Beware: This takes a turn for the morose about two-thirds of the way through. You really can't help it when talking about theand what motivates their decision-making.
There is no one in baseball history like Victor Martinez, the Tigers' free agent designated hitter who, according to professional baseball soothsayer Ken Rosenthal, is close to re-upping with Detroit for a four-year hitch (perhaps for $68 million). One of the more fun Bill James toys in use at Baseball-Reference is player similarity scores. It's a point-based scale in which every player starts with a score of 1,000 and then you subtract for every difference between any two players (you can find the scoring here). Most players conform to general types, as if they were stamped out of a series of molds, so they usually have at least a few high-scoring twins: Nick Punto is Mark Lemke (959) is Sibbi Sisti (950) is Jose Oquendo (948), which makes intuitive sense -- all are members of the family of light-hitting middle infielders, though Oquendo had a couple of seasons when he was an above-average hitter, so he's just a little bit less similar. Austin Jackson is broadly like Dexter Fowler (963), Marvin Bernard (959), and Gerardo Parra (955). Got it?
V-Mart isn't like anybody. His top three comps are middle infielders Robinson Cano (888), Chase Utley (886), and Nomar Garciaparra (886), which aren't comps at all given that Martinez is a defrocked catcher. If you squint, you can make out what the system is looking for, though: high-average contact hitters with mid-range power.
Most catchers don't fit that mold; their hands usually hurt too much to hit with that kind of precision. Considered as a catcher, Martinez currently has the fifth-highest batting average, .306, of any backstop with at least 5,000 plate appearances, trailing only Mickey Cochrane (.320 at a time when everyone hit .300), Joe Mauer, Bill Dickey, and Mike Piazza. In a sense, the torn ACL and microfractures that cost Martinez the entirety of 2012 freed him from the debilitating burden of being a mediocre defensive catcher (the Tigers were already moving in this direction, but undoubtedly would have been tempted to reconsider given Alex Avila's injuries and inconsistency) to concentrate on what he does best: punish baseballs as frequently as anyone in the game. The only player to have a higher average over the last four years (2000 PA minimum) is his Tigers teammate and fellow Venezuelan Miguel Cabrera.
They raise ‘em right down in Venezuela. More like these two, please. Send C.O.D., we don't care.
In 2014, Martinez had one of the best offensive seasons by any designated hitter since the position was inaugurated back in 1973. He led the AL in on-base percentage, exceeded his previous career high in home runs by seven (32), hit .335/.409/.565, and had a strong postseason for the nanosecond the Tigers were around. (In 39 postseason games, Martinez has hit .315/.374/.503.) Before this season's power spike, he was just a very good hitter. This season, though, would fit into almost any of the all-time greats' resumes and not stick out too badly -- not even every Ted Williams season added up to a 168 OPS+, just most of them.
The Tigers have just signed on for four more years of that. They're not going to get it -- no doubt your mother taught you to be skeptical of slow 35-year-olds who just had their best season, right after she told you not to take candy from strangers. The good news is, if he regresses to his career norms, he's still very good, even by the standards of designated hitters, a position from which about half of the AL teams annually fail to find a hitter who is substantially above-average, or in the case of the Mariners, consistently better than a pitcher. Given that, as long as Martinez doesn't simply come to a dead stop from now through age-39, which given the speed limits imposed by his bionic knees may describe him even when running full out, he should continue to be a positive for the Tigers.
Max Scherzer, another key free agent the Tigers must address this winter (Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports).
As for the money, well, Mike Ilitch is worth billions, is going on 86, and has been in poor health in recent years. You can't take it with you, and if you've endowed your children, your grandchildren, and your great-grandchildren and have something left over, well, you're entitled to splurge on that that World Series trophy, one of those 1,001 Items You Must Have on Your Mantelpiece Before You Die. Yes, it's morbid, but it's also what's at work here, the Tigers throwing the aging curve to the wind because of where the owner is on his own aging curve.
It worked for Gene Autry ... No, wait. It didn't. Even the rich don't always get everything that they want, which is both a comforting thought as well as something that probably keeps the Koch brothers up at night. Not that they need to sleep -- they pay other people to do that for them. Similarly, when V-Mart is no longer up to DHing for the Tigers, IIitch will pay for someone to DH for V-Mart. On a pure baseball basis, this is probably the right tack to take as well: It's not just Martinez and Ilitch who are aging, but the whole of the roster. This team's time is now -- though it will get to be a little less now if Max Scherzer leaves this winter, or David Price departs after next season.
It's all about the short term and the one definite privilege of wealth unconcerned with the future: You can afford to buy whatever rare objects that come your way: the bones of the Elephant Man, the complete works of Norman Rockwell, or a uniquely talented ex-catcher/designated hitter of a certain vintage. Then you set up an incredibly strictured will and leave your collection to the public -- and if Tigers fans are lucky, your personal need translates to a championship for them.
If not, well, you'll never know. The only certitude is that Victor Martinez was a very, very good hitter in 2014.