Tigers manager Brad Ausmus was asked Thursday if he believes Victor Martinez has been his team’s most valuable player this year.
He answered with a far loftier distinction.
“On an at-bat to at-bat basis, not only is he probably the best we’ve had this year, he’s the best I’ve seen in my career — just on an every day, every pitch, every at-bat basis,” Ausmus said. “That doesn’t mean he gets a hit every time … His focus on every single pitch, regardless of the score, regardless of the pitcher — his focus is unparalleled.”
Ausmus caught in the major leagues for 18 years. He spent the majority of his career in the National League and played against Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols in their primes. He manages Miguel Cabrera now. This was not a casual remark.
For Martinez, 35, to be so diligently prepared is even more impressive when considering his primary position since 2011: Designated hitter. Veteran hitters — even good ones — often struggle after moving from a defensive position every day to appearing only in the batter’s box four or five times each game. Ask Adam Dunn, who managed only a .569 OPS in his first season as a DH after 10 years in the NL.
Five AL teams — Cleveland, New York, Oakland, Kansas City, and Seattle — have had a collective OPS below .700 at the DH position this year.
Martinez said it took a while to develop a routine for keeping his mind in the game when he doesn’t play in the field. He eventually settled on an exercise bike near his locker, in front of a large clubhouse television. Apparently, it works: He has an .854 OPS since joining the Tigers in 2011. That’s second to only David Ortiz among those who have played 75 percent of their games at DH.
“He’s amazing at getting the barrel of the bat to the ball, whether it’s neck-high or shoelace-high,” Ausmus said of Martinez. “Secondly, he can foul off pitches like no one I’ve ever seen before. Because he can reach so many pitches with his bat, he can extend at-bats unlike any other hitter I’ve seen.”
Martinez has hit 26 home runs this year — a new career high, tied for ninth in the majors — and will be a highly coveted free agent this winter. He missed all of 2012 after undergoing microfracture surgery on his left knee, which may concern some teams, but he’s put together two healthy seasons since. And Martinez has appeared in 25 games at first base this year, his highest total since 2009.
Most important, he’s proving that he can excel at a position designed to keep hitters healthy into their baseball dotage. Martinez could become another Jim Thome or Ortiz, neither of whom had a pristine health record but kept slugging anyway. Thome posted a 1.039 OPS and hit 25 home runs during the year in which he turned 40. Ortiz, who turns 39 in a few months, is enjoying another 30-homer season.
Martinez said Thursday that he wants to play a “few more years” but doesn’t think he’ll still be in the league by age 40. The Tigers will want to bring back Martinez, especially with the drop in Cabrera’s production, but he’s likely to receive multiyear offers on the open market. Carlos Beltran — a fellow switch hitter, now 37 years old — signed a three-year, $45 million deal with the Yankees last winter, and it won’t be hard for Martinez’s representatives to argue that he deserves similar money and term.
Given the number of AL teams with inconsistent offenses this year — the Mariners, Rangers, Yankees, and Royals come to mind — there will be no shortage of suitors for a player who has mastered a position that is equal parts easy and hard.