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December 30, 2010
Prospectus Hit and Run
Class of 2011: Edgar Martinez
Edgar Martinez could flat-out rake. A high-average, high-OBP hitting machine with plenty of power, he played a key role in putting the Mariners on the map as an AL West powerhouse, and emerged as a folk hero to a fan base that watched Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, and Alex Rodriguez lead the Mariners' charge to relevancy, only to force their ways out of town over contract issues. When Martinez debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot last year, I compared him to the enshrined third basemen using JAWS because he played 562 games at the hot corner and accrued a bit of value there before settling in as a designated hitter. Considering him in a broader context beyond the Hall's third basemen actually strengthens his candidacy.
For the uninitiated, JAWS (Jaffe WARP Score) is a measure I developed to compare Hall of Fame candidates against those of the average enshrined player at their positions using career and peak Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) totals. WARP measures each player's hitting, pitching, and fielding contributions relative to those of a freely available reserve or minor-league call-up, incorporating park and league contexts to compare players from different eras or scoring environments. Peak is defined as a player's best seven seasons, and JAWS is the average of career and peak totals. For more information on the particulars of the system as it pertains to this year's ballot, please see here.
Deciphering the abbreviations in the first table, AS is All-Star game appearances and GG is Gold Gloves won; HoFS and HoFM are the Bill James Hall of Fame Standards and Hall of Fame Monitor, respectively; Bal is how many years the player has appeared on the ballot, and 2010% is the player's share of the vote on the last ballot, with 75 percent needed for election. In the second table, TAv is True Average, RARP is Runs Above Replacement, Position-Adjusted, and RAP is Runs Above Position, both included here as good secondary measures of career and peak value. Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) is a bit more comprehensible to the average reader than measuring fielding from replacement level.
Martinez falls shy of the JAWS standards for third basemen on career and peak measures, primarily because of his defense. His RARP and RAP both clear the standards by more than 100 runs, and those figures as well as his WARP-based ones hold up similarly well when comparing him to the Hall's corner infielders (first and third basemen) and hitters as a whole. Before delving further into those considerations, it's important to appreciate the arc of his career.
Born in New York City but raised in Puerto Rico, Martinez was signed by the Mariners as a non-drafted free agent in 1982 after playing ball at American College in Puerto Rico. He broke through as a hitter at Triple-A in 1987, his age-24 season, but received just the proverbial cup of coffee from the Mariners in 1987 and 1988, and struggled in 1989 (.240/.314/.304) after opening the season as the team's third baseman to the point that he was briefly sent back to the minors. He broke out at age 27 in 1990 (.302/.397/.433), and a year later helped the Mariners crack .500 for the first time since their 1977 inception. In 1992 he won his first batting title, hitting .343/.404/.544 with a league-leading 46 doubles, and tallying 7.6 WARP, a total surpassed by only three AL hitters, Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura, and Mark McGwire.
Alas, Martinez was limited to just 131 games in 1993-1994 due to hamstring and wrist injuries as well as the players' strike. The latter season led the Mariners to relieve Martinez of his defensive responsibilities; he wasn't horrendous (93 Rate2, seven runs below average per 100 games, but still above replacement level), but his bat was far more important than his glove. The decision paid off; in 1995, Martinez tallied a career-high 8.6 WARP, hitting .356/.479/.628, leading the league in batting average, OBP, and doubles (52), and helping the Mariners to their first playoff berth in franchise history. No hit of his was bigger than The Double off the Yankees' Jack McDowell in the 11th inning of the decisive Game Five of the Division Series, driving in the tying and winning runs—a moment whose euphoria helped generate a groundswell of support to secure the Mariners a new taxpayer-funded stadium. Martinez was a one-man wrecking crew in that series, batting .571/.667/1.000 with four-three hit efforts, reaching base safely 18 times in five games.
The 1995 season began a seven-year stretch in which Martinez hit a combined .329/.446/.574 while averaging 42 doubles, 28 homers, 107 walks, and 6.2 WARP per year—even with virtually zero defensive value (he played 33 games at third and first in that span). The Mariners reached the playoffs three more times in that span, including their record-setting 116-win 2001 campaign after Johnson, Griffey, and Rodriguez had all departed. Martinez was hardly a window dresser for that team, hitting .306/.423/.543 with 40 doubles and 23 homers. He played three more seasons, hitting well for two of them, before retiring.
Martinez isn't the first Hall of Fame candidate to benefit from spending his twilight years as a designated hitter—Paul Molitor reached Cooperstown largely because of what he did there—but his is an interesting test case for the voters. He played so few games in the field not only because he established himself at a relatively advanced age but because the risk/reward payoff wasn't merited once he emerged as an elite hitter, though it's likely the Mariners could have stuck him at first base—a much easier position than third, requiring less mobility—had they so desired. He'd have been a Hall of Fame-caliber talent there, as the comparison to the JAWS corner infield and hitter-at-large standards suggests.
Also worth considering is that Martinez played in an era of increased specialization, particularly with regards to bullpen roles. Teams concerned with a pitcher's stamina, health and/or repertoire often convert starters to relievers, who rarely produce enough value within their limited roles to merit consideration for the Hall. Mariano Rivera is the best example; even without delving into his postseason accomplishments or his high save totals, his career, peak and JAWS scores (88.0/52.0/70.0) top those of the average enshrined pitcher (68.9/46.6/57.8), and it's quite possible he'd have never approached such a level had he remained a starter. Edgar was essentially the Mariano Rivera of DHs, so good within his limited role that he produced enough value to transcend it.
There's no doubt he was a truly special hitter. Among those with at least 8,000 plate appearances, he ranks 13th all-time in OBP and 17th in True Average, which expresses how many runs a player created per plate appearance, translated to the familiar scale of batting average.
BBWAA voting history shows that hitters such as Tim Raines, Ron Santo, and Bobby Grich who derive a good portion of their value from on-base percentage have been ill-served by the voters. Martinez's first-ballot showing of 36.2 percent suggests he may join that company, though he's already topped Raines' highest vote percentage as well as those of nine other players—including recent inductees Rich Gossage, Jim Rice, and Bruce Sutter—who eventually gained election via the writers despite even less impressive ballot debuts. The hunch here is that he'll reach Cooperstown eventually, but only after a long, slow climb.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .