Victor Martinez of the Detroit Tigers is in the news this morning after leaving Game Three of the American League Championship Series with a leg cramp yesterday. This seems like the perfect time to finish the Prospect Retrospective for Martinez that several readers asked me to do over the last month.
Victor Martinez was signed by the Cleveland Indians as a free agent out of Venezuela in 1996. Initially unheralded, he spent 1997 and 1998 playing in the Venezuelan Summer League. In 1999 he jumped up to Mahoning Valley in the New York-Penn League, hitting .277/.346/.366 in 235 at-bats. He didn't have much power at that point and didn't stand out as a hot prospect, but he controlled the strike zone reasonably and drew credit for solid defensive tools, although he needed more polish.
2000 was a tough year: he missed most of the campaign with shoulder problems, although he did show some intriguing ability by hitting .371 in 21 games for Columbus in the South Atlantic League. 2001 was better: healthy again, he .329/.394/.488 with 10 homers, 39 walks, and 60 strikeouts in 114 games for Kinston in the Carolina League.
His slash line was pretty and his overall production was very strong given the context, with an OPS 31 percent better than league average. Although he made 16 errors behind the plate and threw out a below average 29% of runners, he was still considered quite promising on defense. His arm wasn't as strong as it had been pre-injury, but he was mobile and called a good game. I gave him a Grade B- in my 2002 book, but noted that he needed to be watched closely.
2002 was even better: he hit .336/.417/.576 with 40 doubles, 22 homers, 58 walks, and just 62 strikeouts in 121 games for Double-A Akron. He led the Eastern League in OPS, SLG, OBP, and batting average. Not surprisingly, he was named league MVP. He held his own in a September trial with the Indians, hitting .281/.333/.406 in 12 games. The only negative was defense. He blocked well and was considered a top field general and leader for the pitching staff, but his throwing remained problematic, his arm not having fully recovered from the '00 injuries.
Still, his bat made him a Grade A prospect. I ranked Martinez as the Number Three hitting prospect in baseball, behind Mark Teixeira and Joe Mauer.(who was in A-ball at the time).
Martinez split 2003 between Triple-A Buffalo (.328/.395/.474 in 74 games) and Cleveland (.289/.345/.333 in 49 games, exceeding rookie qualifications with 159 at-bats). There was some whining that he didn't hit for power right away in the majors, but that disappeared quickly after he hit .283/.359/.492 with 23 homers and 38 doubles in 2004.
As you know, Martinez has been a very productive hitter ever since. Injuries and age eventually moved him over to first base and now DH, but when healthy he has continued to hit extremely well. In 11 seasons with the Indians, Red Sox, and Tigers, Martinez has hit .303/.369/.464, OPS+121, wRC+120. From age 25 on, he has hit over .300 every year except when injured in 2008, remarkably consistent production.
According to fWAR, his best season was 2007 with a 5.4 mark and a .301/.374/.505 line, 25 homers, 40 doubles, and 114 RBI. Career-wise, his fWAR stands at 28.8.
His value has sagged as he becomes less viable defensively and fWAR isn't wild about his 2013 season, giving him a mere 0.9 as a mostly-DH this year, although his standard numbers (.301/.355/.430, 14 homers, 36 doubles, wRC+112) are nothing to complain about. At age 34 he is on the downslope of his career, but his bat is still solid.
In career terms, Martinez Sim Score Comp List through age 34 looks weird and includes many non-catchers: Rich Aurilia, Barry Larkin, Carlos Baerga, Alvin Dark, Chase Utley, Carlos Guillen, Red Kress, Gabby Hartnett, Mike Lowell, and Ken Caminiti. This is an All-Star catcher who hit more like an All-Star infielder.
In WAR terms, his 28.8 mark ranks him 43rd all-time among catchers, in the neighborhood with Elston Howard (31.3), Walker Cooper (29.8), Jack Clements (28.9), Mickey Tettleton (28.5), Mike Scioscia (28.5), and Terry Steinbach (28.0) among catchers with a similar amount of playing time, although the way that each of those guy generated their WAR value differed.
As a prospect, Martinez featured an attractive combination of plate discipline, a low strikeout rate, batting average, on-base ability, and moderate power that increased over time as he matured. His defense wasn't great, especially after he hurt his arm, but it was good enough, and that's exactly the player he became in the majors.