Free from the elbow pain that hampered him last year, Indians catcher Victor Martinez is back to putting the hurt on the baseball.
No longer must Victor Martinez battle his own body.
Fully recovered from the right elbow problem that sapped his ability to drive the baseball last year, Martinez is once again hitting like the middle-of-the-order fixture he’s expected to be.
“It makes me feel pretty good to go out there and be healthy,” said Martinez this week, the sweat still beaded on his face from a session in the Progressive Field batting cages. “That’s what it’s all about: To be healthy and play this game right.”
That means being the vocal leader of a young ball club and hitting at an elite level.
Entering the weekend, the 30-year-old catcher was batting .394 with five home runs, three doubles and nine RBIs. His nine multi-hit games were tied for first in the American League, while his 26 hits were second and his batting average third.
Compare those numbers to 2008. He hit .273, playing in only 73 games. Most troubling? He hit two home runs and drove in 35 runs. This after career highs of 25 home runs and 114 RBIs in 2007 — a year he finished seventh in the American League MVP voting.
Martinez’s numbers started plummeting in May of 2008. He hit .221 as the discomfort in his elbow increased. But the Indians didn’t reveal the injury. So those outside the organization were left to guess what was wrong with the two-time All-Star.
“He knew he was hurt. We knew he was hurt. But we didn’t say anything,” Indians hitting coach Derek Shelton said. “... It becomes a situation where people are wondering why he’s not doing things. On the flip side he’s trying to grind through it and give us everything he has.”
On June 11, he was removed from a game with elbow inflammation. Two days later he underwent surgery to remove loose bodies from the joint.
Martinez scoffed when asked if it was frustrating that people didn’t know the whole story.
“I don’t really care about what people say,” he said. “I just care about my team and my teammates. Nobody knows what people are feeling.”
Maybe, but one thing is certain. Watching his teammates from the dugout was frustrating.
“It bothered him more than anybody to miss the time he did last year,” Manager Eric Wedge said. “You knew he was going to come in with a belly full of fire, and you’re just starting to see it play out.”
Martinez made it back to the field by late August. He hit his first home run in his 208th at-bat of the season.
To Shelton, that time back last year was important in the process of getting Martinez ready for 2009.
“Once he came to Spring Training and you saw him the first couple of days and the way the ball was coming off his bat, you knew he was healthy,” Shelton said.
The Indians hope that Martinez’s increased time at first base, away from the rigors of catching, will help him stay that way. Through 17 games, Martinez had started 10 times behind the plate and seven times at first.
“I think over the course of the season it’s definitely going to save him,” Shelton said. “... As we get into July, August, September, it’s going to be a factor.”
Haf is back
Indians DH Travis Hafner also is enjoying some good health after a disastrous 2008 thanks to a bad right shoulder. Hafner failed to drive the ball for most of Spring Training, fueling concerns that he wouldn’t be able to gain the powerful form that made him one of baseball’s most feared hitters from 2004 to ‘07.
But the early-season returns look good for Hafner, who had surgery on the shoulder in October. He entered Friday batting .300, with four home runs and four doubles in 50 at-bats.
“Everybody wanted to talk about the first four weeks of Spring Training,” Shelton said. “We kept saying, ‘Let’s wait and focus on the last week and into the season.’
“Until he can play every day, there’s still going to be a progression to it. But it’s getting better. We’re seeing the result of that with the at-bats and the results of the ball coming off his bat.”
Hafner only starts about three consecutive games right now as the Tribe monitors his conditioning. The training staff speaks with him and stretches him out on a daily basis.
Beyond Martinez catching Fausto Carmona and Kelly Shoppach catching Cliff Lee, Wedge doesn’t anticipate settling into a pattern for playing his two catchers. He also doesn’t have a certain number of at-bats in mind for Shoppach this season.
“I want him to put up good at-bats,” Wedge said. “I told him, it’s not about quantity here. It’s about quality.”
Shoppach entered Friday batting .259 with a home run and two doubles in 27 at-bats. He had struck out 10 times. Shoppach’s 21 home runs last year led all American League catchers.