JAWS and the 2019 Hall of Fame Ballot: Edgar Martinez

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2019 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election at SI.com, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research, and was expanded for inclusion in The Cooperstown Casebook, published in 2017 by Thomas Dunne Books. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

All Edgar Martinez did was hit — the statement is almost entirely true in both the literal and figurative sense. Even after adjusting for his high-scoring surroundings, Martinez could flat-out rake. A high-average, high-on-base percentage hitting machine with plenty of power, his numbers place him among the top 30 or 40 hitters of all time even after adjusting for the high-offense era. Martinez played a key role in putting the 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 skip town for more lucrative deals. But while Griffey and Rodriguez were two-way stars at key up-the-middle positions and Johnson a flamethrowing ace, 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.

More than 40 years after it was introduced — in 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 ineptly flail away (Bartolo Colon excepted). In 2004, Paul Molitor became the first player elected to the Hall after spending the plurality of his career (44% of his plate appearances) as a DH, while a decade later, Frank Thomas became the first elected after spending the majority of his career (57% of his PA) there. By comparison, Martinez took 72% of his plate appearances as a DH, while David Ortiz — whose 2016 victory lap spurred plenty of Hall of Fame discussion — took 88%.

Since the debut of my system in 2004 (when Molitor was a first-year candidate but JAWS had yet to get its catchy acronym), I’ve classified players at the position where they created the most value, whether or not they spent the majority of their careers there. For Molitor that was a third base, where he played 788 games and generated real defensive value, strengthening a case that was virtually automatic by dint of his membership in the 3,000 hit club. I’ve applied that precedent to other candidates who spent good chunks of their careers at DH, such as Harold Baines, Chili Davis, and Thomas, mainly 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 in games at DH (1,403) but also played 564 games at third base and another 28 at first.

I’ve compared Martinez to the Hall’s third basemen, corner infielders, and hitters in general, mainly because when properly used, JAWS is a tool used to build an argument, not answer a simple yes or no question. Within its positional adjustments, which account for the differing degrees of difficulty along the defensive spectrum, WAR levies a substantial penalty for not playing the field. But even with that penalty incorporated into his annual WAR, and even after his big league career started slowly (his first season playing at least 100 games didn’t come until age 27), Martinez measures up as valuable enough to merit a bronze plaque. A two-time batting champion and a seven-time All-Star, he posted 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 better than many of the current ballot’s more celebrated position players.

After receiving a solid 36.2% in his 2010 ballot debut, Martinez struggled to expand his base of support as the ballot grew more crowded. His share plunged to 25.2% in 2014, and his candidacy appeared dead in its tracks once the Hall’s rule change truncated his eligibility from 15 years to 10. Since then, he’s caught some breaks thanks to a vigorous outreach campaign by the Mariners, his return to the team as its hitting coach, testimonials from recent honorees such as Johnson, Griffey, and Pedro Martinez, and the attention paid to the end of Ortiz’s career. The growing acceptance of advanced stats in Hall debates — with my own work on Edgar specifically cited by voters — hasn’t hurt, either. He’s gained at least 11.8 percentage points in each of the last three cycles, and at 70.4% entering his final year of eligibility, is on the cusp of election.

2019 BBWAA Candidate: Edgar Martinez
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Edgar Martinez 68.3 43.6 56.0
Avg. HOF 3B 67.5 42.8 55.2
Avg. HOF CI 67.2 42.7 55.4
Avg. HOF Hitter 67.2 42.4 54.8
H HR AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
2,247 309 .312/.418/.515 147
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Though born in New York City on January 2, 1963, Martinez was raised by his maternal grandparents in the Maguayo neighborhood of Dorado, Puerto Rico, as his parents divorced shortly after he was born. He grew up three houses away from his cousin Carmelo Martinez, a major leaguer from 1983 to 1991. Martinez’s parents remarried when Edgar was 11, but he chose to remain with his grandparents. By then, he’d caught the baseball bug, drawn to the game by the heroics of Puerto Rican icon Roberto Clemente. He honed his swing with a broomstick, obliterating bottle caps, rocks and even droplets of water as they fell from the roof.

