Commentary

Why Edgar belongs in Cooperstown

Longtime DH has the numbers to warrant election, but will he get the necessary votes?

Originally Published: December 28, 2009
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com

Edgar Martinez never appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He never played in a World Series. He was never the subject of an ESPN "Sunday Night Conversation" and certainly never made the headlines of TMZ, Us Weekly or the National Enquirer.

All Edgar did was hit.

His approach to his craft was legendary: the daily eye exercises with flash cards; practicing hitting against tennis balls screaming at him at 150 mph; not watching TV during the season; weighing his bats to the quarter-ounce on a kitchen scale.

[+] EnlargeEdgar Martinez
AP Photo/Donna McWilliamEdgar Martinez won two batting titles and had a .312 career batting average while playing 18 seasons in the majors.

Few hitters over the past 20 years earned as much respect and praise from their peers as Martinez. Mariano Rivera once called him the toughest batter he ever faced. Dusty Baker called him "a professional, quiet, humble giant … one of best right-handed hitters ever seen." Mike Scioscia called him "the one guy you didn't want to see come up there with the game on the line."

I call him a Hall of Famer.

As my colleague Jayson Stark -- who wrote an impassioned plea for Edgar in his terrific book "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History" -- recently e-mailed me: "When I did the research for my book, I even shocked myself. I knew the guy was good, but I didn't know he was that good."

Before I explain why a vote for Edgar Martinez for the Hall of Fame is the right vote, one caveat: I'm a Mariners fan. Edgar is the most beloved Mariner of all time, a hero in Seattle (and in Puerto Rico, where he grew up). Ken Griffey Jr. is revered as Seattle's first baseball star, but he did once ask to be traded. Ichiro is adored, an icon for this decade, but he didn't suffer through the dark years of the late '80s and early '90s when the team nearly left Seattle and the Kingdome was literally falling apart. Edgar? He was there for Jeff Smulyan and Bill Plummer. He was there when Kevin Mitchell threw up and had to go on the disabled list. He was there for the miracle playoff run in '95 (the team's MVP that season, he played every game and led the league in batting average, runs, doubles, on-base percentage and OPS) and the record-setting 116 wins in 2001.

Edgar, it seems, was always there -- he was one of us, suffering through Bobby Ayala's blown saves but delivering the big hits -- most notably the 11th-inning double that scored Joey Cora and Griffey to beat the Yankees in the '95 playoffs. All that hit did was help keep the Mariners in Seattle. (Many forget that the game before he had one of the greatest single-game playoff performances ever: 3-for-4 with a walk, a three-run homer and an eighth-inning grand slam off John Wetteland as the Mariners rallied from a 5-0 deficit.)

So while I may be thus naturally inclined to be biased in favor of Edgar, I will present only facts, statistics and analysis.

Before we dig into the numbers, let's also make a perhaps obvious statement: The basic premise of the Hall of Fame is to enshrine the game's best players. Who are the game's best players? Those who help their teams win games more than other players. It gets complicated from here, of course. Some players are excellent for a short period; others are merely very good but have longer careers. Some voters only vote for "inner circle" Hall of Famers (Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Greg Maddux, Derek Jeter) even though the Hall of Fame is clearly not just about inner-circle guys.

There are, I suppose, four primary arguments against Edgar's Hall of Fame case:

1. He was only a designated hitter.
2. His career was too short.
3. His statistics aren't good enough.
4. He wasn't famous enough.

Let's take these, one by one, examine them, expose their flaws, deconstruct their weaknesses and in the process extol the greatness of Edgar Martinez.

He was only a designated hitter

Yes, Edgar spent the vast majority of his career as a DH: 68.7 percent of his career games were played as a DH, and it's true that no player who played the majority of his games as a designated hitter has been elected to the Hall of Fame.

However, we must consider the circumstances of team and era. Edgar was not moved to DH because he was a bad fielder. In fact, according to the fielding ratings calculated at baseball-reference.com, Edgar was actually an above-average third baseman (plus-17.7 runs saved over the 563 games he played third base). He tore his hamstring running the bases in a 1993 exhibition game in Canada and became a full-time DH in 1995, when the Mariners had Mike Blowers to play third base and Tino Martinez at first base. At that point, it made sense to preserve Edgar's health.

But as former Mariners manager Bob Melvin said when Edgar announced his retirement in 2004, if Edgar had played on a National League team, "The way he hits, believe me, Edgar would have been playing out on the field somewhere."

