The HOF Case for … Victor Martinez?

Alex Speier takes a look at the Sox' upcoming decision on whether to extend Victor Martinez, whose contract expires at the end of the 2010 season, and he starts with this eyebrow-raising claim:

Victor Martinez is one of the best hitting catchers in major league history.

As it turns out, Speier isn't altogether incorrect. As he points out, Martinez is 10th in OPS and 17th in OPS+ among all catchers through their age 30 seasons. That ain't bad. He's actually ahead of Thurmon Munson, Jorge Posada and Ivan Rodriguez on the OPS+ list, and he's not far behind Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Gabby Hartnett.

This got me thinking: Is Martinez on a Hall of Fame track?

The short answer: Maybe.

Now, I am not saying, as Tony Massarotti does in yet another poorly written, poorly argued column, that Martinez is "in the same ballpark as Mauer." But one doesn't need to be the best to be great, and Martinez is great … as long as he remains a catcher.

So the question of a contract extension and Martinez's future greatness go hand in hand. They both depend largely on what position he plays for the majority of the rest of his career.

Assuming he's a catcher, Martinez compares favorably to some Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers. His No. 1 comparable on Baseball-Reference is Gabby Hartnett, and it has been for the last three years. Hartnett had a 125 OPS+ through age 30 to Martinez's 121. In about 140 fewer plate appearances, Hartnett has basically the same number of doubles, home runs, RBI and walks. Their lines through age 30 are nearly identical (particularly when adjusting for the slugging-heavy 1920s): .299/.372/.465 for Martinez, .295/.372/.506 for Hartnett. 

Martinez also compares well with Carlton Fisk, who had a 130 OPS+ and a .285/.362/.486 line through age 30, and Jorge Posada (116 OPS+, .268/.369/.465).

Obviously, all those players are Hall of Famers because of what they did after age 30. Hartnett played another 10 years at basically the same level of play (127 OPS+), Fisk played at a 107 OPS+ level (still very good for a catcher) for 15 more seasons. Posada, who I believe is a Hall of Famer, has actually been a better hitter in the seven years since he turned 31 (131 OPS+). 

By another measure, WAR, Sean Smith has Martinez at 22.3 WAR so far (or 2.8 a season), while Posada had 17.1 (2.1) and Hartnett had 23.6 (2.4). Fisk had nearly 35 WAR (3.8 per year) already.

So obviously it remains to be seen, but if Martinez can stick at catcher for the duration of his next contract and maintain the 120-125 OPS+ level, he's got a good shot, which is more than I would have thought.

9 comments… add one

  • That’s the problem I see with Victor’s HOF case – he’s not even a full-time catcher at the age of 30 (he wasn’t even full-time at the age of 29). How is he going to catch over 100 games a season as he continues to age?
    That’s something the Red Sox are going to have to take into account when thinking about re-signing him. There’s a very good chance that Victor simply can’t stay at the catcher position even now, health-wise or defense-wise. He’s already considered one of the worst defensive catchers in the league, and he’s in his prime, or just leaving it.
    I think they’ll let him go like they let Bay go. What should worry everyone is that, unlike the situation with Bay where there were easy replacements, the Red Sox have precisely zero major league options at catcher inside their organization, and the catcher market (sans Mauer) is horrid next year. They might have to shell out that kind of contract to keep Victor around, just to provide a buffer for a year. At least they’ll have an open DH slot to put him in.

    AndrewYF February 12, 2010, 1:48 pm
  • I agree that I too didn’t really know just how good Victor Jesus Martinez has been offensively throughout his career. I do have a few issues to bring up though. (With the disclaimer of course that if Jorge Posada can stick at catcher this long, than VM has a shot as well)
    1. Martinez has only been in the league 8 years and in only 5 of them has he had more than 500 AB’s (a full season). Not that he’s fragile, I am just saying the sample size to date is still relatively small.
    2. If Martinez was on another team he might not even be a full time catcher in 2010. He’s needed in Boston as the catcher and so that’s where he will play, but last season he played almost as many games at 1B as he did at C. The transition has begun. At 31, I can’t imagine he’s long for the tools of ignorance.
    3. Of his 5 “full” seasons, 1 of them (515 PA’s) has come at 1B, leaving the sample size at C even smaller. In those 515 PA’s he has also hit substantially better than he did as a C. BA is 16 pts higher, 14 pts higher, OPS nearly 50 pts higher, 30 pts higher in BAbip, he even hits more HR’s per AB (1 every 26 vs 1 every 30). By all accounts he’s a better hitter when he plays 1B, problem is the numbers he puts up at 1B (without looking) probably don’t afford him a HOF nod.
    Looking at Fisk, Carter, Posada (using your names) these guys all played the bulk of their career at C. Posada for example over 5000 PA’s as a C, just over 300 as 1B and DH and that’s in 15 seasons (11 of which he logged over 400 AB’s). Sure Fisk played 1B, OF, 3B even, but not with the regularity that Martinez has already. Gary Carter does have over 600 PA’s as a RF/1Bman, but that’s out of 9000 PA’s over his career.
    The point being this, if at the end of V-Mart’s career we look at his numbers I am certain he would be one of the best offensive catchers in recent history, BUT…He may/will not have enough PA’s as a C to really be considered a full time catcher. So if you just take his numbers into consideration as a player (overall) I think he falls short. Unless of course he goes on a tear, but I just don’t see him getting to HOF levels as a player.
    If he signs with a team that will allow him to catch for the next 5 seasons until he’s 36/37, like Posada and the Yankees, then the discussion can be spot on. It’s just my opinion that he won’t get such a chance. (BUT like I said the Yankees gave it to Posada, so who knows.)