In 1982 — eight years before MLB made Puerto Rico subject to the amateur draft — a nearly 20-year-old Martinez was making $4 an hour on an assembly line at a pharmaceutical plant, taking classes at American University in San Juan, and playing semipro ball on the weekends when Mariners scout Marty Martinez (no relation) signed him for a $4,000 bonus. Old by prospect standards, he scuffled in his debut with Seattle’s Northwest League affiliate in 1983 (.173/.304/.202 in 126 PA) but quickly improved. He broke out in his age-24 season in 1987, hitting .329/.434/.473 at Triple-A Calgary.

Blocked at third base by Jim Presley, a one-tool player whose eight major league seasons and 135 homers amounted to 0.3 WAR, Martinez had to settle for cups of coffee from the Mariners in 1987 and -88. After opening the 1989 season as the starter in Seattle, he struggled so mightily (.240/.314/.304 in 196 PA) that he was briefly sent back down. Once he reworked his swing to incorporate a high leg kick, boosting his bat speed and allowing him to pull the ball with greater frequency, he stuck in the majors for good in 1990, hitting .302/.397/.433 for a 133 OPS+. With defense at the hot corner estimated to be 13 runs above average via Total Zone, his hefty 5.6 WAR ranked seventh in the league. A year later, Martinez hit .307/.405/.452 — the first of his 11 seasons with an OBP .400 or higher — and helped the Mariners crack .500 for the first time in franchise history. Again he was above average defensively (+6 runs) en route to 6.1 WAR, eighth in the league.

In 1992, Martinez won his first AL batting title, hitting .343/.404/.544 with a league-leading 46 doubles, and his 6.5 WAR tied for fifth in the league, though his season ended about three weeks early due to a bone spur in his right shoulder that required surgery. His injury troubles were just beginning, as hamstring and wrist injuries — as well as the 1994 players’ strike — limited him to 131 games over the next two seasons.

Though still a more than serviceable third baseman (seven runs above average in 1994, 19 above for his career to that point), Martinez’s string of injuries led the Mariners to relieve him of regular defensive responsibilities after that season; they needed his bat far more than his glove. Over the remaining decade of his career, he would play just 34 more games in the field, never making more than seven starts in a season, usually in interleague road games.

The decision paid off. In 1995, even while donning his mitt for just seven games, Martinez set a career-high with 7.0 WAR, good for second in the league. He hit .356/.479/.628, leading the league in batting average, on-base percentage, OPS+ (185) and doubles (52), and helping Seattle to its 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 and reaching base safely 18 times in five games. Martinez is still the co-holder of the record for most hits in a Division Series (12), and his 21 total bases rank fifth. His 11th inning double in the decisive Game 5 scored the tying and winning runs; The Double (as it’s remembered in the Pacific Northwest) is now on the short list of hits that have taken on lives 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 a street leading to Safeco Field “Edgar Martinez Drive.”

The 1995 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 (40.7 total). He led the AL in on-base percentage again in 1998 (.429) and 1999 (.447) after finishing second with even higher figures in 1996 (.464, behind Mark McGwire’s .467) and 1997 (.4558 to Thomas’s .4561), and placed third in OPS+ three straight times (1996-1998) before falling to fifth or sixth in the next three seasons. During that span, he was the second-best hitter in baseball, at least based on the batting component of WAR; his 380 runs above average trailed only Barry Bonds’ 443.

As for his WAR, Martinez ranked fifth for that stretch behind Bonds (56.8), Rodriguez (46.7), Jeff Bagwell (45.0) and Griffey (41.1), and an eyelash ahead of Sammy Sosa (40.6). Here it’s worth remembering that defensive value is built into WAR in two ways: by estimating a player’s relative value (runs above or below average via Total Zone or, from 2003 onward, Defensive Runs Saved); and with positional adjustments that change over time to account for the skill required to play the position, based largely on the distribution of balls in play. In the Baseball-Reference 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 of offense for a DH to match the value of an average-fielding third baseman.

In other words, the “But he was a DH, not a complete player!” sentiment is baked into the valuations, and even while being docked 13 or 14 runs per year due to his time at DH (he played just 33 games at third and first in that span), Martinez was as valuable as all but the aforementioned players in that span. The Griffey comparison is particularly startling: The centerfielder on those Mariners teams won an MVP award and four Gold Gloves during that stretch and led the AL in homers for three years in a row (twice with 56) — and he was more valuable than Martinez only by an annual margin of roughly two-thirds of a run.

