Jim Edmonds was one of his generation's finest defensive players, but his short, injury-plagued career has him on the outside looking in for the Hall of Fame.
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2016 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
Ken Griffey Jr. isn't the only centerfielder on the BBWAA's 2016 Hall of Fame ballot who could take your breath away with a spectacular catch or a towering home run, and he isn't even the only one who piled up awards while spending the late 1990s in the American League West before moving on to the National League Central. Admittedly, the parallel only goes so far, but that doesn't take away from the fact that Jim Edmonds earned his own spot in the hearts and minds of fans—not to mention his peers—as one of baseball's most exciting, entertaining players on both sides of the ball.
The opinions were hardly unanimous. Particularly early in his career, many observers were put off by Edmonds's seemingly carefree demeanor and body language. “If you don't look at him between pitches, he plays hard and has great instincts," said Angels general manager Bill Bavasi in 1996. "I told all my scouts not to watch him between pitches, because that body language will only frustrate you."
All bets were off, however, when the ball was in the air. "He's the highlight man," marveled then-Boston outfielder Johnny Damon following Edmonds’s pivotal, diving grab in Game 7 of the 2004 NLCS against the Astros, which helped to set up a World Series matchup between the Cardinals and Red Sox. Indeed, Edmonds's penchant for remarkable plays made him a nightly staple of ESPN's SportsCenter, so much so that Griffey himself is alleged to have called the network to complain about their ubiquity.
Alas, while Edmonds was generally able to sustain a very high level of play over the course of a 17-year career spent primarily with the Angels (1993–99) and Cardinals (2000–07)—with stops in San Diego, Chicago, Milwaukee and Cincinnati over his final two seasons—he struggled to stay on the field. The signature fearlessness that helped him garner eight Gold Gloves and four All-Star appearances led to repeated sacrifices of his body in pursuit of fly balls and thus numerous injuries that sent him to the disabled list for extended stays. The lost time, which included sitting out the entire 2009 season, ultimately left him short of major milestones.
Given that no player whose career took place during the post-1960 expansion era has been able to gain entry to the Hall of Fame with fewer than 2,000 hits, Edmonds's chances at being elected anytime soon appear remote. That's especially true because of the backlog of strong candidates who are still vying for space on a 10-slot ballot. The early returns suggest that Edmonds could fail to reach the 5% minimum necessary to stay off the ballot, the same fate suffered by fellow centerfield star Kenny Lofton in 2013. Even so, his numbers are well above those of the "one-and-done" players I profiled in brief at the outset of this series, so his career merits a closer look.
|Avg. HOF CF||70.4||44.0||57.2|
Born in Fullerton, Calif., in 1970, Edmonds grew up in nearby Diamond Bar, not far from Anaheim Stadium, home of the then-California Angels. His parents split when he was young, and while his father maintained custody of Jim, it was neighbor Randy Kapano who took him to Angels games. Sweet-swinging Rod Carew became an Edmonds favorite as he helped the Angels to their first postseason berth in franchise history in 1979. Kapano went on to be Edmonds's Little League and high school coach.
At Diamond Bar High School, Edmonds excelled as an outfielder and a pitcher, though some scouts were put off by his body language and his apparent lack of seriousness—charges that would follow him throughout his career. A 1988 scouting report filed by Angels scout Steve Gruwell lauded his hitting approach, noted his lack of foot speed and arm strength and complained that his "off-field habits must improve," calling him an "indulged child." Nonetheless, Gruwell suggested he could fit as a sixth- to eighth-round pick. The Angels chose him in the seventh round that year, the same draft in which they took Jim Abbott, Gary DiSarcina and Damion Easley. They soon discovered that Edmonds had 20–15 vision, which allowed him to get reads on balls quickly and helped him overcome his lack of speed.
Edmonds's progress through the minors was slowed by injuries; he played 217 games and hit just six home runs over his first four professional seasons (1988 to '91). His career didn't start to click until he crossed paths again with his boyhood hero. Via The New York Times' Tom Friend in 1995:
His first mistake was making the game look easy. His minor league instructors considered him lackadaisical and a flake, and, to hear him tell it, never offered up a single compliment. He had not one mentor in the organization until a certain Hall of Famer pulled him aside in spring training 1992.
"He took the rap of being lazy," said [Angels hitting coach Rod] Carew, owner of seven batting titles. "I told him, 'Same thing I took for 19 years.'"
Carew promised an honest relationship—"Something no coach had ever done before," Edmonds said—and today the player calls his batting coach "Dad."
