Top 100 Indians: #35 Victor Martinez

LGT's countdown of the greatest players in franchise history continues with the team's top catcher ever.


Victor Jesus Martinez

Catcher, First Baseman, 2002-2009

Height: 6'2" Weight: 210 lbs

Throws: Right Bats: Both

Acquired: July 15, 1996 (Amateur Free Agent)

Left: Trade, July 31, 2009 (Traded to Boston Red Sox for J.Masterson, N.Hagadone and B.Price)

Author's note: At best, this work might be considered a companion piece to a tremendous story written by Jay when Martinez was traded. If you weren't around these parts back then, take the time to read it today.

Victor Martinez was born and raised in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela. Martinez's father died when he was fairly young, forcing Martinez' mother to work as a nurse in two different hospital in order to make enough to raise Victor and his three siblings. Martinez was driven to succeed, to remove this great burden from his mother's shoulders, and provide for his family. Victor's talent was noticed by area scouts before he entered high school, and he signed with the Indians as an international free agent in July of 1996, when he was 17. Like many of the finest players to come out of Latin America, Martinez was then a shortstop. Not long after the Indians signed him though, they announced that they intended to convert him into a catcher. Victor wasn't pleased by the news.

"I almost went home. I had played shortstop all my life, and I really loved it... Learning to play catcher was hard: getting used to blocking balls, being aware of everything, throwing. It was a very difficult adjustment."

Ultimately, he made the adjustment, and was eventually considered a plus defender. He was voted by Eastern League managers as the best defensive catcher in the league at one point, an impressive accomplishment for someone still relatively new to the position. The defense was a nice bonus, but what made Martinez stand out from Day 1 was his offense. The Indians had Martinez stay in Venezuela for the first couple years after they signed, and in his first season in their rookie-level summer league, he hit .344.

The Indians brought Martinez to the States in 1999. He played in the NY-Penn League that season, then spent most of 2000 in Columbus (Georgia), with the Tribe's Single-A affiliate from those days. He missed two months with a rotator cuff injury that year, and continued to show little power, but he hit a lot of line drives and showed good command of the plate, walking twice as many times as he struck out. His approach was advanced for his age and his mechanics were sound from both sides of the plate.

"We used to play baseball in my backyard when I was growing up, and when I was seven or eight years old I just started switch-hitting on my own... It wasn't that I was thinking that it would be good to be a switch-hitter so I could play professional baseball. It was just something I did because I liked doing it."

Martinez spent 2001 in the Carolina League (High-A), where he his hitting blossomed. He won the batting title with a .329 average and had 45 extra-base hits, helping him to a .488 slugging percentage, 3rd in the league. He was voted Carolina League MVP and was named Indians Minor League Player of the Year. In 2002 Martinez was promoted to Double-A Akron, where he did even better. He hit .336, winning himself another batting title, and also led the league in OBP (.417) and SLG (.576). He also finished second in the league in home runs (22), as he led the Aeros to a 93-48 record, best in the league by 14.5 games. Martinez was named Eastern League MVP and, for the second year in a row, Indians Minor League Player of the Year.

After the Eastern League season ended, Martinez was given his first taste of the show. He made his MLB debut on September 10, 2002, collecting his first hit. On the final day of the regular season, he hit his first MLB home run. Minor League prospects had begun to receive more attention from fans by 2002, and between his back-to-back fantastic seasons and solid production in that first stint in Cleveland, Tribe fans were high on Martinez as 2003 rolled around. They'd have to wait a little longer, as the front office decided to give Martinez some final seasoning at Triple-A Buffalo. He was batting .329 there when the Indians finally gave in to the inevitable and called him up to Cleveland for good.

In 2004, Victor's first full season in the Majors, all he did was post a .283/.359/.492 line, with 38 doubles and 23 home runs. He was named to the American League All-Star team; at season's end he was awarded the Silver Slugger at catcher and listed on a handful of MVP ballots. His 125 OPS+ was the highest by an Indians catcher since John Romano in 1962. the 23 home runs were just two shy of the franchise record Romano set that same season. A switch-hitting catcher with solid contact skills, plate command, and power... Martinez was a revelation.

2005 got off to a miserable start for Martinez. Through May 28, his batting line was .193/.263/.273. On May 29th though, he hit a double and a home run. From that point on, he hit .348/.420/.552 in his final 455 plate appearances of the season. Martinez was a solid defender at that point too, and all told, he was the best catcher in baseball that year, and I think it's the finest season by any catcher in Indians history.

In 2006 Martinez upped his batting average to .316, and by also drawing 71 walks, he posted a .391 OBP. Only three American League catchers in the last 30 years have beat that in a full season. Steve O'Neill is the only other catcher in team history to post a figure that high. Marinez has company too. Travis Hafner was a monster at the plate, Grady Sizemore was one of the best all-around players in baseball, and the tribe had scored 870 runs, second-most in baseball. Good things were happenings.

Martinez had also become one of the most likable players ever to play for the Tribe. He played with such joy, and was the life of the dugout party. He created a unique handshake for every single member of the team, and they clearly loved him for it. I'm not sure the Indians have ever had an official captain since Nap Lajoie (when the team was named after him), but Victor Martinez was very much the captain by the end of 2006.

If Victor's 2005 isn't the best season by a catcher in Tribe history, his 2007 is. Martinez put up a line of .301/.374/.505, leading the team in battine average, slugging percentage, OPS, home runs, and run batted in. His 114 RBI are the most by an American League catcher since Yogi Berra in 1954. The only catchers since then in either league who've topped that are Johnny Bench and Mike Piazza. Martinez was the best hitter on a team that finished with the best record in baseball. When the Tribe faced the Yankees in the ALDS, Martinez singled in his first postseason trip to the plate. Later, he hit a two-run homer that broke the game open in a 12-3 win. In 11 games that postseason, Martinez collected 14 hits and was intentionally walked 3 times. He finished 7th in AL MVP voting.

Martinez strained his hamstring on Opening Day in 2008, but he still managed to bat .366 in April. What was missing though, was his power. Martinez hadn't hit a single home run (after hitting 25 the year before). In May, his elbow began bothering him, he still wasn't hitting for power, and his average fell off too. Finally, after six weeks in which he hit .216, still without a single home run, the Indians put him on the disabled list. Martinez had surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow and missed nearly 3 months. He made it back in time start 17 games as the season wound down, and posted a solid .807 OPS after his return, but on the whole, it was a lost season for Martinez.

Victor bounced right back in 2009, with numbers only a tick beneath those of his best seasons. He was also getting closer and closer to free agency, which he'd be eligible for following the 2010 season. The Indians didn't plan on re-signing him, and didn't want to let him walk for nothing, so a trade began to feel inevitable. When the All-Star break rolled around, the Indians were just 35-54, mired in their worst season in nearly twenty years. If Martinez was going to be dealt during the offseason anyway, there was little reason to hold onto him for the rest fo 2009.

On July 29, Martinez hit his final home run as a member of the Indians, a 3-run shot that put the Tribe ahead in the 9th:

Two days later, and two days after Cliff Lee was traded to Philadelphia, Victor was sent to Boston, completing one of the more depressing weeks in Indians history. Martinez did well with Boston for a year and a half, then signed as a free agent with Detroit. There are few teams as difficult for Tribe fans to get behind as the Red Sox and Tigers, but I have too much affection for Martinez to ever root against him.

Victor Martinez is the greatest catcher in franchise history, and he'll always be one of my favorite players.

Career numbers with Indians:

Year Age Tm G PA R H 2B HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2002 23 CLE 12 36 2 9 1 1 5 .281 .333 .406 .740 99
2003 24 CLE 49 174 15 46 4 1 16 .289 .345 .333 .678 84
2004 25 CLE 141 591 77 147 38 23 108 .283 .359 .492 .851 125
2005 26 CLE 147 622 73 167 33 20 80 .305 .378 .475 .853 130
2006 27 CLE 153 652 82 181 37 16 93 .316 .391 .465 .856 122
2007 28 CLE 147 645 78 169 40 25 114 .301 .374 .505 .879 129
2008 29 CLE 73 294 30 74 17 2 35 .278 .337 .365 .701 88
2009 30 CLE 99 435 56 107 21 15 67 .284 .368 .464 .832 122
CLE (8 yrs) 821 3449 413 900 191 103 518 .297 .369 .463 .832 120

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com

Sources

Baseball-Reference

Baseball America


Selected awards and AL leaders:

  • All-Star: 2004, 2007, 2009
  • MVP: 2007 (7th); 2005 (18th); 2004 (21st); 2009 (21st)
  • Silver Slugger: 2004
  • WAR Position Players: 9th, 2005 (5.2)
  • Batting Average: 7th, 2005 (.305)
  • On Base Percentage: 10th, 2006 (.391)
  • Slugging Percentage: 10th, 2007 (.505)
  • RBI: 5th, 2009 (108); 7th, 2007 (114); 10th, 2004 (108)
  • Intentional Walks: 5th, 2007 (12); 7th, 2004 (11); 7th, 2005 (9)
  • Win Probability Added: 8th, 2009 (3.3); 9th, 2005 (3.4)
  • Assists as C: 1st, 2004 (61); 3rd, 2005 (58); 5th, 2007 (53)
  • AL Caught Stealing %: 4th, 2008-37.1
  • AL Range Factor/Game C: 3rd, 2004-7.02; 4th, 2005-6.77

Cleveland Indians career leader boards:

  • 32nd WAR Position Players (19.3)
  • 25th oWAR (22.7)
  • t-26th Average (.297)
  • t-33rd On Base Percentage (.369)
  • t-25th Slugging (.463)
  • 22nd OPS (.832)
  • 49th Games Played (821)
  • 44th At Bats (3035)
  • 45th Plate Appearances (3449)
  • t-45th Runs Scored (413)
  • 41st Hits (900)
  • 39th Total Bases (1404)
  • 28th Doubles (191)
  • t-21st Home Runs (103)
  • t-25th Runs Batted In (518)
  • 36th Bases On Balls (347)
  • 33rd Strikeouts (407)
  • t-40th Singles (604)
  • t-29th OPS+ (120)
  • t-33rd Runs Created (510)
  • 31st Extra Base Hits (296)
  • t-41st Hit By Pitch (27)
  • 9th Sacrifice Flies (40)
  • 5th Intentional Bases On Balls (47)
  • 9th Double Plays Grounded Into (110)
  • t-20th Win Probability Added (7.7)

Cleveland Indians season leader boards:

  • t-36th Runs Batted In (114, 2007)
  • t-37th Hit By Pitch (10, 2007)
  • t-6th Sacrifice Flies (11, 2007)
  • t-13th Intentional Bases On Balls (12, 2007)
  • t-17th Intentional Bases On Balls (11, 2004)
  • t-37th Intentional Bases On Balls (9, 2005)
  • t-49th Intentional Bases On Balls (8, 2006)
  • t-2nd Double Plays Grounded Into (27, 2006)
  • t-29th Double Plays Grounded Into (19, 2007)
  • t-49th Win Probability Added (3.3, 2005)
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