Remarkably, Martinez maintained his keen batting eye and high level of production despite a serious vision abnormality. While in the minors, optometrist Dr. Douglas Nikaitani diagnosed him with strabismus, meaning that his right eye (his non-dominant one, and the one further from the pitcher) drifted out of alignment, costing him depth perception and an ability to pick up velocity changes. In 1999, his problems became particularly acute. He struggled to pick up the ball as it left the pitcher’s hand, and learned to duck his head and tuck in his shoulder to protect himself in case he lost complete sight of the pitch. With his career hanging in the balance, he returned to Dr. Nikaitani, who fired tennis balls at Martinez, forcing him to focus on aligning his eyes, and developed an exercise regimen for him to enhance his depth perception. “This is my theory: Edgar has lasted this long because he had the discipline to really work on his eyes so that they’re not a weak link,” said Nikaitani in 2001.

Seattle reached the playoffs again in 1997, 2000, and 2001, tying the MLB record in the latter season with 116 wins despite the departures of Johnson (traded to the Astros in mid-1998), Griffey (traded to the Reds in February 2000), and Rodriguez (signed with the Rangers as a free agent in January 2001). The 38-year-old 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. On Oct. 3, 2004, in a ceremony after Martinez played his final game, commissioner Bud Selig showed up to announce that the annual Outstanding Designated Hitter Award, which he had won five times, would be renamed in his honor.

Martinez isn’t the first Hall of Fame candidate to benefit from spending his twilight years as a DH. Molitor reached the 3,000-hits plateau and Cooperstown largely because of what he did there; 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 while they were serving as DH; 101 of Jackson’s 573 dingers, 92 of Murray’s 504, and 205 of Thome’s 612 (including No. 600 as well) came in that capacity. Nevertheless, 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 it been necessary.

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, or repertoire often convert starters to relievers, who rarely produce enough value within their smaller roles to merit consideration for the Hall. Mariano Rivera, the top newcomer on the 2019 ballot, is the best example of an exception; it’s quite possible he’d have never approached a Hall of Fame level had he remained a starter. Martinez was the Mariano Rivera of DHs: He was so good within his limited role that he produced enough value to transcend it.

(As an aside, Martinez owned Rivera: .579/.652/1.053 in 23 plate appearances. 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 Martínez… 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.”)

Martinez’s case doesn’t rest entirely on his credentials as a DH, as he spent only 72% of his career there. The other 28%, during which he played the field, isn’t window dressing. It was as a third baseman that he won the first of his two batting titles, made three of his seven top-10 finishes in WAR, and one of his seven All-Star appearances. He wasn’t forced into DHing due to an iron glove or disinterest in defense. The scouting reports on him in the Hall of Fame’s Diamond Mines database, which date from the 1988-91 period, describe his defense as “solid” or “adequate.” As noted before, the metrics suggest he was a slightly above average third baseman – 18 runs above average for his career and five per 1,200 innings – bolstering his overall value.

In terms of the numbers he put up only as a DH, Martinez ranks third in hits (1,607) behind Ortiz (2,191) and Baines (1,690). He’s third in home runs (243) behind Ortiz (485) and Thomas (269), second in doubles (370 to Ortiz’s 557) and total bases (2,718 to Ortiz’s 4,239). His .959 OPS at the position (on .314/.428/.532 hitting) tops Ortiz’s .942 (.289/.383/.559) and every other player with at least 2,000 plate appearances in that role, and that’s without considering the impact of their ballparks. In terms of overall OPS+ at all positions — important, as it adjusts for the differing park and league scoring environments — Martinez has the edge on Ortiz, 147 to 141, not to mention a roughly 13-win edge in terms of WAR (68.4 to 55.3) in 1,417 fewer career plate appearances. Prorated, Martinez produced 5.6 WAR per 650 plate appearances compared to Ortiz’s 4.1 WAR, a 37% advantage for Edgar. Even with that substantial penalty built into WAR for the last decade of his career — roughly 1.5 wins per year! — Martinez ranked among the AL’s top 10 in WAR seven times; by comparison, Ortiz did so just three times.

