Edgar Martinez retired with a .312 career batting average in parts of 18 major league seasons. (John Froschauer/AP)
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2014 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election, it has been updated to reflect last year's voting results as well as additional research and changes in WAR. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here. For the schedule and an explanation of how posts on holdover candidates will be presented, see here.
The 2013 season marked the 40th anniversary of the introduction of the designated hitter into Major League Baseball, perhaps the most significant rule change since the American League adopted the foul strike rule in 1903. Four decades later, the DH continues to rankle purists who would rather watch pitchers risk injury as they flail away with ineptitude. In that time, only one player who has spent the plurality -- not the majority -- of his time at the position has been elected to the Hall of Fame: Paul Molitor, who spent 1,171 of his 2,683 career games riding the pine between plate appearances.
When I reviewed Molitor's Hall of Fame case in 2004 -- in my Baseball Prospectus debut, at a point when my system wasn't even called JAWS -- I considered Molitor as a third baseman, because he had spent 788 games there and the majority of his games playing somewhere in the infield. He had generated real defensive value (26 Fielding Runs Above Average according to the measure of the time), strengthening a case that was virtually automatic by dint of his membership in the 3,000 hit club.
I have maintained that precedent in examining other candidates who spent good chunks of their careers at DH, mainly outfielders (Harold Baines, Jose Canseco, Chili Davis) with no real shot at gaining entry to Cooperstown, in part because JAWS enables easy comparisons with Hall of Famers not only at a given position but with the at-large field of enshrined hitters. I've stuck to that precedent in examining the case of Edgar Martinez, who ranks fourth on the all-time list for games by a DH at 1,403, but who also played 564 games at third base and another 28 at first base. I've compared Martinez to Hall third basemen, Hall corner infielders and Hall hitters in general, mainly because when properly used, JAWS is a tool used to build an argument, not a simple yes/no question. Within its positional adjustments, the Wins Above Replacement system levies in a substantial penalty for not playing the field.
Even with that penalty applied to his annual WAR, and even after getting such a late start that his first season with at least 100 games didn't come until age 27, Martinez comes out valuable enough to merit a bronze plaque.
No matter his position, Martinez could flat-out rake. A high-average, high-OBP hitting machine with plenty of power, he played a key role in putting the Seattle Mariners on the map as an AL West powerhouse, emerging as a folk hero to a fan base that watched Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez lead the franchise's charge to relevancy, only to force their ways out of town over contract issues.
Martinez made a solid debut on the 2010 ballot with 36.2 percent of the vote, but since then, he has had a hard time expanding his base of support; in 2013, he received 35.9 percent. In the midst of so many strong candidates — including Frank Thomas, who spent 57 percent of his career at DH and hit for more power — Martinez may well lose more ground this year, though his Cooperstown fate is hardly sealed.
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Martinez was born in New York City in 1963 but raised in Puerto Rico, moving there as a young child after his parents' divorce. He played ball at the island's American College and was signed by the Mariners as a non-drafted free agent in 1982 (not until 1990 did Major League Baseball make Puerto Rico subject to the amateur draft, a move that hasn't worked out for the island's best interests, baseball-wise). Just shy of 20 when he signed — old for a prospect — he showed outstanding plate discipline from the start but didn't break out until his age-24 season in 1987, when he was in Triple A.
Martinez received cups of coffee from the Mariners in 1987 and '88, and struggled so mightily in 1989 (.240/.314/.304 in 196 PA) after opening the season as the team's third baseman that he was briefly sent back down. He stuck in the majors for good in 1990, hitting .302/.397/.433. The Total Zone system estimates that his defense at the hot corner was 13 runs above average, giving him a total value of 5.5 WAR that season. A year later, Martinez hit .307/.405/.452 — the first of 11 seasons with an OBP above .400 — and helped Seattle crack .500 for the first time in franchise history.
In 1992, Martinez won his first AL batting title, hitting .343/.404/.544 with a league-leading 46 doubles; his 6.6 WAR tied Roberto Alomar for third in the league, behind only Kirby Puckett and Frank Thomas. Alas, he was limited to just 131 games combined the next two seasons due to hamstring and wrist injuries as well as the players' strike. The latter season led Seattle to relieve him of his defensive responsibilities; he was actually seven runs above average at the hot corner according to Total Zone, but his bat was far more important than his glove. It's fair to say the decision paid off.