But here's an even more important point: In 2004, the same voters who will be voting for Edgar Martinez voted Paul Molitor into the Hall of Fame. Molitor played more than 1,000 games at DH and made the Hall of Fame in large part because he surpassed the 3,000-hit barrier. If Molitor had finished with 2,900 hits, his Hall of Fame case becomes much more debatable. The DH role certainly helped extend his career (he spent his final eight seasons as a DH). Ergo, without those 1,000 games played as a DH, it's likely that Paul Molitor would not be in Cooperstown.

Thus, if a voter voted for Molitor, the rationale of not voting for Edgar because he's a DH doesn't wash.

Molitor himself said as much in 2004, telling The Associated Press: "I think the writers have spoken in my case, and they will again in the future. They're not going to hold it against you. It's part of the game and should be included as such."

There's also this: Molitor was a fantastic hitter; as good as he was -- with a .306 lifetime average -- he wasn't in the same class as Edgar. While both topped a .320 average seven times, Edgar got on base more and hit for more power. Molitor ranked in the top 10 in his league four times in OPS (sixth or higher just once) while Edgar ranked in the top 10 eight times (sixth or higher seven times).

This point here isn't to say Molitor isn't a worthy Hall of Famer (he is). The point is the Hall of Fame has elected a player who likely wouldn't be there if not for his years as a DH.

Maybe you want to suggest that Martinez was still more of a specialist than Molitor (who was also a great baserunner)? But if we start applying the term "specialist," don't we have to look at relief pitchers? In recent years, the same voters who will be voting for Martinez elected Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage, two relief pitchers (plus Dennis Eckersley, who was elected largely on his years as a closer).

His career was too short

Martinez played 2,055 games, which would be a fairly low total for a Hall of Fame player. But hardly unprecedented. The odd thing isn't that Edgar had a short career; he played until he was 41 and was still an All-Star at 40. The idea that he was injury-prone simply isn't accurate; he had the hamstring injury in 1993 that wiped out most of his season and bothered him in 1994, and another lengthy DL stint in 2002, but those were the only instances in which he spent time on the disabled list.

The reason for Edgar's low games total is that he didn't play a full season for the first time until he was 27 years old. Allow a short history of Edgar's career path here. He didn't play his first minor league season until he was 20 (he hit .173 in the Northwest League and nearly saw his career end right then). From there, Edgar first established himself as a major league-caliber player in 1987, when he hit .329 at Triple-A. The Mariners had a third baseman named Jim Presley, who had been an All-Star in 1985 and wasn't any good, but Edgar returned to Calgary in 1988 and hit .363; meanwhile, Presley hit .230 with a miserable .280 on-base percentage. Nevertheless, the Mariners again opened with Presley as their third baseman in 1989. (This helps explain why the Mariners never had a winning season until 1991.) Edgar continued to rake at Calgary -- .345 -- and was finally called up on a semi-regular basis. The Mariners finally dumped Presley after the season and in 1990 gave Martinez the job. He hit .302 and ranked third in the AL in on-base percentage. Two years later, he won his first batting championship.

Paul Molitor He was one of the most feared right-handed hitters for a long time in this league. The amount of respect he has from peers speaks to the value of the offensive player he was.

-- Hall of Famer Paul Molitor
on Edgar Martinez

Now, as for those 2,055 games. As mentioned, it is not an unprecedented total for a Hall of Famer. Just last year the same voters who will be voting for Edgar elected Jim Rice, who played 2,089 games (530 as a DH, by the way). In 2005, the voters elected Ryne Sandberg, who played 2,164 games. In 2001, the voters elected Kirby Puckett, who played 1,783 games.

And speaking of those specialists -- Gossage pitched forever, lasting eight seasons beyond his last good year as a closer, facing 7,506 batters in his career -- and yet faced fewer batters than Edgar had plate appearances (8,672). Plus, Gossage's reign as a dominant closer was only 10 seasons (1975 through 1985, excepting 1976, when he started not very successfully). Edgar had 13 awesome/excellent seasons as a hitter. Sutter is even more extreme: He only faced 4,251 batters, his entire career was just 12 seasons and he wasn't good in four of those, so he was elected on eight seasons of quality play as a specialist.

So the way I read it is this: Saying Edgar Martinez's career wasn't long enough deviates directly from the voting philosophies we've witnessed recently.

Anyway, those are just some of the recent guys. Hall of Famers with fewer than 150 more games than Edgar include (besides Rice and Sandberg) Yogi Berra, Joe Cronin, Orlando Cepeda, Duke Snider, Johnny Bench and Pee Wee Reese. Hall of Famers with fewer games played than Edgar include George Sisler, Joe Medwick, Pie Traynor, Johnny Mize, Bobby Doerr, Puckett, Bill Terry, Phil Rizzuto and many, many others.

