Hit and Run: Should ailing Victor Martinez give up on switch-hitting?
1. Change coming to V-Mart?
Victor Martinez is headed to the disabled list. The Tigers' designated hitter, who underwent surgery to repair the medial meniscus in his left knee in Feburary, is struggling at the plate and on the base paths to such a degree that it had a direct impact on the team's loss on Monday night. The 36-year-old slugger has been so awful against righthanded pitching that it has even been suggested he ditch switch-hitting.
Martinez is coming off the best season of his career, one in which he hit .335/.409/.565 with 32 homers, a 170 OPS+ and 5.4 Wins Above Replacement. All but the batting average were career highs; his on-base percentage led the league, and his other two slash stats and OPS+ ranked second. Eager for more of that despite his advancing age, defensive limitations and lengthy injury history, the Tigers re-signed him via a four-year, $68 million deal in November. Unfortunately, at some point during his offseason workouts, Martinez tore the medial meniscus in his left knee, the same one that cost him all of 2012 due to meniscus and microfracture surgery. He underwent surgery on Feb. 10, and while he was able to return in time to play 10 spring training games, he clearly hasn't been himself this season: Through Monday, he has hit just .216/.308/.270 with one homer in 130 plate appearances.
On Monday night against the Brewers, Martinez came to the plate in the eighth inning with the Tigers down 3–2 but threatening, with nobody out and runners on first and second. Righty Jonathan Broxton jammed him with a 96-mile-per-hour fastball inside, and Martinez grounded out to second baseman Hector Gomez, who started a 4-6-3 double play made possible by the batter's hampered sprint down the line. The Tigers challenged the call to no avail, and afterward, Martinez conceded he was in pain. Via MLB.com's Jason Beck, after the game, he said, "I think that was the best I went down the line today … But when I touched the base, I felt it a little, that pinch again." Manager Brad Ausmus conceded that the team may have to consider alternatives; as such, the team promoted Tyler Collins from Triple-A Toledo while giving V-Mart a 15-day vacation.
One thing that Martinez doesn't appear ready to consider is giving up on switch-hitting. While he has shredded southpaws this year, he's been abysmal against righties across a larger sample size. For his career, he's been excellent against both sides while showing a bit more power against lefties:
|Career vs. RHP||4,268||.303||.369||.461||.830|
|Career vs. LHP||1,990||.307||.377||.491||.867|
|2015 vs. RHP||99||.141||.242||.153||.395|
|2015 vs. LHP||31||.462||.516||.654||1.170|
Again via Beck:
"Something that I'm never going to do and I have never done is just going out there and go righty on righty," Martinez said.
Tracking a righthanded power pitcher from the right side at this point in his career would be an adjustment.
"Honestly, I don't know how I'm going to react when the pitcher throws the ball," Martinez said. "I might get out of the way. I've never done it before."
By his own account, Martinez began switch-hitting when he was seven or eight years old. The skill has served him well for the better part of a 13-year major league career in which he's made more than $70 million, so it's understandable that he's unwilling to set it aside for the sake of a six-week rough patch that can probably be explained by his knee problems.
If there’s good news, it’s that the Tigers’ offense has been cranking out a healthy 4.41 runs per game this year (sixth in the league) despite the loss of Justin Verlander, with seven regulars, including fill-in catcher James McCann and platoon outfielder Rajai Davis, producing an OPS+ above 100 even as Martinez struggles. Detroit is 23–16, 1 1/2 games back in the AL Central and currently occupying the top Wild Card position, and should have time for Martinez to get healthy.
2. Old habits die hard
Giving up switch-hitting isn't something that happens very often at the major league level, or something that players take lightly. Nonetheless, it's been in the news a fair bit this spring via Shane Victorino, Danny Espinosa and Pablo Sandoval.
Due to injuries and declining effectiveness from the left side of the plate, Victorino abandoned switch-hitting in late 2013, opting to bat righty against righties. After maintaining that stance in an injury-shortened '14 during which he made just 133 PA, he decided in February that he would go back to switch-hitting, then reversed course in March because his cage work from the left side aggravated his hamstrings. The 34-year-old outfielder has made just 62 PA overall this year due to hamstring and rib injuries, though, so gauging the impact of the change hasn't been easy. Via FanGraphs, Victorino has hit .262/.326/.402 in 240 PA of righty-on-righty action over the past three seasons, with 13 hit-by-pitches but just 11 walks. Prior to abandoning switch-hitting, he had hit .274/.317/.389 in 229 PA as a lefty against righties, a difference of 22 points of OPS—relatively insignificant given the sample sizes save for the apparent loss of power with the move. In the same span, he's hit .317/.375/.483 in 258 PA against lefties.
Espinosa, who played through significant left shoulder and right wrist injuries over the past two years and hit a combined .200/.255/.326 for a 60 OPS+ in 531 PA, was said in February to be giving up switch-hitting in favor of only hitting from the right side. His career numbers to that point (.213/.283/.362 in 1,430 PA as a lefty against righties, compared to .271/.343/.460 in 509 PA as a righty against lefties) suggested that was a wise call, but after struggling against righties this spring, he pulled the old switcheroo. He's hitting .244/.359/.513 in 93 PA as a lefty against righties, with all five of his homers and 11 of his 12 extra-base hits coming in that fashion, and via a 9-for-24 showing against lefties, he's at .275/.373/.490 overall, a godsend for a team that's been without Anthony Rendon thus far.
As for Sandoval, while he used to hold his own against lefties, his performance from the right side has deteriorated. From 2012 to '14, he hit a combined .293/.350/.456 in 1,155 PA against righties compared to .249/.301/.352 in 509 PA against lefties. This year, he's at .366/.443/.581 in 106 PA against righties, but just 2-for-41 with one walk against lefties. That's not exactly the best way to inaugurate his five-year, $95 million deal with the Red Sox, but for a player who spent much of the winter prattling on about feeling disrespected by the Giants (his old team), the possibility of trying to platoon him isn't likely to go over well. Note this zinger via the Boston Herald’s Scott Lauber:
The question was straightforward, the answer even more direct.
Can you recall seeing a hitter who got results that were more extreme than Pablo Sandoval’s?
“Yeah,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “Usually they don’t switch-hit.”
Ouch. Farrell is showing patience with Sandoval and, via Lauber, noted progress in his mechanics from the right side. But if both the Panda and Boston (now 18–20, 3 1/2 out in the AL East) continue to underperform, don’t bet on the issue going away.
3. Gomez dodges a bullet
Speaking of Monday's Tigers-Brewers game, Carlos Gomez's leadoff homer provided a welcome moment of relief:
After being hit, Gomez remained sprawled on the ground for a few minutes while being attended to, but he remained conscious and was able to walk off the field under his own power. While he suffered some facial bruising in the shape of his ear flap, he passed the concussion tests administered by Milwaukee's staff and was able to talk to reporters after the game with no apparent loss of coherence. Via Twitter, he even exchanged messages with an apologetic Syndergaard (who was making just his second major league start):
Given his history of multiple concussions, the Brewers will have to keep an eye on Gomez, who's off to an uneven start this year (.267/.284/.500) after missing time due to a right hamstring strain. It’s not only encouraging to see that he avoided injury, it's good to see him keeping his cool given a reputation for on-field controversies.