Martinez’s catching is now well-received

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / August 30, 2010

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Victor Martinez was as much a first baseman as he was a catcher last season, as only 54 percent of the innings he spent on the field were behind the plate.

That changed radically this season. The Red Sox decided over the winter that Martinez would be their full-time catcher, and he has started only six games at first base.

Martinez, who turns 32 in December, has enjoyed getting back to the position he knows best.

“I always said I was a catcher and that’s what I want to do,’’ he said before last night’s game against the Rays. “I’ve enjoyed it this season. People asked me how it was going to be and I was never worried.’’

Martinez had a rough time catching after the Indians sent him to the Red Sox at the trade deadline last season. Pitchers had a 5.22 earned run average when he was behind the plate, with opponents compiling an .806 OPS. The difference between Martinez and Jason Varitek was stark.

Several pitchers, particularly Josh Beckett, made it clear they preferred to pitch to Varitek, whose influence on the staff was significant.

That gap has narrowed considerably this season. Red Sox pitchers have a 4.10 ERA with Martinez and opposing hitters have a .726 OPS. The pitchers have a 4.01 ERA with Varitek and are allowing a .676 OPS.

Clay Buchholz has thrown to Martinez in 22 of his 25 starts. He has a 1.96 ERA with Martinez behind the plate and could join CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee as Cy Young Award winners for whom Martinez was the primary catcher.

Buchholz is 21-6 with a 2.75 ERA in his last 33 starts dating to last season. Martinez has caught 30 of those games.

And while Beckett has been uniformly poor this season, it’s worth noting that he has a 5.79 ERA in the seven games Martinez has caught him compared with a 7.18 ERA in six games caught by Varitek.

“Victor has been great with me. We have good chemistry,’’ Buchholz said. “He keeps me in the game and I think he calls a great game. I love pitching to him.’’

In recent days, Jon Lester and John Lackey also have commented on how Martinez helped them get through games.

Lester, who allowed one run in seven innings against the Rays Friday, was, for him, effusive in his praise for Martinez.

“I can only speak for myself. But Victor does a great job of controlling the game, controlling the tempo and giving you breaks when he thinks you need them,’’ he said.

“A lot of times things get overlooked on how good a catcher he is because he doesn’t throw a lot of guys out. But that’s more a stat for us pitchers than catchers. I think as good a defensive catcher as he is gets overlooked.’’

For the most part, Martinez has not had the offensive impact the Red Sox were hoping for this season. He went into last night’s game hitting .292 with 13 home runs and 54 RBIs. Three of those homers came in the first two games of this series.

But when compared with other American League catchers, Martinez’s batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage are second only to Minnesota’s Joe Mauer.

Martinez played most of the season with a left big toe that looks to have been run over by a cement truck, the result of a foul tip in May when he was catching. He also eschewed any minor league rehabilitation games after missing 22 games with a broken left thumb. He has started every game since.

“I think that’s a pretty phenomenal feat. I don’t know if most people realize how hard that is when you have sat for a while to come back and catch every day,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “Now it looks like after being out there for a while, the body gets beat up then you kind of get used to it.

“He did that for Cleveland, too. That’s part of what he does. He likes to play. He doesn’t ever want to have a day off.’’

Martinez will become a free agent after this season. The Red Sox, he said, have not opened negotiations on a new contract. Martinez hopes to stay with the team, saying he is “very comfortable’’ with the players and with playing in Boston.

“When you look at everything that happened this season with the injuries, we’re still in it,’’ he said. “This team is going to be a contender next season. I want to be around for that. But we’ll see what happens.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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