CLEVELAND -- The defensive shift was strong to his pull side, and he had just swung through a slider for strike two.
The deck was stacked against Victor Martinez in his second-inning at-bat against the Indians' Corey Kluber on Monday night. But the player already denying the effects of time and the might of pitchers' counts pays little mind to such things.
Martinez beat the shift and the 2-2 count by reaching down below his knees to smack Kluber's 95-mph sinker over the shift and into the seats beyond the right-field wall.
This was V-Mart's 11th homer of the young season, an incredible rate of production from the 35-year-old designated hitter made more amazing when you note that he's struck out just nine times.
"At any point in the year," said Tigers hitting coach Wally Joyner, "that's impressive."
What might be most impressive is the way Martinez so often straddles the line between clout and a K and comes out on the right side. It's one thing to have the best two-strike batting average (.363) in the big leagues and quite another to post that average when you've reached a two-strike situation in 49 percent of your plate appearances. Thirteen of Martinez's 29 hits with two strikes have gone for extra bases.
MLB LEADERS IN TWO-STRIKE COUNTS THROUGH MONDAY
|Player||Team||Avg. in 2-K counts|
|Alexei Ramirez||White Sox||.300|
In other words, Martinez has that underrated prerequisite of all great hitters: He is unafraid of two-strike counts, and he has a discernible ability to make the best of them.
To this, Martinez credits his past profession: catcher.
"I've seen some stuff with two strikes, from being a catcher for a long time," Martinez said. "I've seen stuff where they get you to two strikes, and a lot of pitchers don't know how to finish you off."
The relative difficulty of finishing off Martinez is not some novel phenomenon. Going back to 2004, his first full season in the bigs, Martinez has a .238 average in two-strike counts that ranks 16th among all qualified hitters in that span and seventh among active players on the list. His rate of 4.06 plate appearances between strikeouts over the last decade is well above the Major League average of 2.67 in that same span.
Joyner, a tough out in his own right back in the day, marvels at the intensity Martinez brings to each at-bat.
"He's got a hunger to be successful," Joyner said. "He's determined. He challenges himself every pitch. It's fun to watch."
They probably didn't foresee the drastic decline in production Fielder has endured thus far in his age-30 season. But they did assume Martinez, now two years removed from the dual knee surgeries that cost him the 2012 campaign (and led to Detroit's signing of Fielder in the first place), would be back to full health.
While Martinez did have a strong 2013, posting a .301 average and .355 on-base percentage for the American League Central champs, his power was compromised as he worked to get his legs back into playing shape. His .430 slugging percentage was his lowest since an injury-plagued '08 in Cleveland.
This year, the power has spiked to the point that, 40 games into the Tigers' season, Martinez's .605 slugging percentage is the best in the AL. Martinez himself admits the home run rate is unsustainable, and he still has his work cut out for him if he wants to become just the 26th player all-time to hit at least 30 homers and strike out fewer times than he goes deep.
But the physical feeling is encouraging, and the early results are enticing.
"I definitely feel way better," Martinez said. "One thing is being able to use my legs to be able to hit the ball up in the air."
Martinez has this go-to line he uses in pretty much every interview: "When you put a good swing on a ball, anything can happen."
That's a simple philosophy that can get lost in the grind of the 162-game schedule and the 600-some plate appearances that come with it for a healthy, qualified hitter.
At a time the league-wide strikeout rate has reached unforeseen levels, and in a sport in which it's all too easy to give away opportunities at the plate or flail against a pitcher who has the technological ability to scrutinize your every swing, Martinez's approach continues to stand out. Detroit manager Brad Ausmus said he's never seen a player with so much focus from pitch to pitch, and Terry Francona, who managed Martinez in Boston, exaggerated only slightly when he said V-Mart "can hit one from his shoe tops to his ears."
Whether you believe in the concept of lineup protection, there is little doubt that Cabrera and Martinez feed off each other with a healthy competition to outdo one another. Perhaps the biggest key to the Tigers' tremendous start is that Martinez is, at this point, actually winning that competition, and he and Cabrera are in the midst of a scorching May.
"I've seen a lot of people surprised about my power," Martinez said. "I've hit 20 home runs a couple times before, so I know it's there. But at the same time, I understand my game. I know that's not my game. I just make sure I'm going to be a tough out."
In any count.