By Will Burchfield
Victor Martinez has hit fourth in the Tigers’ lineup in 56 of the 57 games he’s started this season — that’s good for 236 plate appearances.
Here’s where he ranks among the 11 MLB hitters with at least 200 plate appearances in the cleanup spot.
AVG: .254 (10th)
SLG: .373 (Last)
OPS: .704 (Last)
ISO: .120 (Last)
HR: 5 (10th)
RBI: 28 (9th)
It gets worse.
V-Mart is one of just four players in the majors with at least 230 plate appearances in the four hole this season. The others are Arizona’s Jake Lamb, Oakland’s Khris Davis and Cincinnati’s Adam Duvall. The latter three all have at least 15 home runs and a slugging percentage north of .540. Martinez, again, has five home runs and a slugging percentage of .373.
In many ways, it’s unconscionable that he continues to hit cleanup for the Tigers.
“No one questioned it in the month of May, though, did they? He hit pretty well in the month of May,” said Brad Ausmus on Wednesday night.
Last month, Martinez hit .318 with four home runs, 16 RBI, a .523 slugging percentage and a .936 OPS. But he’s bottomed out in June, reigniting talks of removing him from the four hole — a conversation that isn’t just stirring within the Tigers fan base.
“I’ve discussed it with coaches before,” said Ausmus. “That’s what makes baseball fun to talk about or interesting to a lot of people, because there’s not necessarily one way to do things. So we discuss it too. They’re not the only people discussing it.”
Ausmus’ current objection to stripping V-Mart of cleanup duties is that the Tigers offense has been hot of late.
“Have we been hitting as a team? Prior to us scoring one run (Wednesday) night, have we been hitting as a team?” he said.
Since being shut out on May 30, the Tigers have averaged 5.8 runs over a 12-game stretch. Martinez, of course, has hit fourth in each of those games.
Those numbers look good, but they glaze over the fact that the Tigers’ offense is extremely inconsistent. Runs often come in bunches, or they don’t come at all. On Tuesday night, for example, the Tigers put up six runs on nine hits, but six of those hits and all six of those runs came in one inning.
“The offense has been inconsistent really since I arrived,” said Ausmus, whose first year as manager was 2014. “We rely on the home run, so if we’re hitting home runs we score, if we don’t hit home runs it’s a little bit tougher to score runs. That’s pretty simple.”
If that’s the case, then why is a guy with five home runs occupying such a crucial spot in the order?
“He also gets on base at a decent clip. He’s at .250 (average) but he’s on base at a decent clip. So people hitting behind him can still drive him in,” Ausmus explained.
That’s true, to an extent. The 38-year-old Martinez still draws his share of walks, the one category in which he measures up with his counterparts. Among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances in the four spot, V-Mart ranks second with a BB:K ratio of 0.7.
But he’s also a station-to-station base runner, so the value of having him on base isn’t all that high. Very rarely does he score from second on a single, and he almost never comes around from first on a double.
There are those who suggest that Ausmus doesn’t have the guts to move a prideful veteran down the order. There are others, in a similar vein, who suggest that Martinez wouldn’t be able to take it, that he’d snap, that he’d shut down and lose focus.
“He’d be fine,” said Ausmus. “I certainly would talk to him about before I did it, but he’d be fine. I’m not worried about that at all.”
If anything, Ausmus is concerned about the ripple effects such a move would have on hitters like J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton.
“If I need to move Victor I’ll move Victor, but I think there are some considerations with other people. J.D. and Up are swinging the bat pretty well where they are. Neither one of them really did that well in the two-hole last year, so I’m not really sure I wanna revisit that from a psychological perspective. There may come a point where I decide to make a change – like I said, we’ve discussed it – but I didn’t make it today,” said Ausmus.
In the past, Ausmus has defended V-Mart’s claim to the cleanup spot by citing his ability to hit left-handed. He breaks up a slew of right-handed hitters in the middle of the Tigers order in Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Upton and Nicholas Castellanos.
That’s also why the skipper’s been opposed to moving J.D. up.
“For me it’s just the fact that you’re going to be stringing a bunch of right-handed hitters together,” Ausmus said last month. “When you get in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings it makes it much easier on the opposing manager to just run some right-handed, power-throwing arm with a hard slider out there and it’s easier to get those guys despite the fact that they’re very good hitters.
“Those guys – J.D., Upton, Nick – they’re very good right-handed hitters but they also have a penchant for swinging and missing at times, especially against power-throwing right-handed pitchers who have sliders. And that’s what you see coming out of the bullpen for the most part in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.”
As things stand now, Martinez will continue to hit fourth in the Tigers’ lineup. But he’s not helping them there, and the Tigers aren’t helping themselves by leaving him be. It may be only a matter of time before Ausmus makes a move many have cried for.
“You’ll find out when I make the change — or if I make the change,” he said.