JAWS and the 2024 Hall of Fame Ballot: Victor Martinez

Leon Halip-USA TODAY Sports

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2024 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2024 BBWAA Candidate: Victor Martinez
Victor Martinez C 32.0 29.0 30.5 2,153 246 .295/.360/.455 118
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Victor Martinez could rake. A professional hitter in the best sense of the term, he could hit for average, topping .300 eight times in the 11 seasons in which he qualified for a batting title, no small task given his lack of speed. He could also hit for power, bopping 246 home runs with a single-season high of 32. He had great contact skills, striking out in just 10.9% of his plate appearances, and he was dangerous from both sides of the plate. Had he been able to catch as well as he hit, he’d probably be bound for Cooperstown. As it was, Martinez swung a potent stick for 16 major league seasons, making five All-Star teams and helping five teams reach the postseason, where he hit a robust .315/.374/.503 in 163 plate appearances.

Victor Jesús Martinez was born on December 23, 1978 in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela, the third of four children of Guillermo and Margot Coromoto Martinez. His younger brother, David Martinez (b. 1980) spent eight years between 1999 and 2007 pitching in the Yankees and Cleveland organizations as well as in independent leagues. Unfortunately, Guillermo died of a heart attack when he was 66 and Victor was seven, leaving Margot to work nursing jobs at two hospitals, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon.

The children grew up across the street from a baseball field. Though he couldn’t even afford his own glove, Victor began playing when he was six years old. By eight, the natural righty was a switch-hitting shortstop who idolized the country’s greats such as Dave Concepcion and Omar Vizquel, with Ozzie Guillen his favorite. Not until he was 13, when his mother literally won a lottery drawing, did Martinez have a glove of his own; she purchased him a Mizuno model.

In 1996, Cleveland scout Luis Aponte discovered Martinez, a 150-pound shortstop with good hands and contact skills, and signed him for just an $8,000 bonus. Martinez spent the 1997 and ’98 seasons in the Venezuelan Summer League, and gained strength by lifting weights. Well-stocked with middle infielders and concerned about Martinez’s height (6-foot-2), Cleveland first considered moving him to third base but then suggested he switch to catcher, believing his strong arm and raw intelligence would make him a good fit for a position where they felt they were thin. Martinez reluctantly agreed to try, but quickly had second thoughts upon showing up for instructional league in 1998.

“When I first got there, I looked around and saw 18 catchers, 15 catchers,” Martinez told the Boston Herald’s Michael Silverman in 2010. “Man, I sat in front of my locker almost crying. They told me they didn’t have any catchers, and I’m there and there were catchers all over the place.”

The 20-year-old Martinez began his stateside career with Low-A Mahoning Valley in 1999, hitting .277/.346/.366 with four homers in 64 games but drawing raves for his defense. Rotator cuff tendinitis limited him to 47 games at two A-level stops in 2000; Baseball America named him the organization’s best defensive catcher, but his arm woes cost him strength, a problem that would linger. Healthy in 2001, he hit .329/.394/.488 for High-A Kinston, winning the batting title and Carolina League MVP award as well as being named Cleveland’s Minor League Player of the Year.

After grazing the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects List at no. 97, Martinez won a slash-stat Triple Crown (.336/.418/.576) and Eastern League MVP honors at Double-A Akron in 2002. Called up to the majors, he debuted on September 10 against the Blue Jays, going 1-for-4 with a two-run single off Justin Miller. On the season’s final day, he hit his first homer off the Royals’ Darrell May, and finished at .281/.333/.406 in 36 PA for his cup of coffee. Baseball America bumped him to no. 16 in their Top 100 even while sounding a cautionary note about his defense, noting that he threw out just 14% of would-be base stealers and adding, “He continued to make strides in overcoming the language barrier with his pitchers, calling games and receiving pitches. He’d rate as an average defender if not for his struggles in controlling the running game.”

