at bat he looked more and more frail. While some fans believed there may be one more good season left in the veteran’s career, 2017 has proved the opposite.
From a statistics standpoint, the numbers have not been encouraging for Martinez this season. His .252 batting average is on pace to be the second-lowest of his career after 2015, and his strikeout rate is approaching last season’s career-high, sitting over 14 percent. His 84 wRC+ only lands above Jose Iglesias and Andrew Romine among Tigers regulars and just one designated hitter — Albert Pujols — has posted a lower fWAR this season. He also has been atrocious on the base paths, sitting in the bottom 25 of Fangraphs’ base running statistic among qualified hitters.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in all of Martinez’s struggles has been his inability to hit left-handers this season. Since coming to Detroit he has crushed lefties, hitting .314 again them with 133 wRC+. Of course his .298 average and 120 wRC+ against righties is not too shabby either, but Victor has always exceled against southpaws.
However, this has not been the case in 2017. A struggling .264/.316/.330 line against left-handers has made Martinez more of a liability than a weapon. His 74 wRC+ is easily the lowest of his career against lefties and sits even lower than his below-average 88 wRC+ against righties. Contributing to these problems are his 55.1 percent ground ball rate and 29.5 percent hard hit rate, both worse than his career norms.
As a result, Martinez has found himself batting sixth in the order, the lowest spot he has occupied with any regularity in his career. The average major league sixth hitter bats .255 with 96 wRC+, so Martinez is right along these lines. Unfortunately, the Tigers did not have “average sixth hitter” in mind when they signed him for $17 million a year.
The Tigers have endured many issues this season, so Martinez’s struggles were not the determining factor for the team’s fate. As he plays out the last year of his contract next season, Detroit is unlikely to seriously compete, so again Martinez’s offensive weakness will not matter too greatly. Still, it is sad to see a formerly dominant player go out with such a whimper. The writing was on the wall when he signed the deal, but watching it unfold still stings.