Detroit Tigers: Re-signing Victor Martinez Was Always a Bad Idea


Apr 6, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez (41) at bat against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Victor Martinez is struggling for the Detroit Tigers so far this season. Through 32 games and 125 plate appearances he’s hitting just .226/.320/.283. Those batting rates combine for a 59 wRC+ (meaning he’s producing runs at 59% of the league average rate) which is the 14th-lowest mark among the nearly 200 MLB players with at least 100 plate appearances on the season.

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It’s very clear that he hasn’t been 100% healthy at any point in the season so far. Whether or not his lingering issues are related to his offseason knee surgery is unclear, but one has to expect that the former catcher (who missed all of the 2012 season after a separate knee surgery) will be battling knee and leg concerns for the remainder of his career.

Players are going to have bad weeks, months, and even years. They’re going to get hurt and miss time. We have to accept that given the random nature of baseball events, but what makes Martinez’s early struggles so frustrating is the fact that the Tigers had just signed him to a four-year, $68 million extension this past offseason.

Martinez was the fourth-best hitter in baseball last season, according to wRC+, essentially matching the batting contributions of AL MVP Mike Trout. He helped save the Tigers’ offense after Miguel Cabrera took a step back in production due to injury concerns of his own. The clamor around Detroit was that the team needed to re-sign Martinez.

And perhaps there was a deal that would have made sense for the Detroit Tigers — a price can be found at which it makes sense to sign almost any player, regardless of production or injury concerns — but $68 million over four years was not that deal. It was a huge overpay for an aging player who can’t play the field and has a history of injury problems.

Detroit Tigers
Detroit Tigers /

Detroit Tigers

The going rate for free agent players is approximately $8 million dollars per marginal win. There’s certainly more nuance involved, but, as a general rule-of-thumb, we see this in the free agent market. The Milwaukee Brewers, for example, gave third baseman Aramis Ramirez a one-year, $14 million dollar deal this offseason. The ZiPS projection system expected Ramirez to be worth 1.8 wins above replacement. 1.8 WAR times $8 million per WAR equals $14.4 million, so his actual contract was commensurate with his projection. The Brewers appeared to be getting neither an extremely good nor extremely poor deal by inking Ramirez to that contract. This is just one anecdotal example, but I hope it shows the point.

By handing out $68 million dollars to Victor Martinez, the Tigers indicated that they’re expecting something close to eight wins above replacement out of him over the four year span. I think that was an unreasonable expectation.

Martinez certainly has a history of producing value in his big league career. According to WAR data on FanGraphs, he’s been worth at least eight WAR in every four-year stretch of his career through his missed 2012 season. If you exclude that one lost season from the calculus, he’s continued that streak of eight WAR every four years throughout.

The problem with that analysis, however, is that for much of his career he produced that value while playing catcher at least part time. WAR calculations (rightly) give players more credit for playing more difficult defensive positions. Take two players with identical MVP-type batting numbers. Would you rather have the one who fields like Adam Dunn or Jose Iglesias? The answer there is obvious. It’s more valuable to your team if that player is a gold-glove shortstop rather than a plodding first baseman.

At this point in his career, Victor Martinez is only able to serve as a designated hitter. He might be able to get out to first base if his health returns, but even then he’s not the fielder that even Cabrera is. If we alter his career value metrics and pretend he served as a designated hitter his entire career (adding the DH penalty to his positional adjustment instead of the catcher bonus), we find that he’s never even surpassed 7.0 WAR over any four-year stretch. The best such streak of his career came from 2004-2007 when his batting numbers would have made him worth 6.7 WAR if he was serving as a DH instead of a catcher. He was 28 years old.

A more reasonable expectation looks like it would have been five or six WAR over a four-year contract. That type of contract would have stripped in the range of $20-$28 million off the deal. Maybe $5-7 million per year seems like peanuts to the Tigers, but that would have bought a quality bullpen arm, at the very least. Maybe the Tigers could have even made a serious run at ace reliever Andrew Miller.

There’s a decent chance that Victor would have rejected an offer like this, but the Detroit Tigers should have been OK to let him walk. They felt the pressure of a closing window and panicked to re-sign their own player to a large contract rather than looking for ways to better allocate those dollars. Had Martinez signed elsewhere, they would have accrued another compensation-round draft pick (which would have been something like pick 37 overall) because they had already offered him a one-year qualifying offer (which he rejected). More high(ish) draft picks mean larger draft bonus pools and better players helping to re-stock a rather barren farm system.

Sometimes even (seemingly) good contracts don’t work out. That’s part of baseball. But it really hurts when teams fixate on one particular player stretch themselves to work out a deal. When those contracts go bad, it’s a lot harder to recover from.

The Detroit Tigers already have a lot of long-term money tied up in aging players whose production levels are on the decline. They need to avoid these types of contracts — overpaying for aging one-dimensional players — and look to make shrewder (if lower profile) moves if they hope to string this great run of success much further into the future.

Next: Tigers Linked to RHP Bickford in MLB Mock Draft

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