June 10, 2003
The Case for EdgarDoes Edgar Martinez belong in the Hall of Fame?
I wrote this about Edgar in the Mariners' chapter of Baseball Prospectus 2002:
"Martinez should be the first designated hitter elected to the Hall of Fame. His career is a study in consistent hitting excellence: he's a seven-time All-Star; his batting average of .319 is 51st all-time; his on-base percentage of .425 is 12th all-time; his slugging percentage of .530 is 41st all-time. This year he'll pass 2,000 hits to go with his more than 1,000 RBI, 1,000 walks, and 3,000 total bases. Though he's spent the vast majority of his career as a designated hitter, he is one of the best hitters ever, and his contributions would guarantee his selection were it not for the deep uncertainty about whether a player who doesn't take the field should be recognized with the game's highest honor."
Edgar was injured for much of last year, but I still stand by that comment. He is a problematic candidate if he retires after this year--failing many of the most obvious tests, yet still warranting consideration. I'm going to twist some of Bill James' "Keltner List" questions a bit and look at Edgar's place in history, and we'll see that few of these questions have the kind of clear answers that I think will persuade voters to overcome their prejudice.
Edgar, in conventional terms, is a weird case. His career is outstanding, but limited by organizational incompetence at the early end, and his own desire to hang out with his family on the late end. He's fragile, earlier injured badly too often in the field, dogged as he aged with hamstring injuries that slowed him. Because of this, his counting stats fall short, while his rate stats remain amazing (Edgar could easily finish this season in the top-10 hitters all time for his career on-base percentage, and top-20 all-time for his career slugging percentage).
A friend of mine who is smart and frequently argues for the intangibles, momentum, and chemistry aspects of baseball says that his ultimate Hall of Fame standard is that a player must transcend the sport for a period of time, to almost rise above the game, and that no player should even be considered unless they have dominated and changed the game around them. I like that standard, because it means Will Clark gets in while Rafael Palmeiro doesn't.
That standard means that Edgar Martinez gets in. Edgar's pennant races performance are almost legend in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, his game-winning doubles down the line. There is an expectation when Edgar comes up that something exciting is going to happen. Edgar is the horror story told to American League rookie pitchers around bars in spring training towns like Tempe ("And then the rookie tried to bust Edgar inside..." "Wha-wha-what happened?" "Game-winning three-run home run, and the ball..." "Yes?" "The ball was never found...").
Set aside for a moment all of the baggage that questions comes with: the Hall of Fame's current administration, bad previous elections, voting issues, questions about standards. In fact, forget that there's anyone in there now. Say it's 2100, baseball is thriving under the enlightened leadership of Skynet, and the Hall of Fame is destroyed by space wombats. A pool of learned baseball scholars convenes to re-stock the New Baseball Hall of Fame, and has to elect the thousand best players ever to play. And breaking it down into hitters and batters, and even further into positions, at every stage there's Edgar, those rate stats butting in, demanding to be recognized. PECOTA pulled a list of comparable players looking forward that's amazing: Brian Downing, Frank Robinson, Hal McRae, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Darrell Evans, Ted Williams, Mickey Vernon, Carl Yastrzemski.
Edgar Martinez by any standard is one of the 50 best hitters ever to step to the plate. Nothing should keep such a hitter from being recognized as one of the greatest players in the game's history.