How Great Was Edgar Martinez’s Bat?

While we’ve spent the last few days talking about the Hall of Fame, and this post is somewhat inspired by discussions about Edgar Martinez’s worthiness for enshrinement in Cooperstown, this isn’t really a post about whether or not he deserves induction. I get why people are hesitant to vote for a guy who spent most of his career at DH, had a relatively short career, and who played in an era that saw offensive records shattered left and right. I might not agree with their conclusions, but Martinez is a bubble candidate, and legitimate cases can be on both sides of the coin.

However, one of the arguments that I’ve seen more often this year is that Martinez simply wasn’t a great enough hitter to overcome his lack of defensive value. This argument was laid out most plainly by Jeff Fletcher in his explanation of why Martinez is not getting his vote. He looked at Martinez compared to his contemporaries, and sums up his stance with this line:

So if I’m going to vote him in based solely on his bat, he’d better be an absolute slam dunk offensive HOFer…

The argument that a career DH needs to be an elite, premium hitter for induction is valid, and a standard I would argue for as well. I just disagree with Fletcher that Martinez was not that kind of elite, all-time great hitter.

In comparing Fletcher to his peers, he used career OPS+ from 1990-2004, showing how Martinez ranked just ninth among hitters who played during the same time period. And, while it’s acknowledged that all of the players who rank ahead of him should get to go into Cooperstown, his proximity to non-HOF players like Brian Giles and Jason Giambi makes it hard for Fletcher to consider Martinez an all-time great hitter.

However, I don’t think we can simply stop there. Yes, we want to know where a player ranks relative to his peers during the time he played, but we also want to know where a player’s performance ranks among the whole of history. So, let me offer another list of names to peruse.

Using our leaderboards, I pulled a list of every season in history where a player had accumulated a minimum of 500 plate appearances and posted a wRC+ (a slightly more accurate version of measuring offense than OPS+, the metric Fletcher used for his list, since wRC+ corrects for the relative value of OBP and SLG) of 150 or better. Essentially, this is a list of players who hit 50 percent better than the league average (adjusting for park effects and the average offensive level for that season) in something close to a full year’s worth of playing time. In the history of the sport, there have been 937 such seasons, so as you can see, it’s not an easy feat to accomplish.

Here’s the list of players who had at least eight seasons with 500 plate appearances and a wRC+ of 150:

Player 500 PA/150 wRC+
Willie Mays 14
Babe Ruth 13
Barry Bonds 13
Hank Aaron 13
Stan Musial 13
Ted Williams 13
Tris Speaker 13
Ty Cobb 13
Lou Gehrig 12
Mel Ott 12
Frank Robinson 11
Honus Wagner 11
Mickey Mantle 11
Albert Pujols 9
Jimmie Foxx 9
Manny Ramirez 9
Rogers Hornsby 9
Alex Rodriguez 8
Dick Allen 8
Edgar Martinez 8
Frank Thomas 8
Johnny Mize 8

There’s 22 guys in the history of the sport who have managed eight or more seasons with that kind of production. It’s 16 Hall of Famers, two guys who are going to get in easily (Pujols/Thomas), two guys who would have gotten in if not for steroid usage (Rodriguez/Ramirez), and then Dick Allen and Edgar Martinez. Basically, the list is Edgar and 20 guys with recognized Hall of Fame production, plus one guy who was kept out of the Hall largely because of his personality and shorter career.

For comparison, here are the number of qualifying seasons by those non-HOF types that Fletcher argues Martinez is too close to:

Gary Sheffield – 6
Jason Giambi – 5
Brian Giles – 4

Vladimir Guerrero, who Fletcher noted he will vote for, also did it four times. David Ortiz, who some try to prop up as a similar candidate to Martinez due to his lack of time spent playing defense, has done it four times. Put simply, these guys simply never had any kind of stretch of offensive dominance that meets the standard of offensive excellence that Martinez established.

Martinez isn’t one of those guys with good years scattered around with mediocrity mixed in, either. While he was pretty valuable from 1990-1992 (while playing third base, by the way), his peak was pretty obvious and continual, ranging from 1995 to 2001. In those seven years, he never batted less than 581 times and never posted a wRC+ below 155. Over that entire stretch, he accumulated 4,481 plate appearances and posted a wRC+ of 163. Here’s the rest of baseball during that same time frame – the only hitter on the planet who was better during that timeframe was Barry Bonds.

