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January 4, 2011 at 11:17 AM

Edgar Martinez gets another Hall of Fame shot tomorrow…but not my vote

Tomorrow is the day that the annual Hall of Fame voting results will be announced and I’m pretty certain Edgar Martinez will be on the outside looking in once more. Martinez garnered an impressive 36.2 percent of votes in his first bid last season, but that’s still a long way from the 75 percent needed to get into Cooperstown.
My ballot had Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, Barry Larkin and Tim Raines on it.
Martinez had a great career and the fact he was a designated hitter doesn’t take anything away from that, nor does it lessen what he meant to the Pacific Northwest. But there’s still a difference between a great career and a Hall of Fame career. Martinez will always be a borderline Hall of Fame case, where there will be compelling arguments both for and against in years to come. I remain open to new arguments in his favor. But just as last year, I can’t see enough to justify giving him my vote.
Yes, the DH thing is a big part of it. Not because it isn’t a baseball position — it clearly is, albeit for only 14 of 30 teams and merely 14 of 284 players listed in the lineups by those teams at any given time.
But having a position does not require somebody from that position to be voted into the Hall of Fame every year, every decade or even every quarter century. Nor does somebody having an award named after them — the DH award carrying Martinez’s name — require automatic entry into the Hall.
The fact that Martinez didn’t get called up until he was 27 also isn’t relevant. The M’s declined to use him over a veteran because he didn’t convince them to. We can agree, or disagree with that call. It’s a tough break. But that’s baseball.
My biggest reservations about Martinez’s candidacy are the things I find voters being asked to overlook when it comes to his merits.
1. We are being asked to overlook his lack of so-called “counting stats”. Clearly, Martinez isn’t even close to traditional Hall measurements for automatic entry, like 3,000 hits or 500 home runs. He barely compiled 300 homers at a position where teams load up with their most powerful guys.
2. We are also being asked to overlook his limited MVP credentials, since we are told that those awards tend to lean towards home run hitters. Part of the problem Martinez will have garnering votes, I think, is the lingering perception he was never even the MVP of his own team. Remember, those teams included Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Ichiro, so that’s some pretty tough company. But the Hall is all about hanging with such company.
3. Here’s what I am having the most trouble trying to overlook: the likely boost to Martinez’s number of seasons and games played and offensive numbers garnered by not having to play the field day-in, day-out, the way most of his contemporaries did.
Some say Martinez should get in because many hitters have trouble adjusting to the DH job while he excelled. That’s true, some do struggle. But the ones who go on to make a career as a DH are usually pretty good. Those are the only ones I care about in a Hall of Fame discussion, no matter how few there are.
Relief pitchers are in a similar boat. The vast majority of relief pitchers aren’t good enough to close games out in the ninth inning. But that doesn’t mean we automatically give a Hall of Fame nod to any closer who becomes eligible. Even the pioneer closers, or best of their era don’t always make it. Just ask Lee Smith.
In the end, relievers as a group are compared to all pitchers in Cy Young Award and Hall of Fame voting and every once in a while, a really good closer breaks on through by doing something historic. But it doesn’t happen often, mainly because starting pitchers as a group are viewed as more valuable in baseball and are asked to do more for longer. I happen to think the same judgment system should apply to a DH, where they are scrutinized more critically as a group compared to the wider body of hitters because they do less. They don’t play the field every day. And even if one guy happens to be the best DH of his era, it shouldn’t automatically mean inclusion in the Hall.
The fact is, prior to his being made a permanent DH in 1995, Martinez was appearing in fewer games due to injury. He played only 131 games combined in 1993 and 1994, primarily as a third baseman.
In baseball, the more you play the field, the more prone you are to injury. You dive for balls, get hit by them, get slid into by runners, and also leave your muscles vulnerable by having to explode from a standing spot when a hitter connects. The wear and tear on a body over a 162-game season can take its toll just as much as crashing into a wall on any one play can. Your knees wear down big-time, especially on the type of artificial surface found at the Kingdome. Ask Griffey.
Martinez got to avoid all of this during his years as a DH. So, how much worse off would his offensive numbers have been if forced to continue playing a third base position that was banging him up prior to 1995? Would he still have gone on to play more than 140 games per season? Would he still be a career .312 hitter with a .418 on-base percentage, a .515 slugging percentage and a .933 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS)? Or would he have drifted down just far enough to make this whole debate moot?