Edmonds hit a combined .307/.384/.489 with 14 homers in Double A and Triple A that year. After repeating the latter level in 1993, he got called up in September and played 18 games. While he broke camp with the Angels the following season, at age 24, he didn't begin earning regular playing time until May, initially as a first baseman and then as a leftfielder, with Chad Curtis in center. He hit .273/.343/.377 with five homers in 94 games before the strike hit.
After the strike ended, the team shipped Curtis—who had clashed with Carew and other coaches and executives—to Detroit for Tony Phillips, opening centerfield for Edmonds, though some expressed concerns about his speed and level of concentration. "The knock on Jimmy has always been that he sometimes loses his focus and maybe gets a little lackadaisical," said Curtis shortly after the trade. "He can't afford to do that in centerfield."
Though Edmonds played through a slight stress fracture in his left foot in 1995, he broke out to hit .290/.352/.536 with 33 homers and outstanding defense (+13 runs, via Total Zone), not to mention a 23-game hitting streak. Carew's tutelage was a big factor, particularly in helping Edmonds avoid wasting at-bats. "Jim could always hit," Carew told Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci in a July 17, 1995 article, "But if he missed a pitch he thought he should have hit, he'd get angry and let that at-bat stay with him. I can't let my hitters get down on themselves. I tell them, 'I'm going through every swing with you. If I don't get down on you, don't get down on yourself.'"
Edmonds earned All-Star honors and his 5.6 WAR ranked eighth in the league, but his Angels blew an AL West lead that had grown to 11 games as late as Aug. 9 thanks in part to a 7–25 stretch in August and September. After finishing the regular season tied with Griffey's Mariners for the AL West lead, the Angels wound up losing a tiebreaker for the division title.
Edmonds wielded a slightly more potent bat in 1996, hitting .304/.375/.571 with 27 homers and a 137 OPS+ (up from 129), albeit in just 114 games; he missed more than seven weeks due to a groin strain and right thumb sprain but still ended up with 5.0 WAR. Some within the Angels' organization viewed him as reckless; the team considered moving him to first base so as to cut down on his wear and tear, though manager Terry Collins held off.
The 1997 season was more of the same; Edmonds hit .291/.368/.500 with 26 homers in 133 games but lost time to a lower back strain and underwent surgery after the season to repair torn cartilage in both knees. Though Total Zone takes a conservative view of the value of his defense that year (+3 runs), he won a Gold Glove on the strength of jaw-dropping plays such as this back-to-the-plate diving grab off the bat of the Royals' David Howard on June 10:
"That made Willie Mays's play look routine," said umpire Dave Phillips later, comparing it to the Hall of Famer's famous catch in the 1954 World Series. Edmonds' catch won an ESPY Award as the baseball play of the year.
Edmonds won a second Gold Glove in 1998 and hit .307/.368/.506 with 25 homers in 154 games en route to 4.7 WAR, but by then, aspects of his game were wearing on those around him, including his candor with the media when it came to injuries. He clashed with noted hardass Larry Bowa, then an Angels coach, over his mental approach and—again—body language. "[T]here are games when it looks like he's not mentally where he should be," said Bowa. "Sometimes because of his mannerisms—he'll drop his head or something—you get the perception that maybe he doesn't feel like playing.''
Edmonds couldn't play after suffering a torn right labrum while weightlifting just before the 1999 season began; he was sidelined until August and played just 55 games. After the season, the Angels picked up the option attached to the tail end of his four-year, $9.5 million deal, then began working to trade him. In February 2000, it was reported that he would go to Seattle as part of a three-way trade that would send Griffey to the Reds, but the belief that Edmonds wouldn't sign an extension with the Mariners sank the deal; instead Seattle consummated its own deal sending Griffey to Cincinnati. On March 23, Edmonds was dealt to the Cardinals in exchange for pitcher Kent Bottenfield and second baseman Adam Kennedy, the latter of whom would win 2002 ALCS MVP honors and help the Halos bring home their only World Series title.
St. Louis manager Tony La Russa made it clear to Edmonds that he was getting a fresh start, and he not only bounced back from an injury that had limited him to five homers and a .426 slugging percentage in 1999, but he also responded with a career-high 42 home runs (good for just seventh in the league at a time when balls were flying out of the park in record numbers). His 147 OPS+ (on a .295/.411/.583 line) and 6.3 WAR (good for seventh in the league) were career bests as well. He made his second All-Star appearance, took home his third Gold Glove and, in May, signed a six-year, $57 million extension. The Cardinals, who also featured a near-the-end Mark McGwire and a young J.D. Drew, won the NL Central and started a renaissance of St. Louis baseball: They would win five division titles, a wild card and two pennants in Edmonds's eight seasons in town.