    John - YF February 12, 2010, 1:56 pm
  • A couple issues with your issues, John (and Andrew).
    1. If 515 PAs is a full season, then Martinez has more than seven “full” seasons in baseball (3,600+ PAs), of which one has been as a first baseman. That’s 84 percent of the time being a catcher. Martinez has appeared in 877 games in his career; he has appeared at first base in 15 percent of them.
    2. I certainly don’t argue that if Martinez doesn’t stick at catcher, he’s got no shot. The question is, can he? If the Sox sign him, the answer is probably yes, barring an injury. They won’t be signing him to take over DH/1B with Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder, et al. expected to be available over the next two years.
    3. Martinez’s defense is a question.
    — Total Zone, which Smith uses to derive historical WAR totals has Martinez as a league-average fielder, but then, you don’t expect catchers to do much in the way of range.
    — The Hardball Times has projected 2010 caught stealing percentages based on data for the last three years and has Martinez as middle of the pack, allowing 1.1 more runs than average on the basepaths per 120 games. That’s just not very much. Posada, for example, will allow 4.6 more. Varitek, were he given the playing time, would allow 6.9 more, worst in baseball. 6.9 runs is a lot, especially in a close-fought division where one win can make all the difference. But 1.1 is not.
    — Beyond the Boxscore projected catchers’ block rates for 2010 (which is what you think it is: how well they’re projected to block pitches in the dirt) based on the last three years of data, and Martinez again comes out middle of the pack, at 0.2 runs above average per 120 games.
    That would seem to indicate that Martinez is not a liability behind the plate, as he’s often described. And if Martinez is not a defensive liability, there is no reason not to sign him for $10-12M per season for four years. And if he can stay healthy and effective with the bat, while staying league average or slightly below behind the plate, then he will be a catcher through the life of the contract and will have a very good HOF case.
    The main question with this is Martinez’s CS% over the past few years. It remained steady at 32% and was a career-high 37% in 2008, but was just 14% last season. It stands at 24% over his career, which is around what THT projects him for 2010. Martinez had hamstring and elbow issues in 2008 that certainly affected his hitting, and that gaudy 37% number occurred over just 35 steal attempts, so sample size could be distorting how much his throwing also was affected by the elbow problems.
    So I think the first half will be very telling. Did recovering from elbow surgery have lingering effects on his ability to throw out baserunners? If so, will having a full season and two offseasons to heal up bring his numbers back up? If so, I think the Sox will push hard to extend him midseason because there’s no indication otherwise that he cannot be an adequate catcher defensively, and every indication that he’s a once-in-a-lifetime (for the Sox) catcher with the bat.

    Paul SF February 12, 2010, 5:28 pm
  • he’s not even a full-time catcher at the age of 30 (he wasn’t even full-time at the age of 29). How is he going to catch over 100 games a season as he continues to age?
    Martinez was a full-time catcher through 2008. One season, in which he was recovering from hamstring and elbow injuries the year before, doesn’t really change that. If anything, it may extend his ability to remain behind the plate. *shrug* We’ll see. One thing I’m definitely not saying is that it’s a slam dunk that Martinez is going to be a full-time catcher from here on out. This year should tell us a lot.

    Paul SF February 12, 2010, 5:38 pm
  • Ok, one last thing is this Driveline Mechanics piece that ranks all catchers defensively for 2009, and even with his awful CS% last year, Martinez still was just -2.2 runs for the whole season behind the plate. Maybe if he catches a full season he’s closer to -3 or -4, but then perhaps the larger sample size regresses the CS% closer to the mean. At any rate, despite the rep, it just doesn’t seem like he’s that bad back there.

