Tipping Pitches: Sports: Edgar Martinez enshrined in Hall of Very Good


Saturday, December 5, 2009

Sports: Edgar Martinez enshrined in Hall of Very Good

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The time to submit ballots for the 2010 Baseball Hall of Fame inductions is around the corner, which means the time to argue about who does and does not deserve induction is now.

There are some old names on the ballot who may or may not have a chance, depending on whom you ask. They include (among others) Andre Dawson, Bert Blyleven, Jack Morris, Tim Raines, Mark McGwire and Don Mattingly. Actually some quality there, and I'd expect at least one of these guys to finally break through (nah, not McGwire).

The new names bring new arguments to the table: Robert Alomar, Edgar Martinez, Barry Larkin, Andres Gallaraga and Fred McGriff are the most prominent. Of the group, Alomar is most likely to get first year induction. The rest are far from assured a spot. One or more may never get their plaque.

This discussion is quickly becoming more and more complicated, and the biggest reason for that is the Steroid Era. What is real? What matters? How do you compare players from this era to those in or not in the Hall of Fame?

Edgar Martinez brings this and yet another layer of complexity to the argument: the first legitimate candidate who played primarily as a Designated Hitter.

The Stats
For a moment, let's ignore the era. Let's ignore that he rarely played on defense. Let's simply look at the career stats of Edgar Martinez.

Seasons: 18
Hits: 2,247
Home Runs: 309
Batting Average: .312
On Base Percentage: .418
OPS: .933
All-Star Appearances: 7
Silver Sluggers: 5
MVP Awards: 0 (Finishes of 3rd, 6th, 12th, 14th and 16th)

The Surface Verdict
If you want to look only at the stats and ignore the era in which he played and the fact that he was predominantly a Designated Hitter, you can make a strong argument for Martinez. He has some numbers (.312 BA, .418 OBP, .933 OPS) that are down-right nasty.

Of course, the hit and home run total, though very good, are not exceptional. Make no mistake, such totals are found in the Hall of Fame. But collecting 2,200 hits and hitting 300 home runs is far from a sure ticket to the Hall.

That said, if you were to compare Martinez to the current members of the Hall of Fame, he would be qualified to be included in the discussion. Of the 229 hitters in the Hall, following would be his ranks:

Hits: 86th
Home Runs: 37th
Batting Average: 56th
On Base Percentage: 14th
OPS: 17th

Is he deserving based on the stats alone? Sure. Is he a first ballot Hall of Famer based on stats alone? Probably not. He has some gaudy numbers, but the fact that he didn't eclipse any magic numbers (3,000 hits or 600 home runs) eliminate him from "slam dunk" consideration.

The Strikes
Unfortunately, there's more to this story than just the stats.

1) Martinez would be the first player inducted to play the majority of his career as a Designated Hitter. This is a problem. We're not looking to induct the best hitters into the Hall of Fame. We're looking to induct the best baseball players. Granted, if he had been a record setting offensive player, we could overlook his DH status. But, while very good offensively, he was not great enough to be granted that privilege.

Martinez was half of a baseball player. He was very good at his half, but the fact that he played 591 of his 2,055 career games (29%) in the field is a problem. Not to mention, 476 of those 591 games (81%) happened before 1993. In other words, Edgar Martinez spent nearly all of his prime potentially Hall of Fame years as a DH. Martinez never won a Gold Glove award, and would certainly never have been considered. This is a negative.

2) Martinez played during the Steroid Era. This is notable for several reasons. First, his numbers are not nearly as eye popping when taken in this context. This is also reflected by the fact that he was never a Most Valuable Player award winner and only was seriously considered once (twice if you consider a sixth place finish). So Martinez was never considered one of the best defensively at his position because he never had a position. And he was never considered the best player at any one time. And based on MVP voting, he was only briefly considered an elite player.

The fact that Martinez played in the Steroid Era and just barely hit more than 300 home runs is also a problem. He hit about half of what others in his era hit who will struggle to get induction. Granted, he has other stats that are superior, but the era devalues his home run and RBI production. It even devalues his hits and batting average.