Though expected to win the starting catching job in the spring of 2003, Martinez lost out to Josh Bard and shuffled off to Triple-A Buffalo, where he started slowly before heating up. In late June, the two catchers traded places, with Martinez promoted on June 28 and doubling off Ryan Dempster in his first game back. He hit a thin .289/.345/.333 with one homer in 174 PA the rest of the way, starting behind the plate 40 times. He broke out in 2004, quickly asserting himself as Cleveland’s regular catcher, making his first All-Star team and hitting .283/.359/.492 (125 OPS+) with 23 homers, 108 RBI (his first of five times reaching 100), and 3.7 WAR. The only down note was that he led the AL with 89 stolen bases allowed while throwing out just 25% of would-be thieves en route to -8 DRS.

Just before the 2005 season, Martinez followed the path of so many young Cleveland stars in the Wild Card era by signing a five-year, $15.5 million contract that covered his pre-free agency years and included incentives, escalator clauses, and a club option. He continued his strong performances at the plate and struggles behind it, batting .305/.378/.475 (130 OPS+) with 20 homers in 2005 and .316/.391/.465 (122 OPS+) with 16 homers in ’06. His 5.2 WAR in the former year ranked ninth in the AL, but he sank to 2.9 (including -16 DRS) the next year while allowing 100 steals and posting an 18% caught stealing rate. He got his initial taste of action at first base in 2006, playing 22 games there.

Cleveland finished below .500 in two of Martinez’s first three seasons as a regular, interrupted by a 93-win season in 2005. The team rocketed from 78 wins in 2006 to 96 in ’07, winning the AL Central for the first time in six years. Martinez made his second All-Star team while hitting .301/.374/.505 (125 OPS+) with 25 homers and 4.3 WAR, and came off the bench to hit a two-run homer off Billy Wagner in the All-Star Game.

“Victor would go up there and call his shot,” recalled teammate Josh Barfield, in speaking to FanGraphs’ David Laurila in 2023. “He would say, ‘I’m going to sit on a breaking ball here,’ then he’d spit on two fastballs, and when they hung a breaking ball, he would hit it into the bullpen. He was really fun to watch hit, because he was playing chess up there a lot of times.”

In the 2007 postseason, Martinez hit .318/.388/.500, highlighted by a two-run homer off the Yankees Chien-Ming Wang in the Division Series opener, a two-run single off Mike Mussina in the Game 4 clincher, three hits off Curt Schilling including an RBI double (plus two late-inning intentional walks) in ALCS Game 2, and a homer and a single off Schilling in Game 6. Unfortunately, the rest of the team stopped hitting after taking a three-games-to-one lead; Cleveland was outscored 30-5 over the final three games while losing in seven.

Cleveland dropped to 81 wins in 2008 as Martinez was limited to two homers and an 88 OPS+ in 78 games due to in-season surgery to remove bone chips in his right elbow. The team crashed to 65 wins in 2009 even while Martinez rebounded to All-Star form. Now in the final guaranteed year of his contract, with an enticing club option for 2010, he emerged as a popular trade candidate. On July 31, 2009 — one day before Victor Martinez Bobblehead Night at Jacobs Field, of all things — he was dealt to the Red Sox for pitchers Nick Hagadone, Justin Masterson, and Bryan Price (not the manager/pitching coach). Martinez departed tearfully, saying, “This is the toughest day of my career… This is my house, and I feel like I’m leaving my house.

Despite the heightened emotions, Martinez improved from a 122 OPS+ before the trade to 134 after, finishing at .303/.381/.480 with 23 homers while sharing catching duties with Jason Varitek and first base duties with Casey Kotchman (designated hitter wasn’t an option given the presence of David Ortiz). The Red Sox won the AL Wild Card but were swept by the Angels in the Division Series as Martinez went just 2-for-11. As expected, the team picked up his $7.7 million club option and he took over the bulk of the catching. Though he missed four weeks due to a fracture in the tip of his left thumb, suffered via a foul tip, he turned in his typical All-Star season (20 homers, 122 OPS+, -8 DRS due to 99 stolen bases allowed, 3.6 WAR), then hit free agency.

While the Red Sox, White Sox, and Orioles all went shopping at V-Mart (sorry), the Tigers came through with the biggest offer, a four-year, $50 million deal. They already had a promising young catcher in Alex Avila, and so Martinez became a backup, catching just 26 times in 2011 while serving as the regular DH. The change suited him fine, as he hit .330/.380/.470 (131 OPS+), finishing fourth in the AL in batting average and ninth in on-base percentage. The Tigers improved from 81 wins to 95, winning the AL Central. Martinez hit a modest .250/.348/.450 with two homers during the team’s playoff run. His biggest moment came against former teammate CC Sabathia, working in a rare relief appearance in Game 5 of the Division Series; Martinez singled in what proved to be the decisive run in a 3-2 victory. He added a solo homer off the Rangers’ Colby Lewis in Game 3 of the ALCS and then an RBI triple off C.J. Wilson in Game 5; those helped the Tigers to their only two wins in their six-game series.

While working out in January 2012, Martinez tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, requiring surgery. Though the Tigers retained faint hope that he could return late in the season, his leg wasn’t strong enough to press forward. The Tigers won the division and the pennant without him — with replacement DH Delmon Young earning ALCS MVP honors — before being swept by the Giants in the World Series.

When he returned in 2013, Martinez lacked his usual pop, batting .301/.355/.430 (113 OPS+) with 14 homers. He did set a career high with 159 games played, including just three behind the plate and 11 at first base, giving Prince Fielder the occasional half-day off in a season where he played all 162 games. The Tigers won 93 games and advanced as far as Game 6 of the ALCS, with Martinez batting a sizzling .435/.458/.587 in the postseason. He went 3-for-4 with a game-tying seventh inning homer off the A’s Sean Doolittle in a Division Series Game 4 win, went 3-for-4 with a run scored in a 3-0 win in the clincher, and put the Tigers ahead 2-1 with a two-run single off the Red Sox’s Franklin Morales in Game 6 of the ALCS, but Boston closed out the series by rallying against Detroit’s bullpen in what turned out to be manager Jim Leyland’s swan song.

The 35-year-old Martinez turned in the best season of his career in 2014, hitting .335/.409/.565 (172 OPS+) with 32 homers and 5.5 WAR; all of those numbers set new career highs. His OPS+ ranked second in the league behind only José Abreu, his batting average second behind Jose Altuve; meanwhile his OBP led the league, boosted by an AL-high 28 intentional passes while batting in front of J.D. Martinez, who was in the midst of his own breakout. Perhaps not coincidentally, he caught just two games, the final ones of his career — though he would remain a catcher at heart, with his locker adjacent to other catchers.

“Victor’s a grinder,” Mariners manager and former Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon said after Martinez hit a three-run homer following an intentional walk of Miguel Cabrera in a May 30 game. “This guy doesn’t give at-bats away. He’s what I call a professional hitter. He really goes after it. He studies. He knows his opponents. He’s pretty good at what he does… He’s probably one of the most intense players I’ve ever been associated with.”

Under new manager Brad Ausmus, the Tigers won 90 games and repeated as AL Central champions, but they were swept by the upstart Orioles. Martinez homered off Chris Tillman in the Division Series opener, drove in a run with an RBI single off Wei-Yin Chen amid a five-run rally in Game 2, and doubled off Zack Britton and scored the Tigers’ lone run in Game 3, but it wasn’t enough.

Martinez’s performance, which netted him second place in the 2014 AL MVP voting behind unanimous winner Mike Trout, made for one hell of a walk year. With Cabrera, Justin Verlander, and Aníbal Sánchez already signed long-term, Martinez told general manager Dave Dombrowski he wanted to stay; in mid-November, he re-upped via a four-year, $68 million contract. But where Martinez had hit .321/.381/.487 (138 OPS+) with 9.9 WAR even while missing a season during his first four-year deal with the Tigers, he sank to .262/.320/.397 (93 OPS) with -2.1 WAR during the second one. He missed time due to left knee inflammation in 2015 and a heart arrhythmia in ’17. In that span, only his 2016 season (.289/.351/.476, 27 HR, 121 OPS+, 1.5 WAR) was even above replacement level. For as difficult as that stretch was, he did reach some important milestones. On September 23, 2015, he hit the 200th home run of his career, a two-run shot off the White Sox’s Frankie Montas. On July 7, 2017, he singled off Cleveland’s Carlos Carrasco at Progressive Field for the 2,000th hit of his career, receiving a strong ovation in the ballpark where he had begun his career.

