V-Mart ready to embrace DH role
Longtime catcher will have to adapt mental approach to game
DETROIT -- Victor Martinez is about to get a challenge in time management. And he can't wait.
The newest Tigers slugger has just 34 games of experience at designated hitter over his nine-year career. He's about to get many more than that this year -- if the Tigers' lineup goes according to plan. By contrast, Martinez has started 797 games of his 1,004-game career at catcher, but he might only get a couple starts a week there in Detroit if things go to plan.
Third-year pro Alex Avila, whom the Tigers are grooming to be their catcher long-term, is set to shift into the primary role after two years alongside Gerald Laird.
When he's a catcher, Martinez is involved in every pitch and every play when his team is in the field. When he's a DH, Martinez is in the dugout or the clubhouse at that time.
Suffice to say, Martinez is in for an adjustment. He's preparing himself for it by, among other things, talking with the DH he hit behind for many years in Cleveland. Travis Hafner, in turn, gave him some advice.
"I talked to him a lot," Martinez said at TigerFest last month. "I hit behind him for a long time. Right now, he's kind of hurt with his shoulder. But when he was healthy, he's amazing. Hitting behind him, it's amazing.
"I asked him the things he does as a DH, because he's been a DH for so long. He told me you have to do a lot mentally. Maybe people think that it's easy to be a DH, but it's hard. You have to keep warm, ride the bike, stretch yourself. You can't just sit there for a half an hour, an hour, and you get the at-bat again and just go out there and hit. It's not like that. He explained [that] to me. It makes a lot of sense."
For what it's worth with a small sample size, Martinez has batted .235 (28-for-119) with five home runs and 21 RBIs at DH, 65 points below his overall career average. He went 1-for-16 as a DH last year in Boston.
How well Martinez adapts to it is going to have a big impact how much production the Tigers get from their offense.
They've had mixed results in their recent efforts to move position players into primarily DH roles. Gary Sheffield gave his consent to a trade to Detroit in 2006 with the understanding he would be a DH, not an outfielder, and was ready to embrace the role. But try as he might, he still struggled with the inactivity, and he said more than once he was a more effective hitter when he was playing in the outfield rather than standing around.
The Tigers cut Sheffield in 2009 and went with a DH by committee, topped by Marcus Thames' 50 starts in that slot. The results were not pretty: A dozen players combined for a .245 average, 17 home runs and 65 RBIs at DH, including Aubrey Huff's .186 average in his ill-fated Tiger tenure, and Carlos Guillen's reluctant time there.
The DH was still a timeshare last year, but the numbers were somewhat better once Johnny Damon settled into the role. Detroit designated hitters batted .259 with eight homers and 68 RBIs in 2010, with the vast majority going to Damon in the second or third spot in the lineup. He wasn't a traditional DH by any stretch, but he was never expected to slug like one.
It's not a position for everybody, but Martinez is willing to embrace it. Some parts of his preparation remain the same.
"Being a catcher my whole career, that's the only thing I know how to do," he said. "I go into the offseason to prepare myself. I work out, watch my food. My brother is my trainer, the one who cooks for me. I just keep myself in good shape. And going into the season, you take care of your body. That's how I think I've been doing it my whole career. Just take care of yourself, go out there and play the game hard. Play the game the right way and let things happen."
It won't be a complete transition for Martinez, since he'll still be getting some starts behind the plate, especially against a left-handed starting pitcher to rest Avila. To that end, Martinez will have his fair share of work to do in Spring Training to learn his new pitching staff. He isn't going to be somebody's personal catcher, so he's going to have to learn all of them equally well.
Physically, Martinez can prepare as if he's going to play a full season behind the plate. Mentally, he's going to have to prepare for some DH time.
"You know what? I just want to win," Martinez said. "I came here to win. I want to win a World Series, and anything that I can do to get this thing better, I'm up to it. I want to do it. If they need me to play DH, I'll DH. If they need me behind the plate, I'll be behind the plate. Like I said, I just came here with a hunger to win."