His statistics aren't good enough

By "statistics aren't good enough," we're really referring to three (or four) numbers: He hit 309 home runs, had 2,247 hits, drove in 1,261 runs and scored 1,219 runs. Many voters don't get beyond those "counting" statistics and, admittedly, those aren't terrific numbers for a player who made his living as a hitter in a high-offense era. (Keep in mind that his hit total is impacted by the fact that he drew so many walks.)

That said, if you dig deeper into the numbers, the results are clear, obvious and irrefutable: Edgar Martinez is one of the best, most productive hitters the game has ever seen.

Ask yourself this: What is the objective of a hitter? The answer is not "get hits." Although Edgar was terrific at that, with a lifetime average of .312, two batting championships and seven seasons hitting above .320; since World War II, only eight right-handed hitters have had as many as six .320 seasons: Albert Pujols and Hank Aaron (eight each); Roberto Clemente, Molitor, Edgar, Manny Ramirez and Derek Jeter (seven); and Vlad Guerrero (six). Pretty good company.

OK, batting average is nice, but the objective of a hitter is to help his team score runs. He does this two ways:

A. Getting on base (not making outs).
B. Hitting for power (home runs and doubles are better than singles).

This is where we see the true greatness of Edgar Martinez. The easiest/best stat we have that combines the ability to get on base (on-base percentage) and power (slugging percentage) is OPS (on-base + slugging). OPS+ takes a player's OPS and adjusts it for era and home ballpark, so we can compare Edgar Martinez in 1995 to Reggie Jackson in 1972 to Joe DiMaggio in 1939 and so on. This way, Edgar gets no "advantage" for playing in a high-offense era or playing in the Kingdome.

An OPS+ of 150 is a monster season. Only five major league hitters in 2009 had an OPS+ of 150 or higher: Pujols, Joe Mauer, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez and Joey Votto. In 2008, there were six. Some years, it's a little higher. There were 13 such guys in 1999. In 1995, when Edgar had the best OPS+ in the majors (better than Mike Piazza, Barry Bonds, Jeff Bagwell, Jim Thome and Albert Belle), there were eight. In 1989, Edgar's rookie season, there were eight. In 1969, there were 13. In 1959, seven. Anyway, in any given year, not many hitters reach an OPS+ of 150.

Anyway, Edgar Martinez reached 150 or better eight times … trust me, that's an amazing total. Only 24 players have done it that many times, and the other 23 are inner-circle Hall of Famers (Aaron, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Mike Schmidt) or will be (Pujols and Thome) or should be (Ruth and Ramirez), with the exception of Dick Allen.

The best way to show how many great seasons Edgar had is to list some of the hitters with fewer than eight 150 OPS+ seasons:

Alex Rodriguez (7)
Reggie Jackson (7)
Willie McCovey (7)
Eddie Mathews (7)
Mark McGwire (6)
Willie Stargell (6)
Harmon Killebrew (6)
Mike Piazza (5)
Ken Griffey Jr. (5)
Eddie Murray (4)
George Brett (4)
Dave Winfield (4)
Joe Morgan (4)
Carl Yastrzemski (4)
Duke Snider (4)
Ralph Kiner (4)
Todd Helton (4)
Rod Carew (3)
Roberto Clemente (3)
David Ortiz (3)
Al Simmons (3)
Tony Gwynn (2)
Jim Rice (2)
Ernie Banks (2)
Johnny Bench (1)
Cal Ripken (1)
Kirby Puckett (1)
Paul Molitor (1)
Ryne Sandberg (0)

Comparing one player to another isn't always the best way to make a Hall of Fame argument (you can always pick and choose anybody favorable to your point), but I'm going to do it anyway, focusing on comparing Edgar to some recent inductees. I believe this is important because these are the players the voters have been putting in. It's a way to digest recent voting patterns.

First, Jim Rice, who made it in last year. Now, Rice isn't the strongest of Hall of Fame candidates; after all, it took him a long time to get in. Nevertheless, 76.4 percent of the voters put him on their ballots last year, just above the 75 percent threshold needed for election.

As we mentioned earlier, his career length was essentially the same as Edgar's. But -- and let me try to put this delicately, because Jim Rice was a very, very good hitter and was feared and hit the ball a country mile -- Edgar Martinez is just a far, far superior hitter and was a superior hitter for more seasons.

