When your backup catcher wins a game with a two-out bunt single, and your converted reliever pitches a two-hit shutout over seven innings, you are thankful for the unexpected boosts to your division-leading record. But over the long haul, what consistently wins games are steady, reliable, day-in and day-out performances from your stars, or as was written here earlier this week, the “front line players”.
In the heart of their order the Detroit Tigers have two of the most consistent hitters in the game. And there is an odd sort of parallelism to their careers.
Both Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez were born in Venezuela, VMart in Cuidad Bolivar in December 1978 and Miggy in Maracay in April 1983. The two cities are just over 300 miles apart near the country’s Caribbean coast. Though Martinez is older, both men made their major league debuts at about the same time. Martinez had a cup of coffee with Cleveland in 2002 and played 49 games the next year. Cabrera played 87 games as a rookie with the Florida Marlins in 2003 and was immediately an impact player, helping The Fish win the World Series that fall.
Victor hit .289 his first full season and .283 in 2004. Except for 2008, when he was injured and played only 73 games and hit .278, he’s hit over .300 every year since. For those seven full seasons (2005-2007, 2009-2011, and 2013) when he’s been established in the majors and healthy, Martinez has hit with remarkable consistency. His batting average has hovered between .301 and .336, his on-base percentage between .351 and .405, and his slugging between .464 and .507. He’s struck out between 51 and 78 times a year. It’s hard to get more dependable than that.
Miggy, too, has very consistently recorded even more impressive numbers, with more power and a higher ceiling. In his 10 full seasons since his rookie year, he’s always had 648 to 697 plate appearances, hit 26 to 44 homers, driven in between 103 and 139 runs, batted .292 to .348, recorded an on-base mark of .349 to .448, and slugged .512 to .636.
These two are guys you can count on year in and year out to be extremely productive hitters. They are anchors in the Detroit offense. That’s why it’s seemed such an aberration for Cabrera to get off to such a slow start this season. In April, he hit only two homers. As the calendar turned to May, his on-base was barely .300 and his slugging barely .400. His OPS (on-base plus slugging) was about 250 points below his career average.
Cabrera hit only two homers last September, too, but that’s because a bunch of injuries had left him gimpy and struggling. But this spring he was supposed to be recovered, and there is no sign of ill health. So why had he suddenly become something like a league-average hitter?
Many theories were advanced, mostly having to do with his inability to get hits to the opposite field, where he’s excelled in the past. That measure — hits to right — was noticeably down. At the end of April it was starting to recover somewhat. But the power had not yet returned.
Luckily for the Tigers, their other Mr. Dependable has remained money in the bank. From either side of the plate, at every point in the game, in any pitch count, Victor Martinez is a menacing hitter who will put the ball in play, usually sharply and with authority.
What a one-two punch! Who can you compare them to? Well, obviously trying to rank Miggy at this point in his career is an exercise in superlatives. Baseball Reference makes a stab at this, and they say the most comparable players to Cabrera through age thirty are Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson, in that order. For VMart, the comparative players at age thirty-four are more surprising — Rich Aurilia (really?) and Barry Larkin.
Martinez seems to be aging like fine wine. If anything, he’s getting better. And Miggy certainly has many more great seasons ahead, right? Well, nothing is certain in baseball — except that he’s going to be paid to be the best hitter in baseball for the next decade.
Odds are that the first twenty or so games of 2014, back from his core surgery, with the Tigers playing in bad weather with a lot of off days, are just a blip for Cabrera. The middle of the Tigers’ lineup is solid and potent. Martinez had a slow start in 2013, too, because he’d been injured the previous season — but otherwise, he is always a sure bet. The Tigers’ one-two punch is probably unmatched in the game.