Originally created 06/12/04

Indians' Martinez catches on quickly



CLEVELAND -- Victor Martinez pulls off a surprise nearly every time he takes the field.

Just last week, the Indians' catcher peered at his target 60 feet away in Jacobs Field and nodded. He wound up and snapped off a better-than-average curveball to reliever Jose Jimenez, who had briefly reversed roles with his batterymate.

After Martinez's curve dropped like a rock into his glove, Jimenez signaled a strike.

It was an otherwise mundane moment during pregame batting practice except for one notable detail: Martinez, a right-hander, threw it left-handed.

His unexpected ambidexterity is the latest quality revealed in the 25-year-old Martinez, who has developed into a leader, an RBI machine and a possible All-Star two months into his first full major league season.

With the exception of Detroit's Ivan Rodriguez, Martinez has been the AL's top catcher.

"There doesn't seem to be a whole lot this kid can't do," said Cleveland third-base coach Joel Skinner, a former big league catcher who serves as Martinez's main tutor.

"He's handled every challenge that we've put in front of him so far," Skinner said. "And then some."

Martinez, a converted shortstop who won two batting titles and two MVPs in the minors, has become Cleveland's best player quicker than anyone anticipated.

A switch-hitter, Martinez has been among the league's RBI leaders for weeks. Going into the weekend, he was batting .309 with 10 homers and 47 RBIs, including 42 as a catcher - most in the majors.

Martinez suffered the first hiccup in his breakout season Thursday night, when he sprained his right foot while rounding first base in the ninth inning. He was expected to miss a weekend series against Cincinnati.

With a sweet swing born on a softball field near his home in Venezuela, Martinez is becoming the middle-of-the-order run producer the Indians have craved since Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome bolted as free agents.

"He's special," said Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, in his third year as Cleveland's batting coach. "He has the uncanny ability to get the bat on the ball. He always seems to get the big hit. He sees the field, knows where the holes are at, and goes for them."

He's finding them, too.

On May 3, Indians manager Eric Wedge moved Martinez into the cleanup spot and he's driven in runs since. In 31 starts hitting fourth, Martinez is batting .325 (40-for-123) with 13 doubles, five homers and 36 RBIs.

Those numbers are more impressive considering he'd never hit in the No. 4 hole before and that he's batting .333 (32-for-96) with runners on base.

"I'm a little bit surprised," Wedge said. "He's just jumped in there like gang busters."

Martinez, too, is a little stunned by his early success.

"Yeah, I am," he said sheepishly while reclining in Cleveland's clubhouse. "But I'm just trying to help the team and trying to get better."

Along with his potent bat, Martinez has improved defensively. He threw out just one of 21 baserunners to open the season but has gone 10-of-29 since.

He credits Skinner for helping improve his mechanics. Skinner says Martinez's work ethic is why opponents are not running wild on the basepaths anymore.

"He's always working on things," Skinner said. "That's why he's got a chance to be great."

Martinez has also shown he can call a game. Wedge trusts his young catcher implicitly to handle Cleveland's young pitching staff, among the league's best this season. Martinez calls about 90 percent of the pitches.

"I love pitching to him," second-year starter Jason Davis said. "He just took the bull by the horns. On a young team, we needed someone to, and Victor hasn't backed down from the responsibility. And, he's getting better everyday."

Opponents have taken notice, too. Martinez isn't seeing some of the same pitches he drove into the outfield gaps early on. But he's such a disciplined hitter that he is continuing to put up big numbers.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a two-time NL All-Star catcher, liked what he saw in Martinez when the Indians won three of four last weekend in Anaheim.

"Anytime you see a young kid come up and move into a premium position (catcher) and be able to handle himself the way he is, it's impressive," Scioscia said. "Combine that with the way he's been swinging the bat and you've got yourself an exciting young player."

After winning batting titles in 2001 (A) and 2002 (AA), Martinez played 73 games at Triple-A Buffalo last season before Cleveland brought him up in June.

He started slowly and missed time with an ankle injury, but finished on a tear, batting .289 in 49 games. However, Martinez was unsatisfied and dedicated himself during the offseason to improve his game.

Along with his wife, Margret, he spent the winter in Cleveland working out. He could have gone home to warm weather, but felt a frozen Ohio winter would be better for his future.

Martinez dropped nearly 20 pounds and reduced his body fat by 5 percent.

"Losing the weight has helped me a lot," he said. "This year, I'm getting to balls I couldn't block last year."

Incredibly, Martinez never wanted to catch. He dreamed of one day playing shortstop in the majors. As a boy, he spent hours hitting and fielding with his younger brother, David, a left-hander in the Indians' system.

"We'd use each other's gloves," Martinez said, explaining his ability to throw with both hands.

But after signing him at 17, the Indians persuaded Martinez to strap on the shin guards, chest protector and mask. Now, he couldn't imagine taking them off.

"I didn't like it (catching) at first," he said. "I was a shortstop and I wanted to be like Jose Guillen. Then, when I started to catch, I began to follow Ivan Rodriguez."

Now, he's gaining on him.