In 1995, Martinez set a career-high with 7.0 WAR, hitting .356/.479/.628, leading the league in batting average, on-base percentage, OPS+ (185) and doubles (52), and helping the Mariners to their first playoff berth. He was a one-man wrecking crew in the ALDS against the Yankees, batting .571/.667/1.000 with four-three hit efforts, reaching base safely 18 times in five games. Martinez is still the co-holder of the record for most hits in a Division Series, with 12, and his 21 total bases rank fifth. Meanwhile, The Double (as it's remembered in the Pacific Northwest) that he hit in the 11th inning of the decisive Game 5 scored the tying and winning runs and is on the short list of hits that have taken on a life of their own. The euphoria of that moment helped generate the groundswell of support that secured the Mariners a new taxpayer-funded stadium within a week of the series ending.
The '95 season began a seven-year stretch in which Martinez hit a combined .329/.446/.574 while averaging 42 doubles, 28 homers, 107 walks and 5.8 WAR per year (40.6 total). Defensive value is built into WAR, but even with negative value in that area (he played 33 games at third and first in that span), he tied with Sammy Sosa as the majors' fifth-most valuable position player over those years behind Barry Bonds (56.8), Alex Rodriguez (46.5), Jeff Bagwell (44.9) and Ken Griffey Jr. (41.1). The Griffey comparison is particularly startling; the centerfielder on those Mariners teams won an MVP award and four Gold Gloves in that same span and led the AL in homers for three years in a row (twice with 56) — and he was just a fraction of a win more valuable than Martinez during that period.
The Mariners reached the playoffs three more times in that 1995-2001 period, including their record-tying 116-win '01 campaign after Johnson, Griffey and Rodriguez had all departed. Martinez was hardly a window dresser for that team, hitting .306/.423/.543 with 40 doubles, 23 homers, a 160 OPS+ (fifth in the league) and 4.8 WAR. He played three more seasons, hitting well for two of them, before retiring.
Martinez isn't the first Hall of Fame candidate to benefit from spending his twilight years as a designated hitter; Molitor reached the 3,000-hits plateau and Cooperstown largely because of what he did there, and the same will go for Thomas and the 500 homer benchmark. Nonetheless, Martinez's case is an interesting test for the voters. He played so few games in the field not only because he established himself at a relatively advanced age but because the risk/reward payoff wasn't merited once he emerged as an elite hitter (though it's likely Seattle could have stuck him at first base — a much easier position than third, requiring less mobility — had it so desired).
It's also worth considering that Martinez played in an era of increased specialization, particularly regarding bullpen roles. Teams concerned with the limitations of a pitcher's stamina, health and/or repertoire often convert starters to relievers, who rarely produce enough value within their smaller roles to merit consideration for the Hall. Mariano Rivera is the best example; it's quite possible he'd have never approached a Hall of Fame level had he remained a starter. Martinez was the Mariano Rivera of DHs, so good within his limited role that he produced enough value to transcend it.
(Oh, and by the way, he owned Rivera: .579/.652/1.053 in 23 PA. Small sample size, but wow.)
Via the positional adjustments in the Baseball-Reference.com version of WAR, a full season at third base has a value of +2 runs, which is to say that showing up for work and filling that spot without burning down the stadium is worth two extra runs beyond average. By comparison, a full season at DH has a value of −15 runs, so it takes an extra 17 runs per year for an average fielder at the hot corner to offset such a move with his bat. Even with that substantial penalty built into the system for the last decade of his career, Martinez created enough value as a hitter to surpass the career, peak and JAWS standards among Hall of Fame third basemen by about one win apiece. The margin is slightly higher when you expand the comparison to enshrined corner infielders (first and third base) or all hitters (with catchers given a boost to put them on the same scale as the other positions).
All of that is without factoring in the late start to his major league career. From age 27 onward, Martinez created more value (67.5 WAR) than all but 20 position players, 19 of whom are in Cooperstown; Barry Bonds is the lone exception. Of the top 35 on that list, only Bonds, Chipper Jones, Pete Rose and the still-active Alex Rodriguez and Ichiro Suzuki aren't already enshrined. Throw in the black and gray ink (two batting titles and a second place; three OBP titles and three second places; one OPS+ lead and six top-five finishes), seven All-Star appearances, his all-time rankings in OBP (12th among hitters with 8,000 PA) and OPS+ (25th) and the impact of the 1995 postseason upon Seattle baseball history, and his case is strong enough to push him even further over the line.
Voters have been slow to come around to that conclusion, though Martinez does have a substantial bloc of support. Four years into his eligibility, he's still not even halfway there, having polled at 36.2 percent in 2013. That's not a lost-cause level in terms of modern voting history; Bruce Sutter (27.5 percent), Duke Snider (26.6 percent), Bert Blyleven (23.3 percent) and Bob Lemon (16.6 percent) were all eventually elected by the BBWAA after polling even lower in their fourth years, while Jim Rice (42.9 percent), Goose Gossage (42.1 percent) and Luis Aparicio (41.9 percent) weren't much higher. Nine other players polled lower at that point but were elected via the various Veterans Committees.