One of the best hitters of his era and the best designated hitter of all time, Edgar Martinez should be a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. But has his case stalled out?
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2015 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2014 election, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research and changes in WAR. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
All Edgar Martinez did was hit — the statement is almost completely true in both the literal and figurative senses. Even after adjusting for his high-scoring surroundings, 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, then force their ways out of town over contract issues. But while Griffey and Rodriguez were two-way stars at key up-the-middle positions, Martinez spent the bulk of his career as a designated hitter; in that capacity, he merely put a claim on being the best one in baseball history.
Forty-one years after it was introduced — perhaps the most significant rule change since the AL adopted the foul strike rule in 1903 — the DH continues to rankle purists who would rather watch pitchers risk injury as they flail away with ineptitude. It was only this past summer that the first player ever to spend a majority of his career as a DH was inducted into the Hall of Fame, namely Frank Thomas, who made 57 percent of his plate appearances in that capacity. Thomas' election came a full decade after Paul Molitor provided the Hall with its first player to spend the plurality of his career (44 percent) as a DH after bouncing all around the infield. By comparison, Martinez took 72 percent of his plate appearances as a DH.
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 also with the at-large field of enshrined hitters. I've stuck to that precedent in examining the case of 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. A two-time batting champion and seven-time All-Star, he put up eye-opening numbers even in an era full of them, and created enough value even while riding the pine between trips to the plate to score well via advanced metrics — better than many of the current ballot's more celebrated position players.
But since making a solid debut on the 2010 ballot with 36.2 percent of the vote, he has had a hard time expanding his base of support; after three more cycles in the low-to-mid 30s, he plunged to 25.2 percent last year. In the midst of so many strong candidates, he may struggle to regain that ground, and the recent rule change truncating his eligibility from 15 years to 10 is a kick in the teeth. Still, his Cooperstown fate is hardly sealed.
|Avg. HOF 3B||67.4||42.7||55.0|
|Avg. HOF CI||66.5||42.5||54.5|
|Avg. HOF hitter||67.1||42.2||54.6|
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 MLB 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, but 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 for a 133 OPS+. 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 6.5 WAR tied Shane Mack for fifth in the league, behind only Kirby Puckett, Frank Thomas, Roberto Alomar and Kenny Lofton. Alas, he was limited to just 131 games combined over 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; though he was seven runs above average at the hot corner according to Total Zone, 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 Division Series 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. In 2004, the city of Seattle renamed one of the streets leading to Safeco Field as Edgar Martinez Drive (I can't help but get goosebumps when I pass it).
The '95 season began a seven-year stretch in which Martinez hit a combined .329/.446/.574 and averaged 42 doubles, 28 homers, 107 walks and 5.8 WAR per year (40.6 total). He led the AL in on-base percentage again in 1998 (.429) and '99 (.447) after finishing second with even higher figures in '96 (.464, behind Mark McGwire's .467) and '97 (.4558 to Thomas' .4561), and placed third in OPS+ three straight times (1996-98) before falling to fifth or sixth in the next three seasons.
Defensive value is built into WAR, but even with negative value in that area by dint of his time at DH (he played just 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 (56.7), Rodriguez (46.6), Jeff Bagwell (44.8) and Griffey (41.0). 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. Even in his age-38 season, Martinez was hardly window dressing on 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 likewise for Thomas and the 500 homer benchmark. George Brett's 3,000th hit and the 500th home runs of Reggie Jackson, Eddie Murray and Jim Thome all came when they were serving as DH, with 101 of Jackson's 573 dingers, 92 of Murray's 504 and 205 of Thome's 612 (including No. 600, as well) coming in that capacity.
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 also because the risk/reward payoff wasn't merited once he emerged as an elite hitter (though it's likely the Mariners could have stuck him at first base — a much easier position than third, requiring less mobility — had they 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 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. The great reliever told Charlie Rose in 2013: "The only guy that I didn't want to face, when a tough situation comes, was Edgar Martinez... It didn't matter how I threw the ball. I couldn't get him out. Oh my God, he had more than my number. He had my breakfast, lunch and dinner.")
In terms of the numbers he put up only as a DH, Martinez ranks third in hits (1,607) behind David Ortiz (1,891) and Baines (1,690). He’s third in home runs (243) behind Ortiz (415) and Thomas (270) but second in doubles (370 to Ortiz’s 474) and total bases (2,718 to Ortiz’s 3,644). His .959 OPS at the position (on .314/.428/.532 hitting) tops Ortiz’s .939 (.288/.383/.556) and every other player with at least 2,000 plate appearances in that role — and that’s without considering the relative impacts of their ballpark. In terms of overall OPS+ at all positions, Martinez has the edge on Ortiz, 147-140, not to mention a nearly 21-win edge in terms of WAR (68.3 to 47.7) in 177 fewer career plate appearances.
Via the positional adjustments built into 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 — roughly 1.7 WAR per year! — 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, ranking 11th among third basemen on the latter front; he’s 1.5 points behind Molitor, but with a peak that’s four wins higher. The margin between Martinez and the field 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) as noted in the table up top.
All of that is without factoring in the late start to his major league career. From his age-27 season onward, Martinez created more value (67.6 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 A-Rod 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 was nearly halfway there, having peaked at 36.5 percent in 2012, then slipped slightly the next year before plummeting to 25.2 percent in 2014. That's not a lost-cause level in terms of modern voting history (since 1966, when the BBWAA returned to annual voting). Bert Blyleven (23.5 percent), Duke Snider (26.6 percent) and Bruce Sutter (27.5 percent) all fared similarly in their fourth year of eligibility and were eventually elected by the writers, while six other players in the 20-30 percent rage — and another seven who were even lower — were eventually elected via the various Veterans Committees. The rub is that Blyleven needed 14 years to reach 75 percent, with Snider (11 years) and Sutter (13) taking nearly as long. Martinez won't have that long, given the recent rule change truncating eligibility windows on the writers' ballot from 15 years to 10. After Tim Raines, he may be the candidate harmed the most by the change, because his only path to election was a long, slow building of consensus.
It would be a shame if Martinez had to wait decades for such recognition. He was clearly one of the best hitters in baseball, not only of his era but also of all time. Though the bulk of his career was spent as a designated hitter, advanced metrics show that his superiority with the bat transcended the role. He belongs in Cooperstown.