There is an old adage in baseball that if you put the ball in play, good things will happen. Victor Martinez of the Detroit Tigers puts the ball in play a lot and good things do happen. But it's the way he does it that makes him special. The Fangraphs' leaderboard shows us that Martinez puts the ball in play with the likes of guys like Juan Pierre, Jimmy Carroll and Placido Polanco. But there is no way that he's the same time of hitter as those guys. Pierre, Carroll and Polanco have slugging percentages (in 2011) of: .327, .347 and .339 respectively. Martinez had a slugging percentage of .470.
So that makes Martinez somewhat unique in what he can do. Like those other guys mentioned in the first paragraph, you can't get many pitches by Victor Martinez. His 3.3 percent swinging strike percentage was the fifth lowest in the majors last season behind Pierre, Carroll, Brett Gardner and Ian Kinsler. His contact percentage for pitches he swung at was the third highest in the league behind only Pierre and Carroll. His contact percentage on pitches in the strike zone was the second highest in the majors behind only Juan Pierre. And yet, with the exception of Kinsler, who we will get to in a minute, none of those other hitters can match what Martinez does with his number of contacts with the baseball.
How many people realize that Victor Martinez hit .330 in 2011? Maybe more than this writer realizes. Just as importantly, Martinez had a .380 on-base percentage. Except for the exposure in the playoff series against the Yankees (who kept him pretty much in check), it sure seemed like a non-story. That might happen if your batting mate in the order happens to be Miguel Cabrera, one of the best hitters of this generation. But can we at least float the possibility that Cabrera had his best offensive season of his career after being paired with Victor Martinez in the batting order for the first time? Cabrera was also reaching his peak years at the age of 28, so it's difficult to make that call. But it couldn't have hurt to have Martinez as his line up mate.
What is unique about the duo is that they mash without striking out. Between the two players, they walked 154 times while only striking out 140 times. That makes them truly unique among other 3-4 duos around baseball. You're not going to get many easy outs with those two.
Martinez now has ten seasons in the big leagues. The first two were of the cup of coffee variety. So he has eight full seasons under his belt. His career slash line is: .303/.370/.469. Baseball-reference.com has a nice feature where they determine what a batter has done in his career per 162 games (the full length of a season) and for every 162 games, Martinez has had 183 hits, hit 20 homers, hit 39 doubles and has driven in 104 runs. That's a pretty good career right there. And clearly, he's become a smarter hitter too. He used to be susceptible to the change up. He isn't any more while having positive numbers against all other pitch types.
Let's get back to Ian Kinsler. From previous posts here, you should know that this author feels that Ian Kinsler is the most unappreciated player in baseball. Not only does he play great defense, but his is right in Victor Martinez's category for contact percentage. Kinsler has more plate discipline and more home run power. But that power does not translate to a higher slugging percentage. Martinez has a higher slugging percentage for his career than Kinsler by three points. The huge difference between the two players is while both have high contact percentages, Martinez's translates to more safely batted balls.
Kinsler's BABIP bounces up and down from year to year. Some of that is luck. Some of it is the quality of contact. But for his career, Kinsler's BABIP sits at .282. Victor Martinez's career BABIP sits at .316 and it's not a fluke. Martinez had a BABIP of .286 in his first full season in 2004. Since then it's been well over .300 every single season.
Victor Martinez is a unique hitter. He's one of the toughest outs in baseball and has been for quite a long time.