    Paul SF February 12, 2010, 5:48 pm
  • This is very interesting, Paul. It hadn’t occurred to me that Martinez could very well be on his way to the hall-of-fame, or, at the very least, he has not yet been ruled out. There was a piece that Joe Posnanski wrote a month or two ago which was essentially a listing of players under the age of 30 who he predicted would end up in the Hall. The premise of the piece was that he’d likely be wrong about a number of people on the list given how unpredictable career paths are. For instance, after Nomar’s first few years in baseball, did it seem possible that he’d end up not making the Hall? Believe it or not, Pedro Guerrero seemed Hall-bound at one point very early in his career. So, of course, that is the caveat with predicting VMart’s career going forward.
    In any case, Posnanski’s piece and now yours has me thinking of doing a post that handicaps the chances of Yanks and Sox players’ getting into the hall-of-fame. The Yanks, of course, as it has seemed through much of the last 15 years have a ridiculous number of players who will make it Cooperstown. It seems to me that the Sox peaked in this category around 2004, but currently they don’t have as many candidates/
    So for the Yanks:
    The Definite
    Mariano
    Jeter
    The Likely
    A-Rod- basically, I think, after some time, voters are going to get over the PED thing. His perverse love of tropical fish, on the other hand…
    Borderline
    Jorge
    Pettitte
    Too Early to Tell but making a Strong Early Case:
    Sabathia
    Cano
    Granderson (but this is definitely a stretch)
    And just about everyone else doesn’t have a shot
    Red Sox
    Definite:
    No one
    The Likely:
    No one
    Borderline:
    No one yet
    Too Early to Tell but making a Strong Early Case:
    Martinez
    Pedroia
    Youkilis
    Papelbon
    Beckett
    Lester
    Ellsbury (this is a generous listing, but his steal totals are notable already and if bat improves he could rack up some interesting numbers).
    Am I missing something? Do you agree?

    Nick-YF February 12, 2010, 10:49 pm
  • In the research I found, there are just 13 Catchers in the HOF. (I was surprised by this as well…could it be wrong?)
    Math is not my strong point, so I will give this a shot:
    Yogi Berra – Less than 10% of his AB’s came from positions other than C. (This surprises me to be quite honest, I thought he was the best defense for V-Mart. I remember hearing how much OF he played, but the #’s say otherwise.)
    Roger Bresnahan – Is probably the best defense of not being a full time catcher, but I can’t tell for sure. The guy played in the late 1800’s-early 1900’s, so the stats aren’t as easy to follow/find.
    Buck Ewing – See above.
    Johnny Bench – Is the best comparison. He had roughly 17% of his AB’s come as something other than Catcher.
    Gary Carter – Is roughly 8%.
    So much like I said in the first post, if he can continue then yes he falls right in line both % of time catching and with his offensive prowess, I just don’t see it happening. (But again, if it can happen to Posada, it can happen to V-Mart, so time will tell)
    Also, I never questioned his defense out loud, so I assume that was directed to Andrew. My belief is that sure I’d love to have a Carlos Ruiz, Brad Ausmus or Yadier Molina, but what those guys give you defensively, they almost negate some of their value by what they prove offensively. (Molina is a fairly good offensive player.) Point being there are so few above avg defensive catchers that if you can win one end (Posada, V-Mart, etc…) then I will take it.

    John - YF February 12, 2010, 11:40 pm
  • The question might better be:
    Is Martinez one of the best catching hitters ever?

    SF February 13, 2010, 6:53 am
  • I think you’re right, Nick. The Sox’ core is so young that they don’t really have any vets who have sewn up their HOF status yet. Drew is the closest, and while he’ll likely drop off the ballot the first year, he probably deserves more consideration than that (he already has more WAR than Jim Rice, Phil Rizzuto, Roger Bresnahan, Red Schoendienst and Lou Brock, among other borderline Hall of Famers, and the same number as Posada, Dale Murphy and Gil Hodges, among borderline guys, and will likely finish with more than borderline HOFers Nellie Fox, Earl Combs, Kirby Puckett, Ralph Kiner and Orlando Cepeda).
    Francona maybe should be in the “Borderline” category for now, as well. Another ring, or even just going to the playoffs another five years out of six would probably sew that up. He might be in anyway because of 2004. Not sure.
    You’re right that ’04 was the crest — Pedro, Manny and Schilling should all go in (though Manny is now a PED case, so who knows?). I could see Lester and Pedroia having the best shots of any of the Sox’ current young guys. Youkilis got too late of a start, and Ellsbury needs to show some real improvement this year before I’d throw him in the discussion. Beckett, Lackey and Martinez are all in the same boat. If they keep up their production to date for another five to seven years, they’d probably be in. But that’s obviously very hard to do.
    Papelbon’s probably somewhere in between, but I think he’s going to blow out his shoulder at some point, so I’ve mentally been discounting his chances.
    Teixeira should probably be on your list, as well.

    Paul SF February 13, 2010, 10:40 am

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