This is not picking on Edgar Martinez, but we do not know if he was a steroid user. He has never been implicated. Suggesting he may have used could be unfair. It is unfair. But there, unfairly or not, will be a cloud of suspicion over almost every player during this era. Guilty until proven innocent, unfortunately.

Edgar Martinez never hit 20 home runs in a season until the age of 32. Then, suddenly, he ran a string of seven consecutive seasons with more than 20 homers, running through his 38th birthday. In fact, he even hit 37 home runs with 145 RBI (arguably his greatest season) at the age of 37 and during the heart of the Steroid Era in 1999.

This doesn't mean he took steroids, obviously. And there are several other players with clean reputations (Steve Finley, Jim Edmonds, Luis Gonzalez, Raul Ibanez) and unclean reputations (Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, etc.) with similar patterns.

Did Martinez take steroids? I don't know. But I wouldn't be surprised about anyone. It's a pattern of performance that is very common in this era, and often attributed to steroid use. It is not otherwise considered normal to have the greatest years of your career to occur after the age of 32.

And while some voters may not care or may vote for a guy on the first ballot if there is no immediate evidence, I'm not that guy. Martinez has 15 years to earn enshrinement. I'd prefer to let as many facts come out as possible to remove any doubt on a guy who, coincidentally or not, has some suspicious numbers during a suspicious time.

3) Martinez was rarely if ever considered one of the best players of his day. Was he very good? Absolutely. Was he a great hitter? Indeed. But he was a one-dimensional player. He was a hitting machine who could not run and could not field. Was he one of the best Designated Hitters? Yup. Probably the best. But that's not a position. It's the lack of a position. It is the presence of weakness.

Let's give Martinez a position. Let's say he was a first baseman. Was he one of the top three first basemen of his era? And you can't just consider offense in that equation. Let's just say he played first base and was one of the worst in baseball in the field.

Was he better than Jeff Bagwell? Better than Mark McGwire? Better than Todd Helton? Better than Albert Pujols (though their careers didn't coincide neatly)? Better than Rafael Palmeiro? I think you have a difficult argument in each case.

Speaking of comparing first basemen, what about Don Mattingly? Mattingly played for 14 seasons (shortened by injury, and four fewer than Martinez). Yet, he finished with nearly the same number of hits (2,153) and his batting average of .307 was comparable. Also considering Mattingly did not play his peak years in the Steroid Era, you'd have to say that his 222 home runs were in the same ballpark.

But you can't stop there with the comparison. Mattingly was largely considered the best (or one of the best) at his position -- both offensively and defensively. He won nine Gold Glove awards. Won one MVP award and finished in the top five three other times (one more in the top seven).

Mattingly was a complete player who had an incomplete career. Because of the brevity, he is not a Hall of Famer. Yet, in that brief career, he amassed comparable offensive numbers, particularly when compared to each player's peers. He was, for a core part of his career, considered one of the best players in the game, offensively and defensively.

Is Mattingly a Hall of Famer? Jury is still out. But considering a beloved Yankee hasn't made it into the Hall after nine tries with this many notches on his belt, how can we seriously consider Edgar Martinez, the player who was unable to field Mattingly's position?

I am not completely shutting the door on Martinez. He's not a first ballot Hall of Famer. I'd first like to see a player like Mattingly get in. In my mind, even with the piles of offensive accolades, Edgar should have an uphill battle. Maybe he'll enjoy the last minute fate of another borderline candidate with a questionable all-around résumé, Jim Rice.

Or maybe, just maybe, Edgar Martinez belongs in the Hall of Very Good.


Charley on December 06, 2009 said...

Nice post! I wouldn't vote for Edgar and Mattingly is a tough one. My heart wants to vote for him, but I just wouldn't be able to pull the trigger. Hall of Fame is based on career stats not on potential. Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, and Lee Smith should get in.

Andre Dawson for the Hall of Fame

Jon Loomer on December 06, 2009 said...

Thanks for the response, Charley! All of the players you mention are tough for me. I guess I wouldn't really be upset either way. If they get in, they don't stand out as not belonging. If they don't, they join the group of dozens who were close, but not good enough.

rachel said...