That July, St. Louis Post Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz started a controversy when he wrote, "We're told that Edmonds received a phone call from a prominent ESPN employee recently, tipping him off to an unusual development. According to a source, Griffey called ESPN to complain that too many Edmonds highlights are being shown on the nightly SportsCenter wrap-up show." Griffey and his agent both denied the report, as did an ESPN spokeswoman and SportsCenter host Dan Patrick. Griffey did tell The Cincinnati Enquirer's Chris Haft that he occasionally spoke to former teammate Harold Reynolds, then an ESPN employee: "The only conversation I've had with Harold is, they show me messing up and they show somebody make a great catch right after me. That's been going on for years.”
If Griffey needed reasons to be jealous of Edmonds, he would have even more of them during the two centerfielders' tenure in the NL Central. Not only were the Cards perennial contenders, but Edmonds also enjoyed a relatively healthy stretch. From 2000 to '05 (his age-30 to -35 seasons), he averaged 146 games, 35 homers, a 154 OPS+ (on .292/406/.584 hitting) and 6.1 WAR, making three All-Star teams and winning six Gold Gloves. He ranked among the NL's top 10 in WAR four times in that span, during which only four players topped his 36.4 WAR: Alex Rodriguez (52.8), Barry Bonds (51.7), Todd Helton (42.0) and teammate Albert Pujols (37.5, despite not debuting until 2001). By comparison, though Griffey enjoyed a 40-homer season in 2000, he averaged just 98 games, 23 homers, a 131 OPS+ and 2.1 WAR for the six-year span, with his defense falling off to the point that he didn't win a single Gold Glove.
Despite big seasons from Edmonds and Pujols, the Cardinals struggled to make headway in the postseason. They lost the NLCS in five games in both 2000 (versus the Mets) and '02 (Giants) and fell to the Diamoandbacks in the Division Series in '01. Finally, in 2004—by which point St. Louis had added both Scott Rolen and Larry Walker—the Cardinals broke through for their first pennant since 1987. Edmonds matched his career high in homers (42) and set new highs in WAR (7.2), slugging percentage and OPS+ (171, on .301/.418/.643 hitting). He was strong through the first two rounds of the playoffs as the Redbirds beat the Dodgers and Astros, hitting a three-run double that broke open Game 1 of the NLCS against Houston and winning Game 6 with a 12th-inning–walk-off homer:
That set up Edmonds's great Game 7 catch, and he evoked the memory of Mays once again with an over-the-shoulder grab in Game 2 of the World Series. Alas, he went just 1 for 15 during Boston’s four-game sweep.
Despite just an 83–78 record in 2006, the Cardinals would win their first world championship since 1982, but Edmomds's luck with avoiding injuries ran out. Over the previous six seasons, he had played through numerous ailments, including broken ribs and a left shoulder problem that required December 2003 surgery to debride the AC joint, but aside from one 15-day DL stint for a wrist sprain, he never stayed on the shelf for long. A concussion suffered when he ran into the fence at U.S. Cellular Field on June 21, 2006, however, continued to linger for months. Though he didn’t miss more than a few games at a time in the first two months after the collision, he was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome in mid-August. After complaining of blurred vision and problems focusing, he conceded mis-remembering the inning in which he was removed from the game and admitted, "The last four or five days, I've just really been clueless."
Today, Edmonds’s concussion would be handled with a clear protocol and more sensitivity, but baseball had not reached that stage. Even with the diagnosis, the Cardinals didn't place Edmonds on the disabled list, though he soon stopped flying with the team and sat out four weeks of games as August crossed into September. Following a four-game sweep by the Astros, La Russa vocalized his frustrations, "All I know is, by my count, there have been at least four pinch-hit opportunities in the last three days … and all the games were tight. It's disappointing he's not here."
When Edmonds finally returned, he did so with a bang in the form of a three-run pinch-hit home run, albeit in St. Louis's sixth straight loss. The team squeaked into the playoffs, and Edmonds made solid contributions with a pair of homers in the NLCS against the Mets. Onlookers held their breath when he crashed into the outfield wall with his team trailing 11–3 in Game 4; after the game, he told reporters, "I've heard a lot of sarcastic comments about me diving too much.… I've just had a lot of negativity in my career, and I really don't give a damn. As long as the guys on my team appreciate what I do, that's all that matters to me.… If I don't catch the ball, I wouldn't still be in this league." Though he went just 4 for 17 in the World Series against the Tigers, Edmonds drove in four runs, including a pair via a bases-loaded double that opened the scoring in the Cardinals' Game 3 win.
