Edgar Martinez and the Baseball Hall of Fame – Is he worthy?

9 Jan

A question that will likely be asked around the first week of January for the next several years is “Is this Edgar Martinez’s year to get in the Baseball Hall of Fame?” It is a question that may be answered with a “no” for many years, possibly forever as was the case in 2010 when he barely cleared 36%. Edgar Martinez while undoubtedly talented lives with a stigma – he was a designated hitter.

Baseball is a game that has always undergone subtle changes, but the inclusion of a designated hitter (DH) is something that not everyone in baseball has embraced as is evidenced by it being an American League only position. Martinez didn’t begin his career as DH, he was actually a third baseman early on, but as he wasn’t especially gifted with the leather, DH was a way to keep his bat in the lineup and remove his potential for fielding errors completely. Prior to Martinez becoming a full-time DH, it was a position primarily manned by aging stars that could still hit enough to be useful but couldn’t handle the day to day demands of being on the field – not athletes in their prime.

Edgar Martinez began his career with the Mariners in 1987 and did actually play the bulk of his games at third until 1994. The problem is he was such a defensive liability that there was no place on the field to hide him. They tried converting him to a first baseman but that proved to be a colossal flop. What did work was when Edgar was slotted as the DH, so when spring training of 1995 rolled around it was decided there would be no more experimenting with him at other positions and he would only play the field under the most dire of circumstances. When you can lead the league with a .343 average teams will do anything to keep you hacking away at the plate.

Over 18 seasons – all played with Seattle – Martinez took 2 batting crowns with a high average of .356 in 1995 which was his first full year as a DH. He actually hit over .300 ten times with seven of those years in a row and all as a full-time DH. He retired with a career .312 average, 309 homers, 1,261 ribbies, 1,283 walks, 1219 runs scored, and 2,247 hits. over an 18 year career those numbers are hardly eye-popping, but when considering he only played in 92 games his first three years (63 as a starter), and like everyone else lost a half season to the 1994 strike, he actually got into about 15 seasons worth of games.

The question however is whether or not Martinez did enough to merit inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Although public opinion seems to be about 50/50, compared to current Baseball Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda their numbers are similar, but Cepeda played the field. Will Clark who has slightly lower offensive numbers and is a Martinez contemporary only garnered about 5% of the votes needed to gain entry to the Hall of Fame and unlike Martinez, Clark has several Gold Gloves for fielding prowess. If Cepeda is in with a total offense index lower than Clark and nowhere near the defensive skills Clark possessed, and Clark is in danger of dropping off the ballot due to failure to maintain the minimum votes needed, what is the criteria for Hall of Fame entry?

Traditionally the standard for entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame has been defined under one of two criteria:

A) Dominance over the span of a decade at the player’s primary position.
B) Statistics and achievements built over the course of a career which distinguish a player as elite.

Martinez by no stretch of the imagination put together numbers over his career which make him elite in comparison to the other players of his era. They are excellent, no arguing that, but they are not top echelon. Over the period of a decade when compared to the other players at his position, DH, Martinez was statistically the best and most consistent. Saying that however is extremely misleading as there is no true comparison to him as nobody else primarily DH’d for a decade. Even now, no other player has primarily been a DH for a full decade. David Ortiz is getting close, but has a way to go still. As such, no comparison is truly possible. Dave Kingman spent significant time as a DH, but he also played the field quite a bit even if he was often said to use a waffle iron as a glove. Kingman never came close to the batting averages Martinez posted, but Martinez never touched Kingman’s power numbers either. Kingman is not in the Hall of Fame.

Because no true comparison is available and comparing him to an average of what any other full-time DH may have done for a few years – usually their last few years when they were in their mid thirties or even forties is again hardly representative. Many will argue that as the DH is a position and Martinez is recognized as the best long term full-time DH ever he deserves inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Others argue that because he only played defense a few years and did so abysmally that he is not a complete player.

Some will say Martinez is a victim for being the first of his kind since in essence he has set the bar DH’s are measured against today. They will go on to say that in and of itself is enough to stamp his passport to the Hall of Fame, but they would be wrong. With all emotion put aside, Martinez is like countless other players in his era that hit for a solid average, drove in some runs, and had passable power numbers. The difference is those others players took the field and suffered through the bumps and bruises of a season wile Martinez watched from the bench waiting to take his next swing.

Martinez was a superior hitter for several years, but he was not a legend. He was not one of the elite players of all-time. He was the elite full-time DH of his era, but he was also a class of one making that a somewhat dubious distinction. Give Martinez his full due, by all means and applaud his career, but do not place him in the Hall of Fame. It isn’t about him being a DH, it’s about him really only being a slightly above average hitter, and the Baseball Hall of Fame is not the shrine of the slightly above average, but rather legends. Sabermetricians can argue high and low for Edgar, but they are often very wrong with their predictions, and Edgar was not a legend or even a great on his team. The Mariners Hall of Fame will have to make do.


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