Have you read the book of basketball? He talks about having an honorable mention section. If baseball had something similar, it would be a way to pay tribute to someone like Edgar, and other players who made unique contributions but aren't quite HOF quality. (I think Edgar is but that's mostly because he's one of my favorites.)

Jon Loomer on December 11, 2009 said...

I haven't read that mammoth book yet, no. It's an interesting idea, but tough to implement at this point. The problem is that such a thing wasn't implemented from the beginning, so there are already guys in the Hall (of whatever sport) who don't really deserve it.

Problem with an honorable mention is that then you have people arguing about who should get that recognition, too. Doesn't stop.

Although, if you want to put Cecil Cooper in the Honorable Mention Hall, I'm listening.

rachel said...

It is rather hefty but interesting. The premise of the book was to blow up the existing HOF and start from scratch. HM was a way to include people who contributed to the game but weren't really great the way other players were.

You would have to fill me in on Cooper. Before the Ms, I was a Cubs fan as a kid and didn't want to learn about any other players. If they weren't the Cubs, they weren't any good. (I obviously didn't know the Cubs history - mostly because: A-I grew up in the NW, far away from Wrigleyville and B-I did not have parents who watched sports who could tell me about the teams.)

Jon Loomer on December 11, 2009 said...

Ah... Cecil Cooper. The best first baseman in the game from 1980-82. Big part of the 1982 Brewers World Series team. Hit .352 with 122 RBI in 1980, drove in 126 in 1983 (a Brewers record until Prince Fielder broke it in 2009), and finished with about 2,200 hits and a .298 career average.

Dominant for a short period of time, very good for a while, career of greatness wasn't long enough. As a Brewers fan, wish he was a Hall of Famer, but he's a Hall of Very Good.

Jon Loomer on December 11, 2009 said...

And I dig Simmons, just don't know if I'm up for that big book. Read all of his online stuff. Actually worked closely with him when I managed the celeb fantasy league for the NBA. Good dude.

That's right. Name droppin'.

JamesDaBear on December 23, 2010 said...

Great hypotheticals... but we'll never know because Edgar Martinez actually played in an era where DH was an option. Don't hold that against him.

I understand the tendency to compare Martinez to the other sluggers of his "steroid era"... but if Edgar didn't take steroids (and we can't assume otherwise), why does it make sense to penalize him for playing in this era just because others did? Why even bother to compare him to Palmeiro and McGwire?

It's not an apt comparison anyways, because he was never the same kind of hitter... and it's not a requirement to hit 40+ HRs every year to be a productive hitter no matter in which era he plays.

I don't have to turn this into a single stat argument, but it's funny you bring up Mattingly's batting averages and hits... neither of which are superior to Edgar's... but ignore the gaping chasm between their OBPs.

.418 OBP for Edgar Martinez... a fantastic number for any era or position.

.358 OBP for Don Mattingly... an ok number, but not getting anyone into a hall of fame discussion.

To belabor the point, Edgar averaged nearly 50 more walks than Mattingly per season. The total number is even more stunning.

If Mattingly's hits and batting average mattered as much as you want them to, his career SLG% wouldn't be 45 points lower.

You also bring up the injury factor, but don't get Edgar the same credit for losing two years and forcing him to being a DH. The Mariners weren't considering moving Edgar to DH after 1992 when he led the league in batting average and doubles and posted a 168 OPS+.

Just like injuries forced Mattingly to shorten his career, they forced Edgar Martinez to be a DH, and cost him massive parts of three seasons. It's actually a huge point in Edgar's favor that his bat played big enough to be a DH until he was 41, while Mattingly had to quit at 34. He even got a 4-year head start on Edgar to rack up stats.

I also have to mention you played the "beloved Yankee" card. How many "beloved Yankees" had to wait until their final season to play in their only post-season series (which only existed because MLB introduced the Wild Card)?

I'm not advocating Edgar Martinez should be an easy vote for the Hall of Fame, but let's not reach for comparisons in an attempt to disparage him.

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