Tuesday, August 10, 2004

So Long, Papi -- See You in Cooperstown

One of the reasons I started this blog was to make a public case that Edgar Martinez should be in the Hall of Fame. It is my hope that if there are some among the 380 or so voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who are on the fence or leaning against voting for Edgar, at least a few of them will do a Google search and find my argument for Edgar's HoF case. I'm not so arrogant as to believe that it isn't possible that someone could come away unconvinced of my position, but consideration of the argument is really the least someone with a vote should do.

People who know me know that I am an unabashed Edgar Martinez fan who began insisting that Edgar's career numbers were Hall of Fame worthy as long as a couple of years ago (go to the Mariners Newsgroup and see for yourself). I still firmly believe that, yet worry that such a lackluster finish to a borderline HoF career -- at least as usually judged by the BBWAA -- will hurt Edgar's case when the time comes.

It really shouldn't.

I don't want to hear about the DH (what an illogical, head-in-the-sand argument that can be). The DH is over 30 years old, and is used in every league except one. It's not going away, and we shouldn't be penalizing guys' defense just because they are playing a position (usually against their will) that doesn't require defense. The Hall of Fame has always been about offense. Sure, there are guys (like Ozzie Smith) who got in mostly on the strength of their defense, but they are the exception and not the rule -- there are many more average-to-terrible defenders in the Hall than there are great defenders who were middling hitters. Bill James is one of many analysts who've tried to quantify how much defense versus offense contributes to winning baseball (he pegged it at about 17%), and it always comes up on the short end of the stick as compared to offense. Not to mention, in Edgar's case, he played 563 games at third base (no cake walk) and another 28 as a first baseman -- which, if you're counting, is about 30% of Edgar's games played.

What, exactly should a Hall of Famer be? One thing I'm sure is not the standard is Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Wille Mays, Hank Aaron, Tris Speaker, Stan Musial, blah, blah, blah. The upper echelon does not define the Hall of Fame. Somewhere between 15,000 to 20,000 men have played major league baseball over the years. Shouldn't a man Don't you think the top 1% of figures that high ought to draw serious consideration for the Hall of Fame?

Please, please, please, dear writers, before you write Edgar off, consider his record:

When Edgar Martinez announced his retirement, if he didn't play another game the rest of the season, Edgar would finish, all-time (and I don't just mean the modern, post-1900 era):

* In the top 200 (2013, #184) ALL-TIME in Games Played;
* Among the top 150 players in ALL-TIME in runs scored (1203, #147), and hits (#145, 2205);
* Among the top 100 ALL-TIME in home runs (310, #95 currently), runs batted in (1244, #100 currently) and Total Bases (3661, #99 currently);
* Among the top 75 ALL-TIME in batting average (currently .312, #74), slugging percentage (currently .519, #60), extra-base hits (831, #67), and times on base (hits + walks + hit by pitch; currently 3566, #73);
* Among the top 40 ALL-TIME in doubles (currently 511, #35), walks (1272, #36), on-base percentage (.420, #21), OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, at #38, .938), and OPS+ (OPS, compared to league average -- defined as 100 -- for career and adjusted for park differences; 151 through 2003, #32).

None of these accomplishments, considered alone, stands out as HoF-worthy, but together they do. The sheer breadth and variety of accomplishment, and what it indicates about the versatility of Edgar's offensive ability at a very high level, certainly does.

Moreover, if being the premier player at a given position is what floats your boat, there is little doubt that Edgar Martinez is the preeminent designated hitter of all-time, too. Among players with at least 2500 plate appearances as a DH, Edgar is #1 in virtually every offensive category. Edgar has been ranked first among DH's by the Elias Sports Bureau (for free agent compensation purposes) in seven of the nine years prior to this one in which he has been primarily a DH, and has won five Silver Slugger awards (1992 at 3B, and 1995, 1997, 2001, and 2003 at DH) as the premier offensive player at his position. Only four men have won more -- Barry Bonds (11), Mike Piazza (10) Alex Rodriguez (7), and Manny Ramirez (6) -- and all have top-notch HoF credentials. Forget about just DH's . . . Edgar is one of only 18 men to top 1.000 OPS at least five times, and one of only 26 men ever to hit .200 better than league-average OPS at least seven times.

