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April 21, 2006

Prospectus Today

On Edmonds

by Joe Sheehan

Jim Edmonds, Hall of Famer.

What's your first reaction to that? A quiet nod? A horrified recoil? Something in between?

I've been playing with this idea for a while, mentioning Edmonds as my personal choice for a "stealth" Hall of Fame candidate whenever asked for one. Like stathead favorites Bobby Grich or Dwight Evans, Edmonds has been a much more valuable player than the general public perceives, because he does things like walk, hit doubles and play defense. Those traits don't impress as easily as high batting averages, big homer totals and BBWAA hardware do; however, Edmonds has his share of points in those categories as well.

Of course, neither Grich nor Evans is in the Hall of Fame. Neither came close, actually, in part because the recognition of their value came a bit too late to do them any good. When Edmonds becomes eligible, though, we'll be able to put the full sabermetric toolkit to work in evaluating his credentials. Today is a peek at that process.

BP's Jay Jaffe has developed a tool for evaluating Hall of Fame candidates against the established standards of the Hall, a system he dubbed JAWS. Last winter, Jay's assessment of the outfielders on the 2006 ballot included the average career line of the Hall of Fame center fielders. That line, and Edmonds' career stats through 2005, follow:

POS       #  BRAR  BRAA  FRAA   WARP   PEAK   JAWS
CF       17   715   466   -8   108.6   63.8   86.2
Edmonds       518   334   99   103.9   47.3   75.6

*JAWS: (Career WARP + Peak WARP) / 2
At 36, Edmonds is within shouting distance of the career performance of the average Hall of Fame center fielder. His peak falls well short of the average peak; that's not surprising, given that "peak of Hall of Fame center fielders" include the greatest seasons of some of the greatest players in baseball history. Put together, Edmonds' JAWS score places him below the average, but close enough that he's already a legitimate candidate.

By comparison, the three center fielders on the most recent Hall of Fame ballot had JAWS scores of 78.6, 76.3 and 54.1 (Dale Murphy, Andre Dawson and Willie McGee, respectively). Two of those players, Murphy and Dawson, are among the most hotly-debated Hall cases, and both spent a significant part of their careers playing outside of center field, something Edmonds hasn't done. Dawson didn't play an inning in center field after 30, and Murphy was done as a center fielder at 33.

Raw stats aren't the only thing that earn a player a spot in Cooperstown. We can measure Edmonds' relative strength among his peers by looking at some tools introduced by Bill James. Black Ink denotes how often a player led his league in a category, while Gray Ink indicates times in the top ten. The Hall of Fame Standards and Hall of Fame Monitor tests evaluate the players' career by points systems designed to loosely gauge his chances of making the Hall.

Black Ink: 0 (Average Hall of Famer: ~27)
Gray Ink: 60 (Average Hall of Famer: ~144)
Hall of Fame Standards: 37.6 (Average Hall of Famer: ~50)
Hall of Fame Monitor: 83.5 (Likely Hall of Famer: > 100)

(All of the above information comes from the indispensable Baseball-reference.com)

Edmonds' figures in these areas are not impressive. As with the JAWS figures, he falls below the standards of the average Hall of Famer, but within a range that makes him a candidate for induction. It's worth noting that modern players have a much harder time racking up Black Ink and Gray Ink, due to the large leagues in which they play. It's considerably more difficult to lead a 14 or 16-team league in anything than it would be in an eight-team league, and that has nothing to do with a player's greatness. This can be a tricky concept to convince people of; some otherwise savvy commentators can refuse to give this notion its due, thereby shortchanging modern players and/or overrating players who played in smaller leagues.

While the modern sports media overrates "soft" factors by about a factor of a million, it's reasonable to take a step back and consider a player's career through means other than stats. For that purpose, Bill James devised a 14-question survey, dubbed the "Keltner Test," after Indians' third baseman Ken Keltner, to work through the problem of where a player stood in the Hall of Fame discussions. Here's that list for Edmonds:

  1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?

    No and no, and not just because he's played in an era with some truly superlative peers.

  2. Was he the best player on his team?

    For two years, 1998 with the Angels and 2000 with the Cardinals, Edmonds led his team in Wins Above Replacement. He was generally second banana, though, either to Tim Salmon in Anaheim or Albert Pujols in St. Louis.

  3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?

    Yes, although he wasn't always recognized as such. Edmonds has been the best center fielder in the National League since coming over in 2000, with only Andruw Jones providing competition. Given the declines of Ken Griffey Jr. and Bernie Williams, he's probably been the best center fielder in the game in that span.

