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Victor Martinez: The Best Fielding First Baseman in the Majors (No, Really)

Note: I have no idea if I’m the first to do this, but quite frankly I don’t care.

It’s been one crazy season for Victor Martinez. In the first half, he was one of the worst players in baseball, with an 88 wRC+ and -0.6 WAR in 392 plate appearances; however, this was largely due to a .269 BABIP, and when his BABIP increased (to .372), his wRC+ and WAR (140 and 1.1, respectively, in 223 plate appearances) increased with it. This, though, is not the focus of my writing today. I chose, instead, to focus on one of the oddest statistics of the 2013 season, and one that truly proves that this blog is aptly named.

V-Mart has never been regarded as a good fielding catcher, and the stats confirm this–since he entered the league in 2002, he’s third-last among catchers in DRS and fifth-last in stolen base runs saved. He is, however, a (comparatively) much better fielding first baseman, with a career UZR/150 of 2.3¹ that would rank 12th out of 19 first baseman this year if he qualified. Throughout this season, Martinez has been mainly a DH², with 128 games started there, and 17 started in the field; of those 17, 11 have been at the 3-spot. He has played 97 innings at first base, which comes out to a little less than 9 innings per start there. So, obviously, we’re dealing with a very small sample size here; and yet, the larger point remains:

Victor Martinez has the highest UZR/150 among first baseman with at least 90 innings.

Surprised? Well, you probably shouldn’t be, as you read the title of this article before perusing the text that lies beneath it, so you probably should’ve seen this coming. In a larger sense, though, you probably are surprised, as this isn’t exactly Albert Pujols we’re talking about here. As I outlined above, Martinez isn’t a particularly bad fielding first baseman⁴, and this is obviously a ridiculously minuscule sample size⁵, but he’s certainly not this good. What, then, has changed? 

First, let’s look at his non-UZR advanced fielding stats. He has had 19 balls hit to his defensive zone (officially, Balls In Zone, or BIZ), and has made a play on 13 of them (just Plays–I guess they ran out of anagrams), for a Revised Zone Rating (RZR) of .684. That figure, if he had enough innings to qualify, would be the worst in the majors by a long shot–the lowest right now is Lyle Overbay, with a .766 RZR–and is also the worst figure of his career.

One thing he is doing, however, is making a lot of Out-Of-Zone plays, or OOZ. Although it isn’t included in UZR, OOZ is still an interesting statistic: it measures the amount of plays a fielder has successfully made when out of his defensive “zone”. Martinez has five OOZs in 97 innings this year; if he were to have played, say, ten times that amount, or 970 innings (about 110 games), he would have 50 OOZs, far more than the current leader, Anthony Rizzo, who has 41. In this regard, though, Martinez’s performance isn’t that different from his career as a whole, as he has 49 career OOZs in 1299.1 career innings (in 163 games) at first.

It’s when we look at the stats that go into UZR that we start to see some key differences. In case you need a refresher (or are simply unedumacated), UZR is composed of four parts: Double Play runs (DPR), Outfield Arm runs (ARM), Range runs (RngR) and Error runs (ErrR). Martinez doesn’t have any DPRs, as he hasn’t initiated any double plays, and because he has yet to play in the outfield⁶, he has no ARMs (his career values for these two are 0 and -0.2, respectively).

It then comes down to the other two components: RngR and ErrR. For his career, he has values of 1.9 and 0.4, respectively, for these stats; in 2013, however, he has values of 1.2 and 0.3, respectively. Again, if we spread these out over ten times his current playing time at first (to get 970 innings, or ~110 games), we get a 12 RngR and a 3 ErrR. While the latter figure is rather formidable–it would lead the league this year–it is the former that truly sets him apart. An⁷ RngR of 12 as a first baseman would be the fifth-highest ever; yes, UZR only goes back to 2002, but that’s still saying something. The only better seasons would be Pujols in 2007 (21.0)(!), Adrian Gonzalez last year (14.6), Travis Lee in 2003 (13.4), and Justin Morneau in 2005 (12.2).

Obviously, this whole exercise should be taken with a grain of salt. 97 innings of defense is an incredibly small sample size, and Martinez’s track record suggests this is almost definitely a fluke. What, then, does this mean? Fluke or not, the Tigers continue to start the ironically-named Prince Fielder and his -4.9 UZR (-4.8 UZR/150) at first base; this point was brought up earlier this year. Despite the welldocumented historical awesomeness of their rotation (to say nothing of that guy over at the hot corner), the Tigers would only get the 3rd seed if the season was to end today, and their defense at first base is a big reason why. While his health concerns would make a full-time move to first unfeasible, playing him there a little more often (at least more than 11 times) certainly couldn’t hurt.

Overall, though, what do I take away from this? Well, as I said earlier


¹It should also be noted that his career UZR (not adjusted for playing time) is 2.1, as he has played roughly a full season’s worth of games (163, to be exact) at first base over the course of his career.

²Though you wouldn’t know it from looking at his FanGraphs page (which identifies him as a catcher, despite him having caught all of 15 innings this year).

³Really, SpellCheck? “Should’ve” isn’t a word? You know, I don’t recall aksing for your opinion, SpellCheck.

⁴Although to be fair, he did do this.

⁵Especially since this is a defensive stat, for which a sample size of three years is recommended for the best analysis.

⁶Don’t tell Leyland I said that–he might take it as advice.

⁷A or An? I suppose it depends on if you say the anagram or the full name.