Better yet, if the majority of elite hitters Martinez is being compared to were given the same advantages to reduce long-term wear on their bodies, how much higher would the bar be set for Hall of Fame inclusion? Would a .400 on-base-percentage be a lot more commonplace? Might the 500-homer “minimum” for Cooperstown be upped to 600? Who knows? Griffey might have hit his 800th homer last year if he didn’t have to spend much of the past decade sidelined by injuries sustained playing the outfield.
I think it’s an important question. I’ve seen stats from Martinez supporters that show he had the 13th best on-base percentage all-time amongst players with at least 8,000 plate appearances. That’s impressive. I’m not here to denigrate the accomplishment, believe me. But what the stat doesn’t tell you is that the 12 other guys ahead of him — and many right behind — all played the field for up to nine innings per night. Would Martinez still be 13th on the list if all those other players got to limit their nightly activities to hitting only? Or would many of them have added even more years to careers, making the 8,000 plate-appearance threshold being used to support Martinez’s bid seem rather low?
This isn’t about his WAR (Wins Above Replacement) value as a fielder. Even if WAR was totally reliable in judging a fielder’s value (which it isn’t, because they’re still working out kinks in new defensive metrics), I’m not suggesting Martinez would have been so bad with the glove that it would have significantly lowered his overall worth.
No, this argument is strictly about Martinez not having to lug his body out on to the field night after night for nine innings the way most of his peers did. Whether he would have played good defense or bad isn’t really the issue. Somebody has to man positions for teams every night — whether they are good or bad at it — for games to be played. But Martinez was exempted from that physically-demanding duty.
I know his offensive WAR is very high from an historical perspective. But I also believe that Martinez’s numbers need to be extraordinary as a starting point just to consider his Cooperstown candidacy because his only job in a game was to hit. And the expectations of him should automatically be higher because his body was not being put through the same rigors as his contemporaries.
It’s because of those high numbers that I’m sitting here considering him. Believe me, I’m not shrugging him off. He got more than a third of the votes last year, so he’s hardly being treated like a fringe guy.
But now comes the added scrutiny needed because of the DH stuff. And the real question voters are struggling to answer: did Martinez do what he did for a long enough period that we can forget his lack of “counting” stats (hitting milestones reached)?
Unfortunately, we don’t have a clear-cut barometer for these things. Should the excellence be maintained over 10 years? 15 years? 20 years? We don’t have the answer. Traditionally, we have relied on the “counting stats” like career home runs, hits, RBI and runs scored to give us a clue.
If Martinez had 500 homers or 3,000 hits, he’d probably get in easily. Paul Molitor played more than half his games as a DH, but got in the Hall because he logged 3,319 hits — the ninth most all-time. Frank Thomas will likely be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, despite lengthy DH service, because he hit 521 homers. What these “counting stats” do is help eliminate the argument that a guy was only “Cooperstown great” for a relatively brief segment of their career. You don’t get to 3,000 hits or 500 homers by playing six exceptional seasons. Or eight. We’re not talking Dave Kingman here, either. Most of the guys voted in to the Hall have the other stats to go with their counting stat milestones.
But Martinez just doesn’t have the counting stats. He’s not even close. We are being asked to make an exception in his case, while we’re already overlooking the fact he didn’t play the field like most of his contemporaries.
We are asked to look at his “rate” stats — his career batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. All are highly impressive. But the question becomes: did Martinez post his .312 average, .413 OBP and .515 slugging over a long enough period? And that’s the problem with his candidacy. He’s right on the border.
The best argument I’ve seen for Martinez to-date, the one that’s truly made me stop and think over the past year, comes near the bottom of this column. It states that Martinez’s park-adjusted OPS+ was at 150 or greater in eight different seasons. That means he was 50 percent better than his peers in those seasons. Most others with such stats are in the Hall or headed there soon.
But let’s examine that a bit further.
First, let’s ask the question: how many 150 OPS+ seasons would Martinez have had if put through the same daily rigors as those other Hall of Fame players? How would his body have held up? Can you really compare Martinez with Mickey Mantle when the latter was sprinting and diving all over the outfield in between putting up his offensive numbers? It’s just not the same thing. Even if both had at least eight seasons of an OPS+ of 150 or greater.
