There’s little debating Victor Martinez’s accomplishments as a hitter, and as a 35-year-old who no longer regularly plays in the field, he produced one of the best offensive seasons of 2014. Only one player in baseball (Houston’s Jose Altuve) posted a better average than his .335. Only one player in baseball (Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen) got on base more regularly. Only one player in baseball (Jose Abreu of the White Sox) racked up a higher slugging percentage.
So at some level, the contract Martinez received Wednesday to remain with his Detroit Tigers – four years for $68 million, first reported by Fox Sports – makes perfect sense. At $17 million per season, it is an acknowledgement that, even though he will be 39 when the deal ends following the 2018 season, he is the kind of run producer who, regardless of age, is difficult to come by.
That no designated hitter has ever been paid more per season is another indication of baseball’s flush times, with revenue at an all-time high. It reflects positively on Martinez, who had never been paid more than $13 million in a season, and had made less than $73 million over the first 12 years of his career – $5 million more than he’ll make over the next four.
But there’s a more wide-angle reason the Tigers are making that commitment to a player headed into his late 30s who just set career highs in homers, on-base percentage and slugging percentage (by more than 50 points). Look at offense throughout baseball, at how it’s dwindling away, and consider where a player of Martinez’s abilities and accomplishments fits now. Heck, consider where he might fit four years from now, even if his abilities diminish some with age.
In 2,430 regular-season games this year, the 30 major league teams scored 19,761 runs – the lowest total in any season not interrupted by a labor stoppage since the most recent expansion in 1993. That average of 8.13 total runs per game represents nearly two-thirds of a run drop-off from just four seasons earlier, in 2010.
This golden era of pitching that’s upon us – and it’s not just the Clayton Kershaws of the world, but the ungodly bullpen arms of Wade Davis and Craig Kimbrel and the like, shutting down the late innings with mid-90s heat – has in turn suppressed offense to a significant and tangible degree. This is much more a trend than a curiosity. It will affect the market for hitters for the foreseeable future, making true run-producers far more valuable than they were during the carefree, offense-saved-the-sport, steroid-laden days of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
It’s not just that Baltimore’s Nelson Cruz was the only 40-homer hitter in the majors this season, and that there were 13 such performers in both 1998 and ’99, though that is an issue. Never mind that Cruz had never before hit that many, and never mind that he is 34 and will likely be a designated hitter in the near future. Cruz can take Martinez’s contract as a benchmark, because he is a hair younger, and because as one of the few established hitters still on the market, his services could be deemed more important. Where else to turn?
Here’s the environment that colors this offseason, and those to come:
- Major league hitters hit .251 in 2014, the fifth straight season overall batting average has dropped. Consider that in 1999, the two leagues combined to hit .271, a staggering dropoff. This is the lowest collective average since 1971 (.249), when there was no designated hitter.
- Though baseball has come to value the walk as an offensive weapon, major league hitters posted a .314 on-base percentage this season, another number that has fallen every year since 2010 and was the lowest since 1972, the year before the American League adopted the DH – and made the existence of a Victor Martinez even possible.
- The .368 collective slugging percentage is the lowest in the majors since 1990, an indication of how rare and valuable reliable power has become. Consider the substantial change since the turn of this century, when the two leagues slugged .437 – an almost inconceivable drop-off.
All of this recalibrates everything in evaluating offensive players – not just the best available on the market, but what is considered average. Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond, for instance, had a slash line of .255/.313/.430 in 2014. Desmond’s average and on-base percentage fall right in line with the averages across baseball, and his slugging percentage – back in 2000 – would have been below average, suppressing his market. Now? That .430 slugging percentage (which comes with 24 homers and 91 RBI) makes him stand out among middle infielders, a rare player at that premium defensive position who can provide power. Should he reach free agency following the 2015 season, he will be paid for a slugging percentage that once would have been considered mediocre but suddenly borders elite.
And the defensive position a player mans is no longer necessary to get paid, as Martinez’s contract demonstrates. Many of the top remaining free agent hitters – third baseman Pablo Sandoval, shortstop Hanley Ramirez, outfielders Melky Cabrera and Cruz – have declining or suspect defensive abilities. It won’t matter, because they can perform the one task that trumps all others in this marketplace: Hit.
Martinez did well for himself, obviously, convincing the Tigers that his one-year up-tick – significantly topping his previous career average of .303 (.335 in 2014), career OBP of .369 (.409 in ’14) and career slugging percentage of .464 (.565 in ’14) – was a trend that will last until he’s nearly 40.
But even if he never matches those numbers, he could end up a good buy, because what constitutes a hitter – be he exceptional or average – is constantly being readjusted. Forty homers and a .400 on-base percentage, always excellent numbers, are simply more exceptional now than a decade ago. What might they seem like in four years?