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December 22, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Class of 2012: Can We Just Stick Edgar in the Corner?
It's been nearly 40 years since the designated hitter was introduced to Major League Baseball, and in that time, only one player who spent the plurality—not even the majority—of his time at the position has made it into the Hall of Fame. That was Paul Molitor, who spent 1,171 of his 2,683 career games riding the pine between plate appearances. When I reviewed Molitor's Hall of Fame case—in what was actually my Baseball Prospectus debut, at a point when the system hadn’t even been named JAWS—I considered him as a third baseman, because he had played 788 games there, and the majority of his games playing somewhere in the infield. He had generated real defensive value (26 FRAA according to the measure of the time, 22 FRAA according to our most recent batch), strengthening a case that was virtually automatic anyway by dint of his membership in the 3,000-hit club.
It's a precedent I have maintained when examining other candidates who spent good chunks of their careers at DH, mainly outfielders (Harold Baines, Jose Canseco, Chili Davis) who had no real shot at gaining entry to Cooperstown. With WARP in hand, it's no difficult trick to simultaneously compare a player to the average Hall of Famer at a given position while at the same time comparing him to the at-large field of Hall of Fame hitters. I have followed that precedent in two years of examining the case of Edgar Martinez, who ranks fourth on the all-time list for games at DH with 1,403, but who also played 564 games at third base, and another 28 in the field.
I'm not 100 percent convinced that this is the right decision, but it is a place to start, particularly with other third basemen on the ballot whose cases need dispatching as well. I've compared Martinez to Hall third basemen, I've compared him to Hall corner infielders, and I've compared him to Hall hitters in general, mainly because when properly used, JAWS is something to be used to do more than answer a simple yes/no question. It’s a tool used to build an argument that takes other factors not captured by WARP into account. Post-season play, awards and honors, milestones, career length—particularly due to factors beyond a player's control (the color line, mistreatment by management, severe injury)—are some factors, secondary sabermetric measures (Runs Above Average, on either side of the ball) are another, positional ambiguity is another.
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 2011% 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, RAP is Runs Above Position, VORP is Value Over Replacement Player, FRAA is Fielding Runs Above Average, Career is career WARP total, Peak is WARP total for a player’s best seven seasons, and JAWS the adjusted average of those two.
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 (2 FRAA), but his bat was far more important than his glove. The decision paid off; in 1995, Martinez tallied a career-high 6.7 WARP (good for third in the league), 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. He's still the co-holder of the record for most hits in a Division Series, with 12, and his 21 total bases rank fifth.
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 5.7 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—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 because he established himself at a relatively advanced age and 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. It's 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; it's quite possible he'd have never approached a Hall of Fame level had he remained a starter. Edgar was essentially the Mariano of DHs, so good within his limited role that he produced enough value to transcend it.
Strictly speaking, Martinez falls short of the Hall of Fame standards at third base, behind on both career and peak. He is right on the cusp when compared both to corner infielders and all hitters; such small differences to the right of the decimal either above or below are subject to the tiniest adjustment in the system. I'm comfortable saying that while he's borderline on JAWS, the weight of the non-JAWS factors—the late start to his major-league career, the black ink, the All-Star appearances, his all-time rankings in OBP (13th) and TAv (26th), the impact of the 1995 postseason upon Seattle baseball history—are enough to push him over the line. However, he faces an uphill battle to get to Cooperstown, and he needs to reverse an ominous trend, having fallen from 36.2 percent on the 2010 ballot to 32.9 percent last year.
Nevin reached the majors with the Astros in 1995, but played just 18 games for them before being traded to the Tigers—a tirade over being demoted was said to factor into the decision—as the player to be named later in a deal for Mike Hessman. The Tigers, who had Travis Fryman at the hot corner, tried to convert him into a catcher while also spotting him at third, left field, and first base, but their patience didn’t last long; they flipped him to the Angels after the 1997 season in a deal for Matt Walbeck. The Halos gave him plenty of time behind the plate (64 starts, 62 more than the Tigers ever did), but he hit just .228/.291/.371. In the spring of 1999, he was traded to the Padres.