Second, let’s start comparing apples to apples by looking the significance of Martinez’s eight seasons of 150 OPS+ when compared to actual Hall of Famers. Because in many cases, the rate stats posted by Martinez simply don’t stack up as well as you might think. To me, this “eight-season” thing seems rather arbitrary, a creative way for some people to slip him on to a list of Hall of Fame names where he’s clearly outgunned when you dig beneath the surface.
Photo Credit: AP

I’ll try to demonstrate what I mean right here.
The column I mentioned states that Martinez is one of only 24 players to notch eight OPS+ seasons of 150 or greater and that 23 of those players are in the Hall of Fame or will be once eligible.
But let’s look at some of the names on the list and how many 150 OPS+ seasons of eight or more these other players enjoyed:
Babe Ruth — 18
Ted Williams — 18
Barry Bonds — 17
Hank Aaron — 15
Mickey Mantle — 13
Willie Mays — 13
Frank Robinson — 13
Mel Ott — 12
Manny Ramirez — 12
Jimmie Foxx — 11
Mark McGwire — 11
Mike Schmidt — 10
Jim Thome — 10
Albert Pujols — 10
So, even though Martinez should be proud to be mentioned along with such elite company, his eight seasons are not exactly equal to those other players. Some have more than twice as many seasons. Manny Ramirez has 12 and counting. Albert Pujols is 10-for-10 in such seasons.
More importantly, every single one of those players — with the exception of Pujols, but it’s coming — has hit at least 500 home runs. Several have hit 600. A few have topped 700.
They all have the counting stats Martinez lacks. They aren’t in the Hall, or headed there, because of their 150 OPS+ seasons. Their case for excellence over the length of a career has been established.
Martinez is not their statistical equivalent. Not even close.
Babe Ruth had 13 seasons with an OPS+ of 190 or better. Ted Williams had 11, Barry Bonds had six, Mickey Mantle five and Mark McGwire four.
Martinez had zero.
So, where should we really put the “rate stat” bar of excellence in a Hall of Fame discussion? Is it an OPS+ of 150? Is it 180? If it’s 130 or better (still excellent in anyone’s book) how many hitters catch up to Martinez?
Among the non-500-homer guys, Ty Cobb had twice as many 150 OPS+ seasons as Martinez while compiling 4,189 hits. Lou Gehrig had 14 OPS+ seasons of 150 or better, hit 493 home runs, finished with a career OPS nearly 150 points higher than Martinez and had that little consecutive games played streak you may have heard of. Stan Musial had 13 such seasons, hit 475 homers and added over 3,600 hits. Tris Speaker had 13 such seasons with over 3,500 hits. Honus Wagner had 11 such 150 OPS+ seasons with over 3,400 hits.
All of these players on the list had some type of counting stats to validate their Hall of Fame inclusion, well beyond the “eight season” 150 OPS+ rate stat argument. Most of them had far more than eight such seasons.
So, including Martinez on a list alongside those names doesn’t quite give us the full story.
Remember please, I’m not the one trying to make the awfully-tough comparison of Martinez to Ruth, Cobb, Mantle and Williams. Martinez’s supporters are the ones doing it. I’m merely trying to see whether Martinez can truly hang with this group as they have suggested with their “eight seasons or more” list.
Yeah, as Martinez supporters have pointed out, Reggie Jackson had an OPS+ of 150 in “only” seven seasons — one fewer than Martinez.
But Jackson also hit 563 home runs (254 more than Martinez) while getting twice as many all-star nods (14) as Edgar and five top-5 MVP finishes to Martinez’s one. Jackson also sealed his legacy with some of the greatest post-season performances ever and did it while playing the field night after night in 75 percent of his games.
So again, the “rate stat” argument for Martinez doesn’t quite tell the whole story.
And if we’re going the “rate stat” route, where is the minimum cutoff?
Because there’s a guy who played during Martinez’s heyday and was arguably more feared as a right handed bat while posting the exact same career OPS as Edgar did at .933.
I’m talking about Albert Belle.
Martinez did have the eight seasons with a 150 OPS+ or greater compared to only four by Belle. But lower the threshold to 140 or greater and Martinez’s lead is trimmed 9-6. Even better, raise the bar to 170 or more and Belle grabs a 3-1 lead.
So, which threshold tells us more about Hall of Fame credentials?
Belle had three top-3 MVP finishes to just one for Martinez.