On September 21, 2018, six days after Cleveland honored its former catcher with a pregame ceremony, Martinez announced that his appearance the next day would be his final one; with the Tigers set to spend the final week of the season on the road, he wanted to end his career in front of the fans at Comerica Park. The team honored him in a pregame ceremony, and then in his lone plate appearance, Martinez hit a shift-beating infield single to the right side for career hit no. 2,153, tying him with Don Mattingly.

In retirement, Martinez bought a trio of thoroughbreds with his wife Margaret. One of them, named King Guillermo after his late father, won the 2020 Tampa Bay Derby despite 49-to-1 odds. That qualified the horse for the Kentucky Derby, but unfortunately, King Guillermo was scratched due to a fever. As for baseball, in 2023 Martinez joined the front office of the Blue Jays as a special assistant, renewing ties with president Mark Shapiro and general manage Ross Atkins, both of whom were part of Cleveland’s front office during his time there.

While Martinez finished with 30 more hits and 103 more homers despite catching 63 fewer games than fellow first-year Hall of Fame candidate Joe Mauer, he won’t be accompanying Mauer to Cooperstown, whether the former Twin gets there this year or down the road. While Mauer was an elite hitter for a catcher and more or less average in terms of defense (not including above-average framing) and baserunning, Martinez was well below average everywhere but the batter’s box, and that includes pitch framing once you factor in pre-2008 data:

Joe Mauer vs. Victor Martinez
Player PA OPS+ Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield BPFram* Rpos Rrep WAR
Mauer 7960 124 239 8 -5 19 50 0 288 55.2
Martinez 8166 118 176 -35 -27 -58 21 -35 299 32.0
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* framing runs via Baseball Prospectus (including pre-PITCHf/x era), not included in WAR.

It’s tempting to wonder how Martinez’s career might have played out had he been a first or third baseman, subject to less wear and tear. He certainly could hit well enough to carry the position, though he lost a fair bit of value on the basepaths. Aesthetically and statistically, he was one of the worst baserunners of all time; his -62 runs via baserunning and double play avoidance is the fourth-lowest total behind Cabrera (-78), Paul Konerko (-77), and Yadier Molina (-66). On that subject, Martinez hit just three triples in his career, not including his one in the 2011 ALCS. No other player with at least 7,000 PA hit fewer than six in his career:

Fewest Triples,
Minimum 7,000 Plate Appearances
Player Years PA 3B
Victor Martinez 2002–2018 8166 3
Mark McGwire 1986–2001 7660 6
Yadier Molina 2004–2022 8554 7
Paul Konerko 1997–2014 9505 8
Mike Piazza 1992–2007 7745 8
Jason Giambi 1995–2014 8908 9
Adam Dunn 2001–2014 8328 10
Edwin Encarnación 2005–2020 8126 10
Jorge Posada 1995–2011 7150 10
Eric Karros 1991–2004 7100 11
Boog Powell 1961–1977 7810 11
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Meanwhile, only one player with a least 7,000 PA stole fewer bases, namely fellow first-year Hall candidate Adrián González (six). All of those standings testify to Martinez’s lack of speed. But damn, he really could hit.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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4 months ago

The 2010 Red Sox boasted a line-up featuring Victor Martinez, Adrian Beltre, David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia, and went nowhere.

4 months ago
Reply to  Binyamin

Fun thought – With a record of 89-73 they would have made the playoffs as currently structured as the 6 seed. They would have faced a Rangers team that ended up making it to the WS, but who knows. The 2023 Diamondbacks would have went nowhere with the same record in 2010.

4 months ago
Reply to  Binyamin

It happens. The 2010 Cardinals had fully healthy and productive years from Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright, and Chris Carpenter, and they went nowhere.