The Detroit Tigers have a handful of glaring deficiencies going into the 2014 season that perhaps haven’t gotten the attention that they deserved (and that may be because they’re hard to “fix”). I’ll be looking into these in more detail over the remainder of the offseason – the first of the lot is Victor Martinez‘ legs. If you watched the Tigers play at all last year (or watched Martinez at any point during the past decade) you know that the man is slow. He doesn’t get good jumps, he doesn’t accelerate and he doesn’t really build up much in the way of speed on the basepaths – at least compared to other athletes.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Martinez’ speed negates the value of his bat, but it certainly does reduce it. It, of course, is NOT an issue of stealing bases – DHs, first basemen, catchers, these guys rarely have the build required for that. He gets fewer doubles and triples than he otherwise would – if he had the speed of (for example) Alex Avila. He’s less likely to be able to advance on a sacrifice, less likely to go first to third on a single and critically less likely to score from second base. Add it all together – like Fangraphs attempts to do with their BsR metric – and the effect is sizable. According to Fangraphs, -8.2 runs relative to an average DH. Those sorts of calculations are deliberately context-independent, but I’m sure if you dig deep you can recall at least that many runs that VMart appeared to cost the team with his inability to properly run.
The question is “what do you do with a guy that can’t run?” and the first, obvious answer is to get the damn guy in better condition. He does not, after all, need to run like a center fielder – it would mark an 8 run improvement if he could run like an average designated hitter. The second, less obvious answer is to be careful where you bat him in the order. At this point in his career, Martinez’ strongest tool is making contact – the power numbers are considerably down. He isn’t taking quite as many walks as he did in his youth, but the low K% combined with lots of hard-hit grounders and balls in the gaps leads to a high batting average and a very solid OBP. A lot of the time you would assume that a guy that doesn’t run well should be relied upon to drive runners in and there is obviously something to that. The issue is that VMart doesn’t hit a lot of homers anymore, so you’d like him to be in situations where he can drive in guys with singles and doubles. You’d also like to minimize, if possible, the risk of the double play since Martinez isn’t helping any there (and grounded into 23 last season).
What this is leading up to is this: Martinez can be an RBI guy, but Miguel Cabrera probably isn’t the guy that he should be driving in. Cabrera is a fantastic hitter, but in addition to the homers and doubles Cabrera actually singles A LOT and draws more walks than anyone else on the team. VMart – without much home run power – isn’t going to be able to drive him in from first base, and maybe not even from second with Cabrera’s speed. Put him in front of a speedier guy and you’ll see all those singles and doubles leading to sprints around the bases. If it’s a base-stealer that you have, with his high contact rate and selectivity Martinez is the ideal guy to have in the batters’ box.
Of course, Martinez is also arguably the Tigers’ second best “on base threat” after Cabrera himself and despite his struggles in going first-to-third it would make a big difference if the Tigers could bring him around more often. Despite putting up a .301 batting average and playing 159 games, Martinez managed a measly 68 runs scored in 2013. Sadly the only good way to ensure that a guy with legs like Martinez’ crosses home plate is to pound the ball over the fence and after trading Prince Fielder the Tigers are left with exactly one genuine home run threat – Miguel Cabrera. It stands to reason that Martinez’ value will be maximized not by hitting behind Miguel Cabrera and in front of Alex Avila but by batting 3rd in front of Miguel Cabrera and behind someone fleeter of foot, like Andy Dirks, Rajai Davis or Ian Kinsler.