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June 10, 2003

Breaking Balls

The Case for Edgar

by Derek Zumsteg

Does 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.

  • Was Edgar one of the greatest players in the game, or even on his team? Yes...and no. Edgar was never an MVP, and was a Top 10 MVP candidate only twice. And yet he has been one of the best players in baseball; since he became a regular member of the Seattle lineup, Edgar has posted a league-leading batting average twice, and a leading on-base percentage three times.

    Edgar's other problem is that even on the Mariners he has not always been the best player on his team: they briefly fielded a team with Edgar, Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, and Ken Griffey, Jr. But over the course of his career, Edgar has certainly been the best player on the Mariners. Depending on the metric you want to look at, Edgar's led the team in offensive contribution at least six times, but then you're into another argument over whether Rodriguez offers a superior offensive and defensive package.

    There's value, though, in Edgar's consistency. Edgar has since 1990 been the heart of the Mariners offensive order season after season, as players were plugged in around him, a consistent source of runs and the highest sort of offensive production. We can yap about replaceable talent all we want, but you don't find consistently elite hitters you can run out there for more 10 years just lying around.

  • Did Edgar have a historic impact on the game? He did, in the Mariners' 1995 pennant run, and then he destroyed Yankee pitching as the Mariners advanced to the ALCS for the first time in team history (no joke, .571/.667/1.000 in the five-game series). He was a key piece in the Mariners teams of 2000 (with Alex) and 2001 (without Alex), and even injured for much of the season in 2002, was key in another pennant race.

    Now there are other standards applied to candidates: long, productive career? Since he was handed a job, he's got 10 years of full-time play, and two more reduced by injuries. He's posted an OBP of 400 or better 10 times during that 13-season span, and the years he missed come in at .397, .366, and .387.

  • Did he hang around too long? Nope. Edgar's having the best season (as far as I know) ever by a 40-year old player (Ted Williams' 1960 season was at age 41), and he's still likely to hang it up. This, however, means that Edgar falls prey to the 'career marks' argument (which seems to me the natural enemy of the 'don't linger' argument), as Edgar may just miss 300 HR and 500 doubles, but will still get 2,000 hits, and has a shot to draw 1,250 walks over his career.

  • Was Edgar the best player at his position? Clearly, he is. Frank Thomas is the second, but Edgar started playing DH exclusively in 1995 and since then has produced more as a DH than any other player. Paul Molitor was a DH for seven years, and he was a piker compared to Edgar in run production. Frank Thomas has only been a mostly-DH for five years, and Edgar whups him in production.

  • Is DH even a position, though? It clearly is. Even if you think it's an aberration, it's unfair to punish someone who excels in it. Goose Gossage and Dennis Eckersley were no less valuable to their teams for being labeled closers in their careers. If baseball moves away from the setup/closer-style bullpen, will their accomplishments mean less? In the same way, I can't see how the belief that Edgar was a terrible fielder (and I could argue that, as well) can in any way take away from his outstanding career as a hitter. In the role he was placed in, he did great things.

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.

Related Content:  Edgar Martinez

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