Almost everyone disappointed at the plate for the 2017 Tigers. The team ranked in the bottom half of baseball at 4.5 runs per game, and while its 97 wRC+ looked slightly better, there is no denying that the team had problems offensively. These stats are buoyed by J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton, who were easily the best two batters for the Tigers last season. They will not be in Detroit in 2018.
There are still names on the roster who can make some noise, including Miguel Cabrera and Nicholas Castellanos, giving at least a little reason for optimism. One name who could also slide into this category is the player whose position literally includes the word “hitter.” Yet as the 2018 season comes into focus, few are excited about the prospects of Victor Martinez.
A bad situation
To be clear, nothing about Martinez’s 2017 season implies a monster year is incoming. He may not have been the weakest Tiger, but given his contract, position, and expectations, he was certainly one of the most disappointing. Hitting just .255 with 10 home runs, Martinez endured his worst season outside of his injury-riddled 2015. With more injuries adding up, he was barely average on most nights.
On top of health and productivity concerns, Martinez has been a negative influence in the clubhouse. He is not the type of leader one might expect from a veteran with his career, and he is due another $18 million this season. On paper it is hard to see what value he exactly adds to this team.
That being said, Martinez looks like he will have a role to play in 2018. General manager Al Avila has given no indication that the slugger will be released, and Martinez’s health issues seem to be resolving. No team would ever trade for the slumping player his age, so the Tigers have no choice but to run him out there. Thankfully the stakes are a little lower for Detroit given the rest of the roster, so the team has the flexibility to see what he has left in the tank.
A down year or the beginning of the end?
Victor Martinez will be a Tiger for one more year, and he will likely stay in the middle third of the batting order. 2017 was unquestionably bad, but does that ensure the same fate for 2018? Assuming he can avoid any (more) major injuries, it remains a real possibility that he sees a slight bounce back from last season.
While last year was one to forget for Martinez, he is only two years removed from a 119 wRC+ campaign, and his astounding 168 wRC+ effort in 2014 is still within recent memory. His batting average and home run total took a dive in 2017, but there were some areas to build upon. For example, his walk rate and strikeout rate were both improved form 2016, and his .280 BABIP implies some unluckiness.
The biggest area for optimism, however, rests in his contact stats. Martinez recorded a 39.9 percent hard contact rate in 2017, his best ever. His 12.4 soft contact rate was his lowest since 2014. He went the opposite way almost 27 percent of the time, above his 23.6 percent career average. And while he was more effective as a righty, his rates from the left side of the plate were decent too.
These numbers do not prove anything, but they show that Martinez still has a little left in the tank. He has major limitations, especially in the speed department, and will need to crush the ball in the right part of the park if he wants to accomplish anything more than a single.
Seasons like 2014 will not happen again for Martinez, but do not be shocked if this upcoming year looks more like 2016 than 2017 for him. The Tigers may feel stuck with their designated hitter, but he just might be a pleasant surprise.