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Victor Martinez is the Worst Cleanup Hitter the Tigers Have Seen in a Long, Long Time


With just over a month to go and the Tigers now in last place in the American League Central for the first time since Apr. 12, 2011 (and in last place after April for the first time since the end of the 2008 season), the 2015 season has officially become a lost cause. The multiple deadline deals made by then-General Manager Dave Dombrowski made it clear the Tigers were giving up on their season, though they still technically remained on the fringes of the Wild Card race.  That longshot dream has now completely died, meaning we can truly begin diagnosing what went wrong in Detroit this year.

While this article won’t cover everything that went wrong, instead we’ll focus on the hole in the middle of the Tigers’ lineup this year: Victor Martinez.  While most fans recognized that he was unlikely to reproduce his MVP-runner up 2014 season with his triple crown line of .335/32/103 in a declining offensive environment, everyone expected much more than the same line of .238/9/53 he’s put up in 96 games so far this year (through August 29).  This will be just the second year since 2004 that Martinez won’t accumulate enough at bats to qualify for the batting title, and this season will result in career lows in nearly every individual offensive category.

Furthermore, while his overall numbers have been down, he’s been at his worst when in the cleanup position in the lineup. So far this year, 313 of his 392 plate appearances have come while batting fourth, and in those 313 PAs he’s posted an OPS of .606, even worse than his nominally more respectable .655 the entire year.

It goes without saying that it’s challenging for any team to succeed offensively when their most frequent cleanup hitter is performing so poorly (it’s a wonder that the Tigers are still sixth in runs per game out of fifteen American League teams).  And compared to the highly regarded cleanup hitters the Detroit Tigers have seen in years past, Martinez stands out even more.

The graph below shows the OPS of the most common cleanup hitter the Tigers have utilized going all the way back to 1986 (the OPS shown is posted from the cleanup position, and excludes at bats from other batting positions each year):

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When shown graphically, Martinez’s lack of production from the batting position with possibly the highest expectations becomes even more apparent.  Obviously expectations for Detroit cleanup hitters have been high in recent years with the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Magglio Ordonez (and Martinez himself in 2014) producing MVP-like seasons.  Going back to 1993, this will be just the third season in which the Tigers most frequent cleanup hitter will produce an OPS under .800 from that batting position (and of course Martinez’s .606 so far this year doesn’t even come close).

The only other truly subpar season on the graph above was from 1989 and it belongs to Alan Trammell, who posted an OPS of .643. There are some similarities between Trammell’s 1989 season and Martinez’s 2015 season. In both instances, their teams had very disappointing seasons (the 1989 Tigers lost over 100 games and finished last in the A.L. East).  While Martinez was one season removed from an MVP-runner up season, Trammell was two seasons removed from an MVP-runner up season (that he lost to George Bell was one of the biggest MVP travesties of the modern age).  Both players were in a down season and as a result their managers gave them ample time to turn around their season, though it seems Brad Ausmus probably should have bumped up J.D. Martinez in the lineup at some point – the 1989 Tigers didn’t have another legitimate offensive threat outside of Lou Whitaker who was firmly entrenched in the third spot in the lineup.

However, while Trammell clearly had a down year he still posted a respectable WAR of 3.7 (according to Baseball Reference), largely due to his positive defensive metrics and that he played shortstop. Martinez and his -1.5 WAR so far this year is not the reason the Tigers are in last place, but he has not helped his team in any way whatsoever this year, unlike Trammell in 1989.

In fact, it’s a wonder that the Tigers as a team aren’t performing even worse from the cleanup position this year. Despite Martinez’s performance, the Tigers only have the sixth worst production in the league from the fourth spot, largely due to positive contributions from nearly all other players who have batted cleanup for Detroit (Yoenis Cespedes, before he was traded, and J.D. Martinez):

2015 American League OPS From Cleanup Position (through August 29, 2015)

Team

OPS

Los Angeles Angels

0.685

Houston Astros

0.715

Chicago White Sox

0.721

Oakland Athletics

0.727

Detroit Tigers

0.751

Tampa Bay Rays

0.759

Minnesota Twins

0.760

Cleveland Indians

0.765

Baltimore Orioles

0.796

Texas Rangers

0.805

Boston Red Sox

0.833

Kansas City Royals

0.837

Toronto Blue Jays

0.864

New York Yankees

0.889

In order for the Tigers to avoid becoming the Philadelphia Phillies of the late 2010s, they’ll need much better production from Martinez for the remaining three years on his contract, or recognize his contract as a sunk cost and look to the future.



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