Edgar Martinez and the Hall of Fame
Edgar Martinez is listed for the first time on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot. While Martinez is a very long shot for actually earning 75% of the writers’ votes in his first year of eligibility, I believe that Martinez meets the historical standards for Hall of Fame entry and should earn one’s vote.
Evaluating Edgar Martinez’ career presents some fairly unique challenges.
Let’s start with that last challenge, and then we’ll work our way backwards through the remaining challenges.
First a Detour: wOPS+
I love using the OPS+ statistic (called adjusted on-base + slugging percentages) compiled at www.baseball-reference.com. It does most of the heavy lifting for us since it is adjusted for ballpark effects and the offensive context of the league and year. It’s readily accessible, because one can easily sort and filter based on it. The scale is also easy to grasp: 100 is average, and OPS+ scores above 100 are better than average.
The problem with OPS+ is that using on-base percentage plus slugging percentage just isn’t very accurate to start with. On-base percentage is considerably more important for creating runs. How much more important? Well, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. Tom Tango wrote recently that one can greatly improve OPS+ by weighting the on-base percentage by 1.2 and the slugging percentage by 0.8. We’ll call it weighted OPS+ or wOPS+. To be precise, we’ll define it as:
This will give us a statistic adjusted for offensive levels and home ballpark, is an accurate reflection of offensive contributions toward creating runs, and is still fairly easy to compute. We use just four pieces of input data, all of which are readily available in the Special Batting section of player batting data on baseball-reference.com.
We’ve got our shiny new hammer. Now let’s go find some nails.
Edgar’s Moderately Short Career
One objection to Edgar Martinez’ possible Hall of Fame credentials is that his career was a bit short by Hall of Fame standards. Martinez totaled 8,672 plate appearances, which isn’t too short. Let’s look at those with 7,500 – 9,500 plate appearances who played since 1901 and see where Martinez’ career batting quality ranks among those with similar career lengths.
These are the best batters in baseball history with career lengths roughly similar to Edgar Martinez’ career length. Obviously, it includes active players, with statistics through 2009, many of whom will retire with longer careers but with somewhat lower wOPS+ as they complete their decline phases.
Where’s the cutoff between the Hall of Famers and the non-Hall of Famers? If we ignore steroid problems, everyone above Brian Giles appears to be a Hall of Famer, although others may read the data differently. Jason Giambi’s Hall of Fame credentials are questionable, but he had a very high peak, with three consecutive top 5 MVP ballot finishes.
Below Brian Giles on that last table, one can still be a clear Hall of Famer by batting well and playing a premium defensive position, such as Piazza and Vaughn did, but we start to enter a gray area. There are many, many Hall of Famers below the top twenty that I listed, but it’s a dicey proposition the further down one goes. Incidentally, new Hall of Famer Jim Rice has a career wOPS+ of 124 on this list, not that he represents the dividing line between whether a guy comfortably fits into the Hall of Fame.
Edgar ranks sixth, surrounded by Hall of Fame caliber players. Here’s our starting point, that Edgar Martinez had a Hall of Fame caliber career based on the quality of his batting.
Edgar versus Crime Dog
Another worthy objection to letting Edgar Martinez into the Hall of Fame is that we end up with far too many modern batters in the Hall. Edgar wasn’t really that special, right? For example, looking just at the newcomers for next year’s 2010 ballot, if one votes for Edgar, doesn’t one first have to vote for Fred McGriff?
Comparing career wOPS+ totals shows a clear advantage to Martinez. However, now that we are comparing McGriff, a guy with a much longer career, that may not be a fair comparison. Edgar had an unusual career progression, with his early years spent clobbering minor league pitching and a short decline phase at the end of his career. Let’s instead look at individual years to see, in their best seasons, which player was a better batter. Here are all of their seasons where they had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title (502 in most years, but less for 1994-95 due to shortened seasons):
I don’t know whether Fred McGriff will eventually be in the Hall of Fame or not, but this table rather clearly shows that Edgar was the better hitter, with 8 of the 10 best seasons between the two of them. Martinez shouldn’t have to wait in line behind McGriff on anyone’s Hall of Fame ballot.
Stop Ignoring the 600-Pound Gorilla in the Room!
Probably the biggest objection to voting Edgar Martinez into the Hall of Fame is one that I’ve ignored so far: he spent the bulk of his career as a designated hitter.
How much is a player with no defensive value worth? According to Tom Tango’s positional adjustments, which are used for the Win Value metrics on Fangraphs.com, a DH is 22.5 runs per season worse than the average non-DH position player. However, Tango added back in another 5 runs for the difficulty of batting as a DH, resulting in a -17.5 runs per season positional adjustment.
What is so difficult about being a DH? It’s a little bit like having to be a permanent pinch hitter, and we all recognize that it is more difficult to perform well as a pinch hitter coming in cold off the bench. As summarized on p. 113 of The Book by Tango, Lichtman and Dolphin:
Players also lose effectiveness when being used as a designated hitter; the DH penalty is about half that of the PH penalty. This does vary significantly from player to player – some players hit as well as a DH as they do otherwise, while others perform as badly as pinch hitters.
So there can be a unique skill at batting well as a DH.
The result is that an average DH is worth about five runs per season less than an average fielding first baseman. Yes, that’s a disadvantage, but it isn’t huge. A DH can be more valuable than a below average first baseman with comparable batting statistics because the difficulty of batting as a DH partially offsets the defensive value of a below average fielding first baseman.
Being a DH is a negative marker for a Hall of Fame candidate, but, viewed rationally, it shouldn’t be an impossible hurdle.
Comparing Edgar to Other DHs
Perhaps the easiest way to evaluate Edgar is to just compare him to other DHs. We have to have some designated hitters in the Hall of Fame, right? Paul Molitor is already there and a plurality of his games played, including most of his best seasons, were when Molitor played primarily as a DH. Frank Thomas played over half of his career as a DH and he’ll be in the Hall eventually. It’s not unreasonable to think that we ought to have a couple of Hall of Fame DHs considering that the American League has had designated hitters since 1973, a span of over 35 years.
So here’s a list of the top 20 seasons for designated hitters, again using our wOPS+ rate statistic:
These are very fine seasons. You may remember that Milton Bradley led the American League in raw OPS in 2008, yet his season ranks only seventh on this list.
I don’t have any trouble eyeballing this list and concluding that Edgar Martinez has had the best career as a DH of any player in history so far. The best DH in history is not Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, nor future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas. It’s not Harold Baines, the longevity leader, or David Ortiz, the popular current star at DH. It’s Edgar Martinez.
That’s a Hall of Famer.
Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.
As far as integrity, sportsmanship and character go, let’s point out that Edgar Martinez was once honored with the Roberto Clemente Award for charitable contributions to his community. I also am unaware of any claims that Martinez used performance-enhancing drugs, for those inclined to go there. I don’t see much room for debate: character issues will not hurt Martinez’ candidacy.
While I would be surprised if the BBWAA membership agrees with me, in my opinion, Edgar Martinez is a Hall of Fame caliber player and should be voted in.