Martinez drew more walks than Belle. But Belle averaged more hits per season and had a much higher slugging percentage. In fact, Belle hit 72 more home runs than Martinez in 465 fewer games, while playing the outfield almost every single night.
Even if we accept the premise that Martinez had a few more excellent seasons than Belle — the 9-6 lead in 140 OPS+ seasons and a 7-5 lead in all-star nods — we then have to look at the DH component. Belle’s career ended prematurely due to a hip injury while Martinez the DH kept on playing. Was the DH component the only real difference between the careers of Martinez and Belle?
It’s an important thing to consider because when it came to the Hall of Fame, the voters basically yawned at Belle’s career.
They gave Belle 7.7 percent of the vote in 2006, then 3.5 percent in 2007, thus knocking him off of any further ballots.
Remember, these are two guys with the exact same career OPS. And his OPS number is a huge part of any Hall of Fame argument for Martinez. Belle made his share of history, too, becoming one of only six MLB players to have nine straight 100-RBI seasons and the first to hit 50 homers and 50 doubles the same year.
Still, he barely registered in Cooperstown voting.
This is part of the danger of relying on a “rate stat” argument for Martinez. Because, in rate stats, Martinez has the same career OPS as a guy who barely got any Hall of Fame votes.
Even if we agree Martinez achieved his rate for longer, it wasn’t by much longer. And a good part of that can be attributed to Martinez’s ability to stay healthy once given DH status, while Belle played the field game-in and game-out and had to retire prematurely due to injury.
Like I said, Martinez’s case is right on the border. So far, he’s gotten more than a third of the vote, which is significantly better than Belle. As it should be. I don’t think Belle belongs in the Hall of Fame.
But nor do I think Martinez was that much better to the point that his Cooperstown ticket should be punched. We are just being asked to overlook too many things. Martinez doesn’t have the counting stats and — just as importantly — did not have to go through the same rigors of playing the field as the hitters he is being compared with. His rate stats, while outstanding, were right on the border when it comes to how many seasons he was able to maintain them at.
Dick Allen of the Phillies had nine OPS+ seasons of 150 or greater — one more than Martinez — put up a .912 career OPS, yet failed to get more than 18.9 percent of Hall of Fame votes. Allen was a seven-time all-star, like Martinez, and actually won the 1972 AL MVP. But he lacked the counting stats and his nine 150 OPS+ seasons weren’t enough to make a “rate stats” longevity case.
How do you establish a surefire case for longevity? The quick answer would appear to be to build your counting stats as well as your rate stats. Then, like the majority of today’s Hall of Famers, you won’t have a problem.
Frank Thomas has the rate stats, like a .974 career OPS, and the counting stats of a 521-homer career. There’s little doubt about the longevity of his excellence and that’s why he’ll be getting in, despite substantial DH time. Voters will be willing to overlook the DH component because he brought so much else to the table.
I did a radio interview last week where former major league closer Tom Gordon was one of the hosts and he asked me whether or not David Ortiz might make a better test-case than Martinez when it comes to letting a career DH into the Hall.
Gordon said the impression he got, from speaking to many former players, was that somebody like Ortiz might be an easier pill to swallow. Ortiz has a .920 career OPS that compares favorably to Martinez, even though his batting average and on-base percentage are lower.
Ortiz’s slugging, as was the case with Belle, is much higher than Martinez’s, while — as Gordon pointed out on-air — Ortiz could still go on to hit close to 450 home runs before he retires.
In other words, there’s more of a counting stats argument there to go along with the rate stats.
The DH position is widely-viewed as the premier spot to put a pure slugger. And that’s what Ortiz is. Martinez was more a model of on-base consistency. The line drive gap hitter who drew walks.
But when it comes to which trailblazer should be the first into the Hall as a career DH (I’m not counting Molitor or Thomas as a career DH here), there could be a compelling statistical argument for Ortiz a few years down the road. I do think there will be a place for a career DH in the Hall of Fame one day. I also think that candidate will have the perfect mix of above-average rate stats and counting stats to satisfy the voters.
For me, that’s not Martinez. He’s close, but still a little too on-the-border.
Maybe it winds up being Big Papi recognized as the first “true” DH in the Hall. Maybe not. After all, there will be that steroids thing to consider with him.
We’ll save that argument for another post.
This time, this year, Martinez still doesn’t get my vote. Nor, I’m guessing, does he make it into Cooperstown.



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