Now that he no longer has more home runs than strikeouts, as he did for most of the season’s first two and a half months, some attention has been drawn away from the unusual combination of power and contact hitting that Victor Martinez is putting on display in 2014. Still, the Tigers’ 35-year-old designated hitter remains on track to have one of the more extraordinary years in baseball history, particularly when you consider the contours of the current era.
At the halfway point – Detroit was to play its 81st game on Wednesday afternoon against the A’s – Martinez has 20 homers and 23 strikeouts, putting him on pace for (fire up your supercomputer) 40 and 46.
Only six men have ever had seasons in which they homered at least 40 times and finished with more longballs than strike outs, and you have heard of them: Lou Gehrig, Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Mize, Ted Kluszewski and Barry Bonds. Four of them are Hall of Famers and one, you know, should be.
With the exception of Bonds’ 2004 campaign, for which he won his seventh and final NL MVP award, the last of those seasons came in 1955, when the hitting environment was very different. Back then, pitchers were striking out 4.4 batters per nine innings. In '04, the rate was 6.6. This year, as relief pitching becomes ever more specialized and batters continue to swing hard with two strikes in an attempt to not only hit the ball but to drive it far, the rate is 7.7, an all-time high.
Major league hitters will surely set a record for collective strikeouts for the seventh consecutive season. As a group, they have already whiffed more times in 2014 than they did in 91 entire seasons, the most recent of them 1976.
Martinez is at the forefront of a dwindling cadre of contact hitters, but as a contact hitter who also hits with power, he stands alone. (His closest competitor is the Angels’ Albert Pujols, who has 17 homers and 37 strikeouts).
“He has good eyes, man,” says Angels shortstop Erick Aybar, who ranks sixth in the league with 10.9 plate appearances per strikeout (Martinez’s rate is 14.5) and who has just six homers. “Martinez, he takes pitches that are too close for most guys, you know what I mean? I think maybe he knows what pitch is coming, because when he takes a close pitch it’s always a ball.”
On May 5th Martinez's streak of not striking out looking ended at 641 plate appearances and 154 games. When he does choose to swing at a pitch, he usually hits it. According to Fan Graphs, he is making contact on 95.4% of swings against pitches in the strike zone, which ranks eighth overall, and 89.2% of swings against pitches outside of it, which easily leads the league.
Just one player has a strikeout rate superior to Martinez’s: Jose Altuve, who is fanning once per 16.0 plate appearances, and who is having a remarkable season of his own. The Astros’ 5-foot-6 second baseman leads the American League in batting average (.347), hits (118) and stolen bases (37), but it is his bat control that truly stands out.
“I’m not trying, at all, not to strike out,” the 24-year-old Altuve says. “I swing hard. I just hit the ball. Sometimes they catch it, sometimes it falls in. I don’t know what it is.”
The other members of Houston's organization have some idea. “I think it’s his short arms – he doesn’t ever get jammed,” says catcher Jason Castro, half-seriously. “It really comes back to his natural talent, his hand-eye coordination. He’s got a great approach at the plate, just a knack for putting the bat on the ball.”
“He has incredible bat control,” says general manager Jeff Luhnow. “He’s able to foul off pitches and keep himself in the at-bat. He’s got a really smooth, level, line drive swing. And he’s got a small strike zone, quite frankly. The reason that Altuve is becoming more and more valuable is not only is he able to avoid striking out, but now he’s able to be a little bit more selective on his pitches, so his walks are going up. But what really drives Altuve is what’s inside.”
In 2004, there were 24 players who fanned less than once every 10 plate appearances. Now, a decade later, there are eight (see table below). That has made such players who make contact more useful than ever, says Astros manager Bo Porter. “I think it does become that much more important,” Porter says. “You look at the fact that home runs are down, there’s a real value to not only putting the ball in play, but in the ability to advance runners even when you make outs. Which we call productive outs. When you strike out, the opposing team does not have to defend the baseball. If you start to look at your 27 outs, if you’re striking out 13 or 14 times, you do the math. The other team is defending the ball 13 times a game, which lessens your chance of winning, unless somewhere in between you pop two or three two-run homers.”
In addition to the competitive importance of baseball’s remaining contact hitters, there is also an aesthetic one. As the sport threatens to become a denatured product in which games grow ever longer while less and less happens, unless you are an aficionado of strikeouts and pitching changes, players like Altuve and Martinez ensure that evenings at the ballpark include at least a little action.
Of course, although Altuve has many gifts, hitting for power is not among them: he has just two home runs this season, and 16 in his four-year career. As far as his ability to do it all in the batter’s box – to make productive outs while popping more than his share of two-run homers – Martinez is one of a kind.
*Aoki has yet to hit a home run this season