Víctor Martínez played his final major league game this past Saturday in front of the Tigers faithful at Comerica Park. With the Tigers long out of playoff contention, V-Mart had the opportunity to go out on his own terms, and manager Ron Gardenhire was more than willing to accommodate him. Martínez played first base, his first time on the field since he played the same position in late May 2016.
Martínez played just one inning, but that was all he needed. He got the opportunity to participate in an out on a grounder to Pete Kozma at the top of the first. In the bottom of the first, Martínez singled off of Jakob Junis. Because baseball never wants to make any sense, it was an infield single. Gardenhire saw the opportunity for Martínez to go out on a high note, so even though it was just the first inning, he pulled him. Ronny Rodríguez came in to pinch run.
V-Mart proceeded to the dugout to lots of fanfare. Fellow countrymen Salvador Pérez and Alcides Escobar gave him hugs. Teammate Miguel Cabrera even came up from his rehab in Florida for this special day. I’m sure there was no keeping the future Hall of Famer and greatest ever Venezuelan player from Martínez’s special day.
The Tigers held a pre-game ceremony for Martínez before the game. I suggest checking out Brandon Day’s article over at Bless You Boys if you want to learn more from the perspective of a Tigers fan.
Martínez is coming off a disappointing season where he hit only .251/.297/.353 as a DH, and he would have been heading into free agency entering his age-40 season. Perhaps he would have retired anyway, but the timing certainly worked out well.
Looking back at V-Mart’s time in the majors, he certainly had a nice career. He hit .295/.360/.455 with a 117 wRC+. That is excellent for a player who spent over 840 games at catcher. He also had outstanding contact rates for this era, striking out in less than 11 percent of his plate appearances. Sadly, he was never good defensively, which is why the Tigers barely played him there when he first signed with them. After he tore his ACL, his days playing catcher were pretty much over.
Martínez just finished his second consecutive four-year deal with the Tigers, and it predictably did not go as well as his first four-year deal, even when considering that he only played three out of those four years due to recovery from an ACL tear. He hit well in 2016, but well below average in 2015, 2017, and 2018. It was of little consequence anyway. The Tigers finished in last place in 2015, had the worst record in baseball in 2017, and only a historically poor division is keeping them from last place this year.
The first contract that the Tigers handed Martínez went much better. He hit .330/.380/.470 in his first year on the Tigers as the team’s primary DH. He missed all of 2012 due to the aforementioned ACL tear, but he was able to play a full season in 2013. He was likely still feeling the effects of that injury and the missed time, because his wOBA dropped 29 points from his 2011 season.
Then in 2014, Martínez has the best offensive season of his career by a wide margin. He hit .335/.409/.565 with 32 HR, good for a 168 wRC+. All those numbers were career highs for him. He led the AL in OBP and wRC+. What is particularly striking is that his 5.5 bWAR was the highest of his career, higher than any of the years he was a full time catcher! The difference between the positional adjustments of catcher and DH is over 20 runs! That is how much better of a hitter he was that year compared to any year he was the primary catcher! This comparison does not work at FanGraphs, however, but his 4.6 fWAR in 2014 comes very close to his 2005 (4.7 fWAR) and 2007 (5.4 fWAR) seasons.
It was fortunate that Martínez had a career year in a contract year, especially since he was going into his age-36 season. It was also fortunate that the late Tigers owner Mike Ilitch was never shy about opening his checkbook.
Martínez finishes his career with 32.2 bWAR, so even though that makes him one of the top Venezuelan baseball players ever — coincidentally it isn’t far off of the 38.7 bWAR from former Tiger Magglio Ordóñez — making the Hall of Fame ballot is likely the closest he will ever get to having a plaque in Cooperstown. I was curious to see how much DHing as opposed to catching hurt his career total, so I tried to estimate what his career WAR total would be had he caught somewhat regularly in Detroit.
Now this is a very rough estimate, so bear with me. Let’s assume that Martínez caught during his seven seasons in Detroit. He would probably have gotten more time off, so let’s give him six runs per season for the positional adjustment instead of the full nine. So instead of losing -79 runs from DHing so much, he gets 42 runs. That is a difference of 121 runs, which rounds out to 12 extra wins. A 44 career WAR still falls far short of the JAWS standard for catchers, and that number assumes average defense, which V-Mart never had even in his younger days.
Víctor Martínez walks away from the game with a career to be proud of, a career that just about any player would be envious of. Of course he is no Miguel Cabrera, but he will be known as one of the best position players to ever come out of Venezuela.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.