As impressive as this laundry list of achievements is, it is even more remarkable for two reasons.

First, Edgar accomplished all this as a right-handed hitter. Most of you probably already know about the inherent advantages a left-handed hitter enjoys over his right-handed counterpart: he's a couple of steps closer to first, and he often enjoys the benefit of a huge hole on the right side to hit through, created by the need for the first baseman to hold a runner on first. Beyond that, Edgar has played in an age of specialization, when dominant hitters like him almost never face a tired or a left-handed pitcher in later innings. It is no suprise then, to find that most of the players ahead of Edgar on these "leader boards" are left-handed or switch hitters. For instance, among right-handed hitters, Edgar's current ALL-TIME ranks are: 33rd in AVG, 4th in OBP, 31st in SLG, 15th in OPS, 17th in OPS+, 43rd in TB, and 26th in times on base. Edgar is one of only 21 right-handed hitters to hit .330 in a season at least four times, and one of only 11 right-handed hitters to hit .320 or better at least seven times -- and the last year any one of those other ten men played was 1951 (Joe DiMaggio). Edgar is one of only seven right-handed hitters to post a .400 or better OBP at least nine times, and one of only three post-war players to do that (Frank Thomas and Rickey Henderson being the others).

Second, Edgar amassed these numbers despite missing 2-3 years languishing (and flourishing) in AAA while Jim Presley mostly struggled. Edgar was a career .344/.449/.495 hitter in AAA, and the fact that it took Mariners management as long as it did to notice is more than borderline incompetence.

One could argue (given the questionable "quality" of his competition) that Edgar showed enough promise in his first stint in AAA (in 1985 -- .363/.467/.517 in 68 AB) that he deserved a shot, but that wasn't even enough forMariners management of that era to return him to AAA in 1986, let alone MLB. However, by 1987 at the latest, it should have been clear he was ready. Edgar hit..329/.434/.473 at Calgary that year, yet only earned a late call-up to the M's where he hit .372/.413/.581 over 43 September AB. Considering Jim Presley hit .247/.296/.433 (87 OPS+) that year, that should at least have been enough to take over the job in 1988, right? Not to the Mariners. They sent him back to AAA, where he hit .363/.467/.517. Incredibly (because Presley was hitting .230/.280/.355, with a 74 OPS+ that year), Edgar again didn't get called up until late, and again he hit much better than Presley did -- a respectable .281/.351/.406. STILL, that wasn't good enough for the Mariners, who decided to go with Presley and even converted OF Darnell Coles to 3B to share time with Presley. Presley hits .236/.275/.385 in 1989, and Coles hits..252/.294/.359 while once again Edgar tears up the PCL, hitting .345/.457/.522 at Calgary for 113 AB before he finally gets a chance. Unfortunately, he never gets any consistent playing time thanks to a 4-way job share (Edgar appeared in 61 games at 3B in '89, Presley 90, Coles 37, and Cochrane 9), and his numbers were the worst of his career -- but mostly better than his competition. Thankfully, they don't return him to AAA to start the 1990 season, but even though Presley leaves, the M's still don't fully commit the full-time job to him -- that is, until his .302/.397/.433 over144 games makes them commit. By that time, he's 27 and probably a year-plus into what should have been his prime.

It wasn't as if the competition was good, or the team needed veteran presence for a stretch run in any of these years . . . these were bad players, on bad teams. Any competent GM could have seen that Edgar Martinez should have been handed the keys to third base by mid-1987 at the latest, and it is not his fault that those who managed the club in those days didn't do that. What more can you do but to hit .344/.449/.495 over several seasons in AAA?