  4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

    Edmonds' .242/.290/.404 September was certainly a factor in the Angels' collapse in 1995. Three years later, he was not culpable in the team's late-September fade, hitting .340/.400/.585 for the month, although he did come up short--as did the entire team--in a critical last-week sweep by the Rangers (2-for-12 with a walk).

    As a Cardinal, Edmonds has been on five playoff teams in six years, although none of those was in any kind of notable race down the stretch. The only year they went into the last two weeks fighting for something, 2001, Edmonds hit .309/.440/.529 in September and .579/.680/1.211 in October (the season extended after the September 11 terrorist attacks).

  5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?

    Absolutely. After a shoulder injury cut his age-29 season in half, he elevated his game for the next six seasons. He remains one of the best center fielders in the game at 36. We have yet to see his decline phase.

  6. Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

    No.

  7. Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?

    No. Of Edmonds' 10 most comparable players, only Ralph Kiner is in the Hall of Fame. The two are not particularly similar. Edmonds' comparables list reads like a list of the Hall of the Very Good: Chipper Jones (an interesting case unto himself), Tim Salmon, Albert Belle, Carlos Delgado, Dick Allen. One or two of these guys (Belle, Delgado and Jones are the most likely) will probably be inducted eventually.

  8. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?

    As we saw above, Edmonds' numbers are a bit short, although he's still playing well and he's certainly good enough that you can argue his case. His raw numbers, plaque numbers--home runs, batting average, hits, RBI--are negatives in his case.

  9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

    In addition to deriving considerable statistical value from his defense, Edmonds has been awarded eight Gold Gloves for defensive excellence, including every one since he came over to the National League. Gold Glove voting is problematic, but at least the arrow is pointing the right way.

  10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?

    Ken Griffey Jr. is clearly ahead of Edmonds, and then it gets into how you define "center fielder" as to whether you slot him ahead of Murphy and Dawson. Given any kind of decent seasons to follow, Edmonds will surpass both those players anyway, although he cannot catch Griffey. Bernie Williams, a contemporary, is slightly inferior to Edmonds and hasn't retained his peak value as well.

    Short answer: no, because of Griffey.

  11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?

    Edmonds has done very poorly in the MVP voting, with just two top-ten finishes, none higher than fourth. His 1995, 2000, 2002 and 2004 seasons are all MVP-caliber. He's been a reasonable down-ballot candidate in every odd-numbered year since 2001, as well.

  12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go into the Hall of Fame?

    Edmonds has had All-Star caliber seasons in every year but one since 1995. He's played in just four All-Star Games, however, a fairly low number for a Hall of Famer, historically.

    All-Star Game appearances in the modern era are problematic, as the process for filling out a roster has become complicated by requirements to represent every player in a 14- or 16-team league, as well as an excess of spots for pitchers relative to hitters. A number of players have multiple All-Star appearances that mean little other than their status as the best player on a bad team, while legitimate All-Stars have lost spots to them. Also, the path to being an All-Star is largely "having a good first half," a poor metric. As we evaluate players from the last 20 years, we should probably de-emphasize this point.

  13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?

    Without a doubt. Edmonds has been a nine- or ten-win player at his peak, more than good enough to be the best player on a championship team.

  14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?

    No, although he gets a small marker here for making one of the greatest catches in the game's history. That's not hyperbole; most observers place his back-to-the-infield diving catch in Kansas City while with the Angels in a class with "The Catch" by Willie Mays.

  15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?

    Yes, at least to the extent that those guidelines have been a factor in Hall voting. Early in his career, Edmonds had a reputation as a hot dog and a malingerer, prone to unneccesary showboat catches and sitting out with minor injuries. His reluctance to undergo surgery on his shoulder in the 1998-99 offseason eventually led to him missing most of that season, damaging the Angels' hopes and rending his relationship with that organization.

    Since being traded to St. Louis, the complaints about Edmonds have mostly ceased.

The Keltner list doesn't clarify Edmonds' case too well, leaving him in roughly the same spot his statistics do: qualified, but not convincing.

What Edmonds has going for him is that at 36, he's still playing at a high level. While he's not going to push his traditional statistics into the stratosphere--the only notable marker he has a shot at his 400 home runs--he should be able to accumulate some milestones and certainly add to his value. Barring a collapse along the lines of Jim Rice, where he loses the ability to hold a job in the next two seasons, Edmonds will finish his career as the second-best center fielder of his era, and a certain Hall of Famer.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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