Fixated on Every Pitch, a Veteran Helps the Tigers Stay Focused

By Tyler Kepner

New York Times

Victor Martinez was not on base to score the winning run when shadows crept over the right-field fence at Comerica Park. Martinez was removed for a pinch-runner after doubling through the infield shift to start the bottom of the ninth. A backup catcher, Bryan Holaday, crossed the plate to end the Detroit Tigers’ 3-2 victory over the New York Yankees. The Tigers’ manager, Brad Ausmus, deemed Holaday a better use of legs than Martinez.

Ausmus is a former catcher, like Martinez, who has squatted behind the plate only five times since tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament in a workout before the 2012 season. Martinez missed that fall’s run to the World Series, the closest the Tigers have come lately to an elusive championship.

Now a designated hitter, Martinez turns 36 this winter, when he will be a free agent. He looked pained when someone mentioned the possibility of playing to age 40. His son is already 10 years old, Martinez said, and growing up fast. It was better, he seemed to suggest, to live in the moment - an important one for his team and a splendid one for himself.

The Tigers held a seven-game edge in the American League Central on July 24, a week before they traded for their latest ace starter, David Price. The Kansas City Royals have surged since the deal.

“Obviously Kansas City’s played the greatest baseball in the world,” said Joba Chamberlain, a Tigers reliever. “They’ve had bounces go their way, and they’ve been playing great baseball; you can’t get around it. But you can’t worry about what they’re doing. We’ve got to continue to focus on what we can control.”

Ausmus, who played 18 seasons in the majors, was teammates with Tony Gwynn in San Diego and with Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio in Houston. But Martinez, he said, stood apart from those star hitters in his concentration at the plate.

“He’s the best I’ve seen in my career, just on an everyday, every-pitch, every-at-bat basis,” Ausmus said. “That doesn’t mean he gets a hit every time, but he’s been phenomenal. His focus on every single pitch, regardless of the score, regardless of the pitcher - his focus is unparalleled.”

Ausmus explained that Martinez’s approach allowed him to take advantage of his supreme bat control.

“He’s amazing at getting the barrel of the bat to the ball, whether it’s neck high or shoelace high,” Ausmus said. “And, 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 ever seen.”

According to FanGraphs, Martinez had made contact on 91.5 of his swings, covering foul balls and those in play. It was the highest percentage in the AL and trailed only two National Leaguers - Denard Span and Ben Revere, who are both singles hitters.

“He never takes a pitch off,” said Nick Castellanos, the Tigers’ rookie third baseman. “His level of concentration is ridiculous.”

Martinez has fanned once every 13.6 plate appearances, the best ratio among qualified hitters in the majors. His batting average ranked second in the AL through, and he also ranked in the top five in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and total bases.

“I really do expect a lot out of myself,” Martinez said. “That’s why I work so hard. If I didn’t expect a lot of myself, I wouldn’t put as much work into it.”

The Tigers’ work, collectively, has been just good enough to qualify for a playoff spot - sort of. The Tigers and their fans expect more, but a veteran clubhouse is unlikely to panic.

Martinez, especially, seems immune to the swings of emotion for teams in the race. How do the Tigers make it into October?

“Keep winning,” he said, a bland but sensible answer from a no-nonsense hitter.