Management ineptitude probably cost Edgar 275-300 major league games. If you assume he would have hit according to his cumulative MLB averages for 1987-1990 (.291/.377/.411) -- a conservative estimate given that Edgar hit .300 in every healthy full season he played until he turned 40 -- that would project, over 275 additional games, to approximately 256 additional hits, including 49 doubles, 4+ triples, 16 home runs, 116 runs, and 95 RBI. If you assume he would have hit to his cumulative MLB averages for1987-1991 (.298/.389/.428, probably a more reasonable assumption), over 275 games he projects to an additional 271 hits, including 54 doubles, 5 triples,19 home runs, 139 runs, and about 100 RBI. If you add those totals( plus 200-300 additional games played at 3B) to Edgar's career totals now, Edgar would be somewhere in the neighborhood of .310/.415/.515, with about 2500 hits, 900 XBH including maybe 325 HR, close to 1400 RBI and 1300 runs scored, and 900-100 games competently played at third base. Quite simply, there would be no debate about Edgar's HoF credentials then.

Bill James believed and has persuasively argued that HoF voters should take into account the fact that a career is cut short by things outside of a player's control, like late call-up, war service, etc. (but not injury, as being injury-prone is part of one's skill set in a way that living in wartime or being held back by a stupid GM is not). The idea is that players blocked by the kind of managerial incompetence (for example) that Edgar endured should be given, if not a credit, at least some recognition that they were good players at a time when they were prevented through no fault of their own from playing and accumulating numbers that might make a difference for them in terms of HoF consideration. That's not to saythat you *assume* they would have put up X additional counting stats, butjust that you give them a break on the necessity for "magic number" counting stats that are essentially unreachable for them despite sustained excellence over a career.

[After all, to reach 3000 hits, you need 15 years averaging 200 hits . . . what are the chances that someone who doesn't play even close to full-time until 27 (and then reduces opportunities to get hits by walking a lot -- no doubt very valuable contribution to winning baseball even if it isn't valued much by HoF voters -- so that his career high for hits in a season is 182) can get close to that? Not much, as we have seen.]

I agree with James, and Edgar deserves exactly this kind of benefit of the doubt. This is one big reason why I would more highly value and consider Edgar's excellent "rate" stats over his lesser counting numbers. I think it is what any thinking BBWAA voter should do, even if they usually don't. However, "the way it has always been" is not an anchor, and is not a persuasive reason to ignore good arguments based on sometimes overlooked stats.

I like statistics because, when not overly manipulated, they can illuminate areas left dark or overshadowed by what we think we "know." No doubt there is a compelling statistical argument to be made for Edgar's HoF case, but there is an equally compelling case built on the testimonials of his peers, who consider him one of the greatest hitters of his generation, and along with Frank Thomas and perhaps Manny Ramirez (if he sustains his current performance well into his mid-30s), the best right-handed hitter in the game over the last 15 years. Even more than any statistical argument, that should be strongly considered by any HoF voter.

I've written enough for now -- or maybe, as usual, too much. I will revisit this subject in another post or two, though, because there are some statistical arguments that get tossed around for Edgar that I don't particularly like (but which, even when viewed in proper context, lend proper support to his cause), and there are some writers who are making a public and mostly one-sided and even misinformed argument against Edgar's credentials that I would like to rebut. But, another day. I've got a game to get to.


At August 10, 2004 at 10:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pete, that was an excellent post for Edgar. There has been plenty of pro and con discussion on his Hall chances at BaseBall Fever where I usually post and, of course, by Mariners bloggers. Yours is the best case I've read. I've been in the "just short" camp, but you have given me some food for thought.
--The only thing from your post I think may be off base is the refernce to Bill James. He endorses the idea of giving credit for years trapped in the minors in the days when they were independant. I'm not sure that applies to modern players. I totally agree with your analysis of how badly Edgar was handled by the Mariners in the late 80s, I just don't know that the situation would meet James criteria. Anyway, great post. Keep up the great work. Thanks, Mark

At August 17, 2004 at 1:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good thoughts!

I've pointed out other guys in the Hall who were more known as hitters moreso than anything else, and the best comparison I've seen numbers wise is Enos Country Slaughter. Edgar's offensive stats are better than his, and he played for fewer seasons. Sure, Slaughter was a impact player in the World Series, but no one can forget 'Gar's performance in the post season games he played too.

I feel that the BBWAA, biased and ego-centric as it is, will not even come close to voting 'Gar into the hall. However, I've got faith that the Veteran's Committee will bring him. Let's just hope it doesn't take as long for him as it did for Slaughter.


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