LEIGH. T. JIMMIE / AP Enlarge
Victor Martinez smiled, shook his head and laughed.
The laughter grew a little louder when the switch-hitting All-Star catcher was asked how much he enjoys batting cleanup in the Cleveland Indians' lineup.
"It's funny," he said recently in Winter Haven, Fla. "I have never considered myself a No. 4 hitter. Never. Most of those guys hit 40 to 45 homers. I have never done that in my life. I've been lucky, I guess. It's worked out for me.
"But I have the same approach, the same swing, whether I bat first, fourth or ninth."
Martinez got off to a very slow start last season, hitting a paltry .246 in April.
It was understandable.
Martinez, a two-time minor league player of the year in the Cleveland organization, was in his first full season in the majors.
He was still getting used to playing every day. He was trying to figure out opposing pitchers, as well as handle those on the Tribe's staff.
Eventually, as the weather warmed up, so did Martinez's bat. It was almost as if his sweet, compact swing returned overnight.
Hitting coach Eddie Murray noticed. So did manager Eric Wedge.
Wedge, searching for a way to strengthen the heart of the Indians' order, approached Martinez with the idea of batting cleanup on May 3.
Martinez had to laugh. He thought Wedge was joking, but it turns out Wedge wasn't. He already had penciled Martinez's name into the No. 4 spot that night.
"I was looking for someone who could drive some runs in for us from the cleanup position," Wedge said. "I figured Victor could do that."
From that point forward, Martinez didn't waste any time cleaning up on the opposition. He established himself as the centerpiece of Cleveland's offense, batting .285 with 35 doubles, 18 home runs and 97 RBIs in his final 114 starts.
Martinez, 26, also played in the All-Star Game and shared the Silver Slugger award with his hero, Detroit's Ivan Rodriguez, as the top hitting catchers in the American League.
"Victor is a star who just keeps getting better," pitcher Jake Westbrook said. "He's got a great bat."
Overall, Martinez hit .283 with 38 doubles, 23 homers and 108 RBIs in 141 games last season. His 101 RBIs as a catcher led the majors. And they were the most ever by an Indians catcher, shattering Sandy Alomar's record of 83 in 1997.
"I owe a lot of credit to Eddie Murray," said Martinez, who has more power from the left side. "He has taught me how to be patient. He has taught me how to hit."
No one in the Indians' organization has ever been worried about Martinez's bat. He has a .316 lifetime average in 530 minor league games; a .284 average in 202 major league games.
Martinez's defense, though, isn't what you would call All-Star caliber. It's not even close. And his arm is erratic - he only threw out 25 of the 114 runners who attempted to steal on him last year.
"I think Victor's defense will eventually catch up to his offense," said Wedge, a former major league catcher. "We've thrown a lot at him in a short period of time, and he's answered the bell."
Even so, Martinez is not a feared No. 4 hitter like Jim Thome was when he played for the Indians.
Nor can he come close to matching Thome's power.
No one expects that from Martinez - at least not yet.
He had a monster year on offense last season, even though he batted fourth out of default.
The Indians are anxious to see what happens when Martinez develops the cleanup hitter mentality.