Victor Martinez gives Tigers major boost

Updated: September 4, 2011, 1:42 PM ET
By Buster Olney

DETROIT -- When Jim Leyland seems preoccupied, his answers to questions can be clipped, and Saturday afternoon, he delivered a lot of one-line thoughts. A pennant race can do that to you.

But when a visitor to his office asked about the impact of Victor Martinez on his team, Leyland made a speech. "He's one of the best hitters I've ever managed," Leyland said, for an opener. "He's one of the smartest hitters. And he's a great teammate."

Leyland went on from there to describe how well Martinez understands hitting and how he knows how pitchers are trying to attack him and how he knows how to adjust. But Martinez's value, in Leyland's eyes, goes far beyond the protection that he provides for Miguel Cabrera in the Tigers' lineup. "What a great guy on the club," said Leyland, adding that in some respects, Martinez was exactly what the Tigers needed.

It wasn't long after that a bunch of Tigers stood at a table in the clubhouse, circled around the iPad that Martinez had placed in front of them. He had downloaded something funny from the Internet, and the other Tigers were laughing loudly. It was just a moment, a small deed among many that Martinez has provided. He has an understanding of how to say the right thing or do the right thing, his teammates say, of how to be a leader without being a loud mouth or making a big deal about his actions, and he seems to touch all corners of the clubhouse, intangibly and tangibly.

On the first day of spring training this year, Martinez was assigned to catch closer Jose Valverde in his first workout in the bullpen, and Valverde -- who had almost uniformly thrown a four-seam fastball in past years -- mixed in a two-seam fastball, a pitch that usually veers inside against right-handed hitters.

When the session was over, Martinez told Valverde that the two-seamer had pretty good movement. "You ought to keep throwing that," he said. Valverde hadn't thought much of it; he'd always mixed a four-seam fastball and a splitter. But he followed Martinez's advice, and when the exhibition games began, he started throwing his two-seam fastball. What he liked about the pitch the most, he found, was that he could keep it down, out of the most dangerous parts of the strike zone.

"I almost never throw the four-seamer now," said Valverde. "All two-seamers."

Valverde is 40-for-40 in save chances this year; right-handed hitters have a .490 OPS against him. The best thing he has done, Leyland said, is keep the ball out of the middle of the plate.