Yesterday, December 21, was the deadline for 2016 Baseball Hall of Fame ballots to be submitted. As followers of the process are well aware, quite a logjam has materialized in recent years, due to a confluence of factors, most notably the influx of so-called “steroid era” players, some of whom meet every possible criterion applied to prior candidates, only to be refused entry by the BBWAA. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, two of the ten best baseball players of all time, by any measure, with or without PEDs, languish at the gate of the Hall, ironically gaining just enough votes to deny other worthy candidates the game’s ultimate honor.
Edgar Martinez is one of these players, and arguably might be the one single player (perhaps along with Mike Mussina) whose candidacy has been damaged the most. He became Hall-eligible before Bonds and Clemens, and posted early vote totals that historically would suggest future induction. The tidal wave of talent following him onto the ballot, however, has stopped his vote total in its tracks; this is already his seventh year of eligibility, and to make matters worse, players are now allowed only 10 tries before their name is removed from the ballot and turned over to the Veterans Committee, whose specialty is electing no one.
He is not alone: the Tim Raines situation is perhaps even more regrettable. This slow period in the baseball schedule just prior to Christmas is perhaps a good time to look back and examine just how good a hitter Edgar Martinez was, and how much of a miscarriage of justice his HOF snub is.
As I have occasionally done in the past on these pages, I’m going to tick off some statistical purists. I am fully aware that when you are working with standard deviations, or z-scores, you technically shouldn’t be adding them together. However, summing the number of standard deviations above league average is a pretty informative way of evaluating the elite tier of performers in a given population.
I have gone back to 1901 and measured the number of standard deviations above/below league average in on-base and slugging percentage (OBP and SLG, respectively) for each MLB regular. Then, I summed those relative OBP and SLG scores over each player’s career, obtaining an ordered list of the players who have accumulated the most offensive value in the game’s modern era. This is not a good way of measuring the talent of players in the league average range; an average performer, after all, would come up with a score of zero. Nor are there are any park or positional adjustments. Rather, this is just a pure measure of relative offensive production that has the side benefit of splitting a player’s value into its separate OBP and SLG components.
One of the arguments often made against Martinez’ induction is the relative brevity of his career, which limited his upside in the counting stat categories that are so important to Hall voters. Well, a stat like the one described in the last paragraph would seemingly be unkind to the Mariners’ current hitting coach, as it too is a counting stat, albeit an unorthodox one. Let’s see where Martinez fits in:
|QUAL YRS||REL OBP||REL SLG||TOT||OPS+|
For each player, his number of qualifying seasons, cumulative number of standard deviations above league average OBP and SLG (separately and then combined), and career OPS+ for his seasons as a qualifying regular are listed.
So there is Edgar Martinez, the 30th-greatest hitter in the game’s modern era, in terms of career value based on this statistic. What we find here are either inner-circle Hall of Famers; active, soon-to-be future inner-circle Hall of Famers; Barry Bonds, David Ortiz… and Martinez. Conventional baseball wisdom seems to hold that Ortiz will be voted in, with his postseason heroics pushing him over the line, and that Martinez will have to wait for the Veterans Committee to give him a second chance.
You see the identity of the top-30 players above, what about the next ten? How about Harmon Killebrew, Johnny Mize, Nap Lajoie, Larry Walker, Todd Helton, Jeff Bagwell, Rickey Henderson, Willie McCovey, Wade Boggs and Mark McGwire. A bunch of HOFers, plus Walker and Helton, who are too highly placed on this list because of the Coors Field effect. It’s not until you get down into the upper 40s, when you reach bat-only guys such as Fred McGriff (#46) and Dick Allen (#49) that you can have a true in-or-out discussion.
You’ll note that all but one player, the active Miguel Cabrera, has matched or exceeded Martinez’ total of 14 qualifying seasons. The vast majority easily exceed it. The vast majority of the top 30 are true “sluggers,” who mashed their way to the Hall based on exceedingly high levels of power, relative to their league and era.
Martinez is an exception in this regard: his cumulative career number of STD above league average SLG (15.72) is the second lowest on the list; only Eddie Collins’ 15.08 mark is lower. The player for whom the award for best DH is named made his bones primarily on the OBP side of the ledger; his cumulative career number of STD above league average OBP (27.56, compiled over 14 qualifying seasons), exceeds those of #14 Lou Gehrig (14 seasons), #12 Willie Mays (19) and #9 Hank Aaron (22), to name a few. Pretty good company.