After he had delivered just 1.3 WAR in 2006 and needed off-season surgery to remove bone spurs in his right shoulder, the Cardinals might have justifiably turned down Edmonds's $10 million club option for '07. Instead, they reworked it into a two-year, $19 million deal that included deferred money. Alas, Edmonds's play slipped even further in 2007, as his power waned due to the slow recovery of his shoulder and a pinched nerve in his lower back that cost him five weeks; he finished at .252/.325/.403 with 12 homers and 0.2 WAR. In December, the Cardinals traded him to the Padres for David Freese, ending a great run that included 241 homers, fourth in franchise history.
Edmonds didn't stay long in San Diego. Hampered by a calf strain at the end of spring training, he was released in early May after hitting .178/.265/.233 in 26 games. The Cubs picked him up less than a week later, and his bat found new life; the 38-year-old hit .256/.369/.568 with 19 homers in just 85 games for a team that finished with an NL-high 97 wins. Alas, Chicago was swept out of the playoffs by the Dodgers.
Unable to find a contract to his liking, Edmonds sat out the 2009 season. While he publicly challenged the Cardinals to sign him for the league minimum for 2010, they passed, and he instead signed with the Brewers, for whom he hit .286/.350/.493 with eight homers in 73 games in a platoon role. On Aug. 9, nowhere-bound Milwaukee dealt him to the division-leading Reds, but oblique and Achilles strains limited him to a total of 32 plate appearances the rest of the way, and he strained his right Achiles rounding the bases on his 393rd career home run, which proved to be his last. St. Louis signed him to a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training for the 2011 season, but he soon realized his foot hadn't recovered sufficiently and retired.
That foot injury left Edmonds seven homers shy of 400 and 51 hits shy of 2,000. The latter is of great significance, as the BBWAA has yet to elect a player with fewer than 2,000 hits whose career took place entirely in the post-1960 expansion era. Edmonds fell short of that mark in part because he walked in 12.5% of his plate appearances and averaged 92 free passes a year during his first six seasons in St. Louis, but the bigger issue is simply playing time: Kirby Puckett is the only expansion-era Hall of Famer with fewer plate appearances than Edmonds's 7,980. For a player who never finished higher than fourth in the MVP voting and has just four All-Star appearances, counting stats are important in building a case. Even with his eight Gold Gloves and regular play at a key position for seven postseason teams—two things that the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor rewards, as they've historically caught the eyes of voters—Edmonds’s lack of milestones leaves him with a score of just 88 on the Monitor. Most honorees are above 100, and most "sure thing" candidates are above 130. Had Edmonds reached the aforementioned hit and homer milestones, his score would have jumped to 99.
In terms of advanced metrics, both Edmonds's 60.3 career WAR and his 42.5 peak WAR are shy of the standards for enshrined centerfielders—the former by roughly 10 wins, the latter by 1.5. Despite all of the highlights and word of mouth regarding his defense, the Total Zone/Defensive Runs Saved combo that goes into baseball-reference.com's version of WAR (and thus JAWS) credits him as just 37 runs above average for his career. Other systems think more highly of him. While Edmonds was seven runs below via DRS, which didn't debut until 2003, he was 13 above average via Ultimate Zone Rating (which debuted in '02) over that same period, worth a couple of extra wins. Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average values his overall defense at 75 runs above average—roughly four wins better, some of which would be double-counted in a JAWS calculation if they were part of peak seasons.
As it is, Edmonds ranks 15th in career WAR among centerfielders, with nine Hall of Famers above him and nine below. Among those who aren't in are contemporaries Griffey (83.6), Carlos Beltran (68.4), Lofton (68.2) and Andruw Jones (62.8), all of whom have higher peak scores than Edmonds as well—above the standard (44.0) save for Lofton, who's 0.7 below. While Edmonds ranks 14th in JAWS, again above nine Hall of Famers, Jones is 11th, Lofton (who fell off the ballot after receiving just 3.2% in his 2013 debut) is 10th, Beltran is ninth and Griffey is fifth. Junior’s impending election will push the standards a few ticks higher.
In that light, particularly in relation to his contemporaries, it's difficult to conclude that Edmonds is a great choice for a Hall of Fame vote. His JAWS is even a good two points below Andre Dawson, the last centerfielder elected and another player who was a bit short of the standard. On a crowded ballot full of players who exceed the standards at their positions, I can't find room for Edmonds on my virtual ballot, and most voters feel the same way about their actual ones. Of the 44 public ballots tracked so far, Edmonds has received just one vote, a clip that would be less than half of what's necessary to maintain eligibility. I suspect that he'll meet the same fate as Lofton, which will at least give future Expansion Era committees a relatively strong pair of candidates to debate the merits of a decade down the road. In the meantime, we still have a trove of Edmonds highlight videos. They're real, and they're spectacular.