Last season, the Tigers were a relatively middling offense, finishing seventh in the AL in wRC+ with a total of 105. They also had quite an obvious hole to fill, as their catchers put up the fourth-worst wRC+ in the league, by far their worst ranking at any position. Their wRC+ of 69 and catcher WAR of 0.7 gave GM Dave Dombrowski a clear goal entering the offseason, and one that he fulfilled rather quickly. Dombrowski needed to sign the best catcher available, and he certainly did, quickly inking Victor Martinez to the largest contract of the offseason up to that point, at four years and $50 million.
However, for Martinez to truly be the Tigers’ perfect pickup, the Tigers need to understand how they can best use him in order to maximize his value and give him the best possible chance to provide value equal to or exceeding the dollar value of his deal. Dombrowski has stated that Martinez will likely catch just 2-3 games per week, with Alex Avila continuing to be the team’s number one catcher. Much of Martinez’s value is lost by putting him behind the plate, as while Martinez was a 4.0 WAR player as a catcher last season, without the adjustment he gets for catching most of his games he’s pretty much Vladimir Guerrero. Guerrero put up a triple-slash of .300/.345/.496, and ended up with a fairly pedestrian 2.6 WAR. Martinez’s triple-slash was .302/.351/.493, but he gets a positional adjustment of 6.4 runs in calculating his WAR, which explains the discrepancy between his WAR and Guerrero’s. If a player were to catch all 162 games (of course that would never happen), they’d get a positional adjustment of 12.5 runs, or more than a full win. An 162-game DH would have 17.5 runs removed from their total, or almost 2 wins. So the question then becomes, is Martinez the DH 3 full wins better than Martinez the catcher?
My guess would be that, no, he isn’t. Of course, Martinez will still be catching some days, and the argument for DHing him is that he’ll maintain his health and be able to have his big-bat impact in more games. I simply don’t buy that he will have enough impact from the DH spot to counteract the value lost by not letting one of the best offensive catchers in the game spend a majority of his time behind the plate. As a catcher, Martinez is an all-star and a world-class player. As a DH, he’s a pretty pedestrian player, quite comparable to other DHs who can likely be had for one-year deals, likely at half or less of Martinez’s contract’s average annual value.
The Tigers’ Perfect Pickup is the best catcher that they can get. That’s Victor Martinez, the catcher. They’ve done the important part by signing Martinez to a four-year deal. Now they need to do the easy part, deploying Martinez in the way that allows the team to maximize his value.