Let’s dig a little deeper into this OBP dominance. In six different seasons, Martinez’ OBP was over 2.00 STD above league average. The lowest of those six marks was actually +2.29 STD. Exactly six of the other 29 players listed above — Barry Bonds (13), Ted Williams (13), Ty Cobb (12), Babe Ruth (11), Rogers Hornsby (8), and Lou Gehrig (7) — accomplished this more often. Another five did so as often as Edgar. Hank Aaron never did it. Willie Mays did once. Another six either never did it or did it once.
Martinez had only 14 qualifying seasons as an MLB regular, due to a late start that was zero fault of his own. (We’ll talk a little more about that later.) What if the above table only looked at each historical MLB regular’s first 14 qualifying seasons? Where would Martinez rank then?
He would jump up seven more notches to #23, leapfrogging Aaron (who would drop to #28), Sam Crawford (#30), Chipper Jones (#31), Carl Yastrzemski (#32), Collins (#33), George Brett (#34), and — bringing up the rear, among this illustrious group — Ortiz (#36).
Need to place Edgar in an even better light? How about ranking the above players by career OPS+, taking only their qualifying seasons into account? Martinez rises to #21 by this measure, ranking ahead of Alex Rodriguez, Mike Schmidt, Yaz, Collins, Ortiz, Brett, Al Kaline, Jones and Crawford. Slightly different ways of looking at an incredible group of hitters, and some of them put him on the doorstep of the all-time top 20.
Why has Edgar Martinez become a tweener? He is a victim both of geography and era. He played his entire career in Seattle, a long way away from most places, at a time when some really, really good Mariner teams didn’t get the national exposure they would today, in the age of Twitter, Snapchat, etc. Sure, Ken Griffey Jr., was a Mariner as well, but Martinez’ skills were much more subtle than Junior’s. Homers and leaping catches are sexier than doubles and walks.
That’s where era comes in. Only hitters with an extreme slugging (with a high homer total) or batting average (with a high hit total) profile need apply. Though Martinez’ SLG was always high — .543 or higher seven years in a row, at one point — he never hit 40 homers in a season, actually only exceeding 30 once. Teammate Griffey Jr., meanwhile, hit over twice as many career homers as Edgar. But believe it or not, Junior’s career SLG was only .023 points higher; he ranks #47 in the stat catalogued in the table above.
The batting average/hits guys like Tony Gwynn or even Pete Rose, who isn’t getting in the Hall for “other” reasons, or OBP/speed guys like Rickey Henderson or Joe Morgan, either had big hit or stolen base totals to go with their other skills. If Martinez’ abilities were tilted in a more extreme manner toward either OBP or SLG, he’d very likely already be in the Hall. Being really, really good at both key facets of offensive baseball isn’t as eye-catching as being historically great at one.
Now, about his career’s relative brevity… that would be due to no fault of his own. Martinez didn’t arrive on the major league scene to stay until 1990, when he was already 27. What was he up to the three immediately previous seasons? Well, he put up the following Triple-A batting lines, at Calgary:
1987 – Age 24 – .329-.434-.473 (531 PA)
1988 – Age 25 – .363-.467-.517 (407 PA)
1989 – Age 26 – .345-.457-.522 (141 PA)
When you get down to it, he would very likely have performed at the MLB level much as he did in 1990 at age 27 (.302-.397-.433), if only given the chance. That’s another 450 hits or so, plus more STDs above league average OBP and SLG to throw on the pile. Why, do you say, was Martinez held down at the Triple-A level throughout this period? Well, they had the immortal Jim Presley getting it done in the following manner at the MLB level:
1987 – .247-.296-.433
1988 – .230-.280-.355
1989 – .236-.275-.385
Talk about being a victim of one’s era. Think the Mariner faithful would have made a little more noise in this day and age with a sub-.300 MLB incumbent locked in place, while a Triple-A prospect, considered a better defender than Presley at that point in his career, was tearing it up one level below? Presley hit 50 homers over those three years, so all was well.
Sure, Edgar Martinez was primarily a DH. That’s primarily, not exclusively. He played 592 games in the field, 564 at third base, mostly early in his career, before a better defender, Mike Blowers, took his place. Martinez didn’t move to DH because he couldn’t play third, he moved because it made the Mariners a much better ball club. David Ortiz, on the other hand, has played 277 career games in the field, all at first base. To me, both are Hall of Famers, but Edgar is first in line; his superior quality and slight additional defensive contribution, at a more difficult position, slightly outweighs Ortiz’ quantity and postseason edge.
This summer, Ken Griffey Jr., will rightfully get his sunny day in Cooperstown. Here’s to hoping that Edgar Martinez, too, will get his while he is young enough to truly enjoy it.