When baseball fans think of the Detroit Tigers, names like Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera are quickly associated with one of baseball's best teams. For some reason, designated hitter Victor Martinez is lost in the shuffle and allowed to quietly go about his business.
Over a 12-year career, Martinez has been in the business of hitting—and business has been good. Prior to the start of the 2014 season, the former Indians and Red Sox catcher owned 157 home runs and an OPS+ mark of 121.
Thus far in 2014, the 35-year-old switch-hitter has taken his game to another level. In the process, Martinez has helped Detroit offset the trade of first baseman Prince Fielder. Through 40 games, the Tigers have scored 193 runs, good for an average of over 4.8 per game. Last year, the team scored 796 total runs, good for just over 4.9 per game.
Thanks to the efforts of Martinez, Detroit hasn't missed a beat despite trading away one of baseball's top sluggers in Prince Fielder.
After blasting his 11th home run of the season in a series-opening game with Cleveland, Martinez takes a .329/.379/.605 slash line into play on May 20. While an AL-leading slugging percentage should be enough to generate headlines in Detroit, another aspect of Martinez's season is equally eye-opening and deserving of attention: strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Home runs and runs batted in will get the attention of casual baseball fans, but Martinez's approach at the plate and throwback style should resonate across generations. After he hit his latest home run off Indians starter Corey Kluber, Martinez now has more home runs (11) than strikeouts (nine) for the season.
Furthermore, Martinez has walked 14 times in 152 plate appearances, giving him five more walks than strikeouts for the season. Although the season is still young, it's reached the quarter mark. With that comes merit and distinction for statistics.
According to ESPN's updated projections, Martinez has established a pace that will yield the following 2014 statistics: 45 home runs, 57 walks, 36 strikeouts. Even if those kind of numbers look unsustainable, the baseline for special performance has been set by Detroit's star early this season.
In the history of baseball, only seven individual seasons of 40-plus homers and 40 or fewer strikeouts have been recorded. With the rise in strikeouts across the years, not one of those seasons has occurred since 1955.
Over the last 20 years (1994-2013), only two players—Barry Bonds and Moises Alou—posted seasons of 30-plus home runs and 45 or fewer strikeouts, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required). Barring an unlikely meteoric late-career rise, Martinez will never be mentioned in the same breath as Bonds, but parallels to the underrated Alou (career 128 OPS+) are fair.
To put Martinez's season in perspective, consider that his current wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) of 160 was exceeded by only three hitters—Cabrera, Mike Trout and Chris Davis—over the course of the 2013 season. Martinez is raking like the top three finishers in the last AL MVP vote.
Although an excellent career and special 2014 season has flown under the radar, one of baseball's best and most visible players has noticed.
Cabrera, the AL's reigning MVP, didn't mince words when asked to describe the prowess of the hitter tasked with protecting him in the lineup, per Terry Foster of The Detroit News: "He is one of the best hitters I have ever seen in my life...He does not take anything for granted."
Based on the first 40 games of this season and an underrated career since 2002, it's hard to argue with Cabrera. Right now, Martinez is performing at a unique and special level.
Martinez certainly has the talent to perform at a high level for an extended period. After all, he did just hit .330 in 540 at-bats in 2011. His ability to switch-hit will provide excellent protection for Cabrera, as teams cannot pitch around him with V-Mart crushing lefties this season.
If it continues, the Tigers will ride the coattails of a once-in-a-generation season all the way to October baseball and a shot at the World Series.