Seasons with an OPS+ of 150 or higher
Rice: 2
Martinez: 8

Seasons with an OPS+ of 130 or higher
Rice: 6
Martinez: 12

Seasons in the top 10 in his league in OPS+
Rice: 5
Martinez: 9

Career average per 162 games
Rice: 30 HR, 113 RBI, 97 runs, .298/.352/.502, 128 OPS+
Martinez: 24 HR, 99 RBI, 96 runs, .312/.418/.515, 147 OPS+

Martinez was better; that's a statement of fact; and nobody voted for Rice because of his glove. The main differences between the two are that Edgar drew many more walks (more than twice Rice's career total) and Rice had a huge advantage from Fenway Park that distorts his actual value (he hit .320/374/.546 at home, .277/.330/.459 on the road over his career; Edgar hit .311/.423/.517 at home, .312/.412/.514 on the road).

Since 1901, among hitters with 7,000 plate appearances, Edgar has the 26th best lifetime OPS+. The players just above and below him are guys like Frank Robinson, Honus Wagner, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Schmidt, Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey. Rice is 93rd, next to players like John Olerud, Kent Hrbek, Keith Hernandez, Joe Torre and Jimmy Wynn.

Like I said, maybe Rice isn't the strongest comparison to make. Let's do Tony Gwynn, who was elected in 2007. Everybody says Tony Gwynn is a Hall of Famer: over 3,000 hits, eight batting titles, Van Gogh with the bat and all that. Gwynn is 73rd in OPS+. He ranked in the top 10 in his league in OPS+ seven times (compared to Edgar's nine). He had 13 seasons of a 120 OPS+; Edgar also had 13. Edgar got on base more -- his lifetime OBP is .418, a total Gwynn surpassed just twice -- and hit for more power; there's a reason Edgar -- despite his lack of speed -- scored 100 runs five times, while Gwynn did it only twice. This isn't to suggest Edgar was a better all-around player than Gwynn (who was an excellent fielder in the first half of his career), but if you can match up and even surpass Tony Gwynn's productivity, you have a pretty good Hall of Fame case.

We mentioned Molitor, a 2004 inductee. Edgar had eight 150 OPS+ seasons to Molitor's one. The writers elected Tony Perez in 2000. Perez was primarily a first baseman and wasn't a Gold Glover, so he made it on the strength of his bat, or really, his 1,652 RBIs. He hit .279, had a career OBP of .341 and a slugging percentage of .463. He had an OPS+ of 150 twice and above 130 just one other time. Even if you like 100-RBI seasons, Perez had seven, Edgar six. It's not close. But the writers -- mostly the same writers who will be voting for Edgar Martinez -- voted Perez in this decade.

The point is this: Edgar Martinez was a beast at the plate, one of the absolute best in the game for eight seasons. He was excellent in five other seasons. That's 13 seasons of terrific value as a hitter. How many Hall of Famers can point to 13 years of excellence? Yes, Edgar got shafted when he was coming up in the Mariners' minor league system, and he didn't pad his counting stats by hanging on for a few extra years. But 13 seasons? It's a Hall of Fame-quality career.

He wasn't famous enough

Well, I don't really have much of a defense here. But why did Jim Rice's support increase while Don Mattingly's support fell? Why does Steve Garvey -- one of the biggest names in the game while active -- need to buy a ticket if he goes to Cooperstown? Dwight Gooden? Fernando Valenzuela? Famous, but not Hall of Famers. Fame itself isn't a reason to vote for a guy, although there's no doubt it comes into play against a player (just ask Tim Raines).

I do think there's a dynamic that comes into play here. Edgar played most of his career before interleague games and wasn't a household name (despite being a seven-time All-Star and two-time batting champ). How many of the 500-plus writers who vote ever saw him play? Assuming half of them are or were "National League guys," and a good chunk of them are or were columnists or editors who rarely actually attended games, and a few more probably stopped covering baseball before Edgar's career even began … well, I'd venture there's a good chance that close to half of the writers who will vote this month never saw him play in person.

As Jayson Stark wrote, "That's Edgar -- the offensive machine America just plain forgot." So maybe the numbers won't mean anything to a lot of the voters. Maybe they've forgotten them. Maybe OPS+ is just a newfangled stat that won't register (although you would hope .312 would). A lot of voters will see "Edgar Martinez" on the ballot and skip right past him. But if you don't like the numbers and think I've dug too deep to make his case, I go back to what Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci wrote when Edgar retired:

"He's borderline in my early book, but deserves strong consideration if only because his peers held him in high esteem as a master of his craft. Such regard is more persuasive than his raw numbers."

Paul Molitor was one of those peers. "He was one of the most feared right-handed hitters for a long time in this league," Molitor said in 2004. "The amount of respect he has from peers speaks to the value of the offensive player he was."

That's Hall of Fame value.

David Schoenfield is a senior editor for ESPN.com.

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