Nevin went back to third base, and enjoyed five fairly strong seasons for the Pads, hitting a combined .291/.365/.515 and averaging 3.9 WARP. He bashed 41 homers in 2001, hitting .306/.388/.588, making his lone All-Star appearance, and accumulating a career-high 6.4 WARP. After the season he signed a four-year, $34 million extension with the Padres covering 2003-2006, but his career started to go south due to injuries. He fell off to .285/.344/.413with 1.5 WARP in 2002 while missing 15 days with an elbow strain and another six weeks with a broken arm; in September, he made headlines for giving a heckler the finger after he made a throwing error. He played just 59 games the following year due to a dislocated shoulder, and would serve DL stints in each of the next two years as well while his bat lost its potency. He was traded to the Rangers for another high-salaried disappointment, Chan Ho Park, in mid-2005, and would pass through the hand of the Cubs and Twins as well in 2006, hitting 22 homers in 450 plate appearances but just a cumulative .239/.323/.438 line. His contract expired that winter, and he chose to retire. He's got no Hall of Fame case, but an interesting career nonetheless.
The Giants traded Mueller to the Cubs following the 2000 season. His two seasons in the Windy City were dogged by left knee problems that required surgeries, first a fractured patella that cost him three months in 2001, and then bone chips the following season. On September 4, 2002, the Giants reacquired him to help with their playoff push, but he was limited to a 2-for-13 showing, and was ineligible for post-season play. A free agent that winter, his high on-base percentages brought him to the attention of Theo Epstein and company with the Red Sox. He signed a two-year, $4.5 million deal—a pay cut from his previous two-year, $6.2 million deal, and responded with the best season of his career in 2003, setting career highs not only in all three slash categories (.326/.398/.540) but also in homers (19) and WARP (5.6). He even won the AL batting title.
Mueller couldn't live up to that showing, as he was dogged by cartilage problems and mild arthritis in his right knee, requiring surgeries in 2004 and 2005. He returned in time to help the Sox win their first World Series in 86 years in the former season, batting .429/.556/.571 in the sweep of the Cardinals. After the 2005 season, he was part of the "Boston West" contingent that Sox-obsessed Dodger owner Frank McCourt brought to LA, along with Nomar Garciaparra and manager Grady Little. Mueller also had a connection with general manager Ned Colletti from their days with the Giants. He signed a two-year, $9.5 million deal but played just 32 games before undergoing what turned out to be career-ending surgery on his right knee. He moved up into the Dodger front office as an extremely pricey special assistant, and—presumably at a lesser salary—remains a member of their baseball operations department today (which doesn't exactly reflect well upon him the way the Dodgers' signings have been going…). No Cooperstown for him, but he got his ring and his big payday.
After his production dipped in 1999, Castilla was shipped to Tampa Bay. Deprived of the high altitude, he hit just .219/.253/.316, so awful that the Devil Rays released him in May 2001, eating the last five months of his salary. He wasn’t down for long, though. The Astros picked him up on the rebound, and he hit .270/.320/.492 with 23 homers, helping them win the NL Central. He then signed with the Braves and played on a pair of playoff teams despite uneven production; in 2002, he was 2.1 wins below replacement level. He returned to Colorado for a big 35-homer season in 2004, then made another lap around the NL, stopping in Washington and San Diego before one final stint with the Rox. His final numbers at Mile High Stadium and Coors Field: .331/.337/.598. Everywhere else: .251/.295/.420. He provided the people in Denver with more than their share of thrills, but he's no Hall of Famer.
So Martinez joins Barry Larkin on our ballot in progress. I’ll be back after the holiday to dig into the more controversial portion of the 2012 BBWAA slate. Nog up; you’re gonna need it.