Martinez's growth mirrors Tribe

Martinez's growth mirrors Tribe

CLEVELAND -- No, the Indians say, Victor Martinez was never going to become a first baseman. That wasn't in the blueprint for the club. But as his spot starts at first base grew more frequent last year, he was going to have to become a great catcher.

True, he has been a catcher his entire career, and he has been an All-Star catcher twice, including this season. But for the Indians to take their next step towards becoming a playoff-caliber team, they needed Martinez to become the kind of all-around catcher who makes his presence felt in every facet of a game.

At no point did the Indians lay down a challenge to Martinez. All they did was make sure they knew where his heart stood.

"We felt that if we moved him, it would change the way that we'd have to build our entire team," general manager Mark Shapiro said. "I will tell you that we talked to him, just to make sure that catching was what he wanted to do, and he was very passionate about it. Catching was what he felt was his passion, what he cared about doing -- being a leader, calling a game."

And as the Indians head into the middle games of the American League Championship Series, they feel passionately about their catcher. What Jason Varitek has meant to the Red Sox over the last decade or so, Martinez arguably means as much to his club now. It's not always about his bat anymore, but his arm, his glove and his decisions.

"He takes a tremendous amount of pride in his game. He understands the influence he can have on our ballclub," said manager Eric Wedge, a catcher by trade during his playing days. "As good a hitter as he is, the influence he can have on our ballclub is much greater behind the plate than it is when he's at the plate. I think that says it all right there."

He has always had an influence with his swing. He drove in 108 runs in his first full big league season back in 2004, earning his first All-Star selection. Three straight .300 seasons have followed, and he set career bests this year with 25 home runs and 114 RBIs. His .879 OPS was second among Major League catchers behind Jorge Posada.

He's arguably the closest comparison the Indians can make to Boston's Manny Ramirez or David Ortiz in terms of pure hitting and run production, and he does it playing a premium position. But between injuries and inexperience, his next challenge involved playing his position of catcher at a premium level.

In a way, playing first base was a compliment, because it kept his bat in the lineup on days when he needed a break from squatting down behind the plate for nine innings. Last year, he needed those breaks to help ease the stress on a sore left big toe he hurt on a foul ball and a shoulder that tired down the stretch.

Martinez had never enjoyed great numbers defensively. Better than three out of every four would-be basestealers were successful running on him in 2004, a ratio that increased the next year over an incredible total of 142 starts behind the plate. The low point came last season. With his shoulder tired, opponents swiped 100 bases on him compared to 22 runners thrown out, six of them by the pitcher. At times, Kelly Shoppach was a defensive option behind the plate after Martinez threw out just five runners in 66 attempts through July 6.

Martinez cared about shutting down the running game, but like a pitcher out of sync, he was battling his body. Once last season wound down, he underwent a makeover on his throwing game, starting with his health.

Cleveland's strength and conditioning crew put in an offseason plan to strengthen his arm. Meanwhile, third-base coach Joel Skinner, himself a former catcher, worked on Martinez's mechanics, from the angle he put on his throw to the location of his arm at his release point.

complete coverage
Home  |  News  |  Multimedia  |  Photos

"From Spring Training to the start of the season," Skinner said, "he was able to do the things that he wanted to work on and took ownership of it. It's exciting to see a guy do that."

Add to that an improved effort on the part of pitchers to hold runners at first base, and traffic on the basepaths dramatically slowed. The 70 bases stolen off Martinez marked a career low for a full season, and his 30 runners thrown out were a career high. Only Texas' Gerald Laird and Seattle's Kenji Johjima had better ratios among regular AL catchers.

But his defense only tells half of his story in the field. The rest comes from Cleveland's pitchers.

While Martinez took responsibility for improving his defense behind the plate, he also has a stake in what happens on the mound. In the same way that other catchers like Varitek and Ivan Rodriguez received more credit for handling pitchers and calling games as they grew older, Martinez has fostered relationships with Cleveland's young arms and taken a share in their growth.

"He's definitely up for the challenge," Skinner said. "That's what's enjoyable to watch, how much he cares. I mean, he feels it as much as the pitcher, whether it's good or bad. And they feel that coming from him. From that standpoint, when the pitcher knows that you're right there in the trenches with him, that's what comes out of that guy. You see the finished product during the game, but it's all the intricacies, all the things that go on before the game, the communication, all those types of things."

Martinez won't take the credit.

"I'm just back there and trying to make the best outing for any pitcher," Martinez said. "I'm just back there to help them out, and I call the game for them."

To watch him work a game, however, suggests a more active role. He'll seemingly treat C.C. Sabathia differently than he will Fausto Carmona, knowing their personalities as much as their abilities. Much like Varitek, Martinez knows when to go out and talk to a pitcher, and when to leave them alone.

Wedge called his influence "tremendous." Skinner called handling the pitching staff Martinez's No. 1 priority. The pitchers, in turn, have responded.

"I give Victor a lot of credit. He helped me a lot during the whole year," Carmona said through interpreter Luis Rivera. "Every time I feel like I'm struggling or something, Victor will come to the mound and talk to me and make sure I'm under control. I feel like he's been doing the same thing with all the pitchers this year."

In turn, Martinez is doing the same thing that many of the game's noted great catchers do. With Varitek, Rodriguez and Jorge Posada now in their mid-30s, the 28-year-old Martinez is quietly putting together a resume alongside Minnesota's Joe Mauer and the Dodgers' Russell Martin among the next generation of catchers who can control an entire game.

It's a tremendous amount of work, day in and day out. But then, it took Martinez a lot of work to get to this level.

"[He's] one of the hardest workers that I've seen," Wedge said, "and believe me, we've got a lot of them in that clubhouse. But he has done some things that have made him a special player."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.