Few players in the history of the sport have been as good at the plate as Martinez was during those seven years. He wasn’t just another good hitter. He wasn’t Brian Giles or Jason Giambi. For seven years, he was among the best that the sport has ever seen.

For those who really value career length, I understand wanting to see true dominance during a player’s time on the field in order to overcome a lack of playing time. However, let’s not let the fact that he played at a time when the sport was rich with elite offensive performers overshadow the fact that Martinez’s performances are historically special.

Baseball is cyclical. Sometimes, the sport sees a lot of great players at one position all come up at the same time. 10 years ago, we had an abundance of shortstops who could really hit. Right now, we have a pretty special crop of young pitching. We should not refuse to acknowledge the individual greatness of one of these players simply because their careers dovetailed with the timing of other great players. Is Justin Verlander any less special because he’s sharing the spotlight with Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum, and Clayton Kershaw?

Edgar Martinez had one of the great offensive stretches of all time. Yes, it came as a DH, and yes, it came in an era of offensive explosion, but even when you adjust for the averages of the time and penalize him heavily for his lack of defensive value, he still has a peak that fits in comfortably into anyone’s Hall of Fame. He posted nine seasons with at least +5.0 WAR, a feat matched by George Brett, Cal Ripken Jr, and Ken Griffey Jr. Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Johnny Mize, and Wade Boggs each only had eight such seasons.

If you want to argue against Martinez due to his lack of longevity, I can understand the position. While I might value peak versus length differently, reasonable people can disagree on how long a player’s career should be before we consider him for enshrinement. However, let’s not keep Edgar Martinez out of Cooperstown because he wasn’t great enough when he did play. By any reasonable standard, Martinez at his best was clearly Hall of Fame worthy.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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12 years ago

I don’t disagree with the general idea of this article, but picking out a random seven year stretch really feels like cherry picking to me, and I don’t think really adds much to the argument.

12 years ago
Reply to  JayT

Didn’t he pick out the best stretch of seven years in Martinez’s career? That’s not cherry picking – that’s identifying his peak. What’s random about that?

12 years ago
Reply to  taprat

Because he was showing what others were doing exactly during Martinez’ peak, which is nice and all, but it is basically disqualifying guys that were his contemporaries that might have started their peak a year or two later or earlier.
In other words, he wasn’t comparing Martinez’ peak to his contemporaries peak, he was just looking at what people did during Martinez’ peak, which to me doesn’t really add much value.

12 years ago
Reply to  taprat

Just looking at a couple of contemporaries, Manny, Bagwell, Thomas, and McGwire all had better seven year stretches then Edgar.

That still puts him in some really good company, and like I originally said, I agree with the overall argument of the article, but only comparing what other players were doing during Martinez’ peak is selection bias. Fred McGriff had the second highest wRC+ from 1988 to 1994. That’s a seven year peak where Berry Bonds was the only guy that was a better hitter. Would you be ok with someone using that as one of their justifications for wanting to put McGriff in the Hall?

12 years ago
Reply to  JayT

I would agree, but I think the point of the article was to show 1. How great martinez was during the steroid era, which was that “random seven year stretch,” and 2. That the time period in which he played in shouldn’t take away from his place in baseball history

Westside guymember
12 years ago
Reply to  JayT

A stretch of seven contiguous years is “cherry picking”? I think that term does not mean what you think it means… If a seven year stretch is cherry picking, what about eight? ten? fourteen? When does it stop being cherry picking?

We’re not talking about picking a few years from a guy with so-so career numbers either, remember – his career slash line is .312/.418/.515.

Westside guymember
12 years ago
Reply to  Westside guy

BTW I wonder if Jack Zduriencik ever looks at the old batting numbers from Edgar, Junior, A-Rod, et. al. and just starts to weep.

12 years ago
Reply to  Westside guy

He may not, but the Mariners fans definitely have been.

12 years ago
Reply to  Westside guy

Refresher course on the dictionary definition of cherry pick: “to select the best or most desirable.” That’s exactly what the article does, selecting Edgar’s best stretch of years and then comparing them to everyone else over those same years (“the only hitter on the planet who was better during that timeframe was Barry Bonds”).

It’s pretty clear why that is a problem with the analysis.