Victor Martinez’s Unlikely and Unique Comeback

Victor Martinez is in his age-35 season. He spent nearly a decade in the majors playing catcher, the most physically demanding position for a hitter to play. He missed the entire 2012 season after tearing his ACL. Things like these are not exactly a recipe for success with regards to potential comeback scenarios for your typical hitter. Victor Martinez is not your a typical hitter.

In terms of just hitting, Martinez has been the best player in the American League this season. His .417 wOBA and 166 wRC+ are seventh-best in the entire MLB. Both his Steamer and ZiPS updated full-season projections have him finishing with the highest wRC+ of his career. This is pretty interesting, given the circumstances laid out above.

What’s even more interesting is how he’s doing it.

You might have come across a stat over the last couple weeks concerning Victor Martinez’s number of home runs compared to strikeouts. If I would have written this article sometime before Sunday, I could have written that Victor Martinez had an equal number of home runs and strikeouts. For a little while there, Victor Martinez actually had more home runs than strikeouts. As of this moment, he has 13 strikeouts and 12 homers, which doesn’t sound as cool but is still amazing when you consider that the average player strikes out about eight times as often as he hits a home run. Needless to say, that 13:12 ratio of whiffs to dingers leads the Major Leagues by a considerable margin. The next best is Albert Pujols, who has 26 strikeouts and 14 homers.

At 32 years old, before knee surgery, Martinez hit just 12 homers. At 34 years old, after knee surgery, Martinez hit 14. It seemed like Victor’s days as a home run hitter were as good as done. But this season, Martinez, at 35 years old, has already hit 12 home runs in 47 games — less than a third of the total he played in last year. And he’s done it the old-fashioned way: by just crushing fastballs. 10 of his 12 homers this season have come by means of the fastball.

Consider this table, containing the 10 players in the MLB with the highest isolated slugging percentages against fastballs and their respective strikeout percentages for the season:

Player ISO vs. FB K%
Troy Tulowitzki .424 13.4%
Nelson Cruz .392 21.9%
Jose Abreu .388 26.5%
Mark Reynolds .368 33.7%
Adam Dunn .360 28.3%
Victor Martinez .359 6.5%
Brandon Moss .333 19.6%
Edwin Encarnacion .328 16.0%
Yasiel Puig .319 19.1%
Carlos Gomez .316 26.0%

At the top of this table is Troy Tulowitzki, who has been a superhuman this season and leads the MLB not only in ISO, but just about every offensive category and also some of the defensive ones, too. What one finds in the next seven players are some of the game’s elite pure-power bats in Cruz, Abreu, Reynolds, Dunn, Moss and Encarnacion. These are guys who, especially in the case of Dunn, Reynolds and Abreu, make their multi-million dollar salary by hitting the crap out of fastballs and basically doing nothing else. It is not surprising to find names like these on this list. It is surprising to find Martinez on this list.

Though Martinez has always had some pop in his bat, he has made his career by being one of the game’s best contact hitters. While guys like Dunn, Reynolds and Abreu sacrifice contact for power, as evidenced by their high strikeout rates in the table above, Martinez has crushed heaters on par with the game’s top sluggers while actually reducing his whiffs, as evidenced by his laughably out-of-place 6.5% strikeout rate, the lowest in the entire MLB. This has helped lead to a .368 batting average on fastballs, matching his ISO as the sixth-best figure in the MLB.

Sometimes, you worry about players losing bat speed as they age. When pitchers are throwing 95+ miles per hour, the margin of error is small. Mere fractions of a second in a hitter’s bat speed can be the difference between hitting a ball out of the park and swinging right through it. And when an aging hitter has lost that bat speed, it’s gone.

If it hasn’t been made clear already, Victor Martinez is not losing his bat speed. To help make that point even more clear comes a tweet from from Beyond the Box Score:


It would be one thing if Martinez were simply punishing over-the-middle, low-90’s mistake fastballs. What’s more impressive about what Victor Martinez is doing is that he’s still got the bat speed to punish fastballs with elite velocity.

Visual learner? Observe:

victor1

By this point I’d say it’s pretty well established what Victor Martinez is doing to fastballs this season and how it’s turned him into a power hitter. But let’s go back to that strikeout rate and plate discipline for a second. As I mentioned earlier, Martinez has the best strikeout to home run ratio in the MLB, by a pretty considerable margin. What he also has is the MLB’s best walk to strikeout ratio, also by a pretty considerable margin. Martinez has 18 walks to his 13 strikeouts this year, making him one of just 10 players to have walked more than he’s struck out. Oh, and don’t forget about that thing where he never strikes out looking.

Martinez has always had elite plate discipline and contact skills. This year, he’s figured out how to hit for power while actually improving his contact and plate discipline skills. Throw him a breaking pitch out of the strike zone and he just won’t swing at it. Throw him a fastball in the strike zone and he’ll make you pay. It’s tough to get Victor Martinez out. Almost every player in baseball would love to walk and hit dingers more often than they strike out. But only Victor Martinez, at 35, is actually doing it.



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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.


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dang
Guest
dang

I was just thinking the other day – I believe Barry Bonds had a season with more home runs than strike outs.

Has anyone else ever accomplished this feat?
Has anyone else with more than 10 home runs accomplished this feat?

If Victor Martinez was able to accomplish this, that’d be “pretty neat”.

Mike
Member
Mike

DiMaggio did it all the time

Ned
Guest
Ned

Musial ’48 (and a bunch of other close calls)
DiMaggio a bunch
Gehrig ’34
Ted Williams twice

DNA+
Guest
DNA+

DiMaggio nearly did it for his career, which is pretty crazy: 361 HR, 369 SO.

Gabriel
Guest
Gabriel

In fact, this has even been posted here in the earlier days of Fangraphs:
http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/more-home-runs-than-strikeouts/

Short story: Bonds and George Brett are the only two guys to do so while hitting 20 or more homers in the last 50 years (Bonds had 45 in 2004, Brett had 24 in 1980). Before that, you’ve got to go back to 1956 and earlier, when both Yogi Berra and Ted Kluszewski did so several times, among others.

Anon
Guest
Anon

Was playing with b-ref PI and since 1961 there have been a lot of guys who had more HR than K but almost all of them had just a couple handfuls of PA (either pitchers or guys up for a week or two). The only other guy besides Bonds and Brett to do it with more than 70 PA was Gates Brown in 1968 and he only had 6 HR/4K and 104 PA

Andy
Guest
Andy

Stan Musial once had more triples than Ks. Never expect any batter to do that again.

wanderer
Guest
wanderer

Mattingly did it quite a few times himself.

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