Despite the penalty, Martinez created enough value as a hitter to meet or surpass the career, peak and JAWS standards among Hall of Fame third basemen, ranking 11th in the last of those categories. He’s 1.7 points behind Molitor, but with a seven-year peak that’s four wins higher. The margin between Martinez and the field is slightly larger 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 21 position players, 19 of whom are in Cooperstown. In fact, of the top 35, 29 are in the Hall and three are awaiting their turns on the ballot; the other two are the two most notable and notorious players outside the Hall:

Top Position Player WAR, Age-27 Season Onward
Rk Player Hall of Fame Years WAR
1 Barry Bonds NO 1992-2007 121.6
2 Babe Ruth YES 1922-1935 118.1
3 Willie Mays YES 1958-1973 115.6
4 Honus Wagner YES 1901-1917 113.7
5 Hank Aaron YES 1961-1976 96.4
6 Stan Musial YES 1948-1963 90.9
7 Ted Williams YES 1946-1960 88.9
8 Ty Cobb YES 1914-1928 87.6
9 Tris Speaker YES 1915-1928 85.4
10 Nap Lajoie YES 1902-1916 81.4
11 Mike Schmidt YES 1977-1989 79.5
12 Joe Morgan YES 1971-1984 79.2
13 Eddie Collins YES 1914-1930 78.1
14 Cap Anson YES 1879-1897 77.0
15 Roberto Clemente YES 1962-1972 73.7
16 Wade Boggs YES 1985-1999 73.4
17 Lou Gehrig YES 1930-1939 73.1
18 Carl Yastrzemski YES 1967-1983 71.6
19 Rogers Hornsby YES 1923-1937 70.1
20 Adrian Beltre Not Elig. Yet 2006-2018 69.2
21 Luke Appling YES 1934-1950 68.4
22 Edgar Martinez NO 1990-2004 67.7
23 Rickey Henderson YES 1986-2003 67.1
24 Roger Connor YES 1885-1897 66.9
25 Ozzie Smith YES 1982-1996 65.9
26 Charlie Gehringer YES 1930-1942 65.6
27 Chipper Jones YES 1999-2012 65.2
28 Alex Rodriguez Not Elig. Yet 2003-2016 62.6
29 Pete Rose NO 1968-1986 61.5
30 Jackie Robinson YES 1947-1956 61.4
31 Rod Carew YES 1973-1985 61.2
32 Frank Robinson YES 1963-1976 61.2
33 Brooks Robinson YES 1964-1977 60.4
34 Dan Brouthers YES 1885-1904 60.0
35 Ichiro Suzuki Not Elig. Yet 2001-2018 59.3
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Throw in Martinez’s black and gray ink (two batting titles and a second-place finish; three OBP titles and three second places; one OPS+ lead and six top-five finishes), All-Star appearances, all-time rankings in OBP (14th among hitters with 7,000 plate appearances), OPS+ (tied for 30th with Hall of Famers Willie McCovey, Mike Schmidt, Willie Stargell, and Thome) and WAR batting runs (34th) as well as 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. But with an increasing number of voters recognizing both the merits of his case and its urgency, he has jumped from 27.0% in 2015 to successive shares of 43.4%, 58.6%, and finally 70.4% in 2018.

Now Martinez can look to the example of Raines, whose eligibility was also curtailed, for hope. Raines received 55.0% in his eighth year of eligibility (2015), then 69.8% in his ninth and finally 86.0% on his final ballot, thanks in large part to a grassroots campaign that helped him build support. Unlike Raines, whose Expos are no longer an active concern, Martinez has received a considerable push from the Mariners via the team’s social media and website.

Can he find the remaining 4.6% — 20 votes, assuming the electorate remains at or around last year’s total of 422 — that he needs to get to 75%? As I noted in my introduction to the series, since 1966, 19 out of 20 candidates who received at least 70% of the vote and had eligibility remaining were elected the following year, with Jim Bunning the lone exception; he received 70.0% in 1987 (his 11th year), then 74.2% in 1988 before slipping to 63.3% in 1989. Ultimately, he was elected by the Veterans Committee, as were two candidates who missed by only a handful of votes in their final turns, namely Nellie Fox (74.7% in 1985) and Orlando Cepeda (73.5% in 1994). In the earliest of early indications that things may go Edgar’s way, three of the first six ballots to be submitted to the @NotMrTibbs tracker were voters who included Martinez for the first time.

If he makes it to 75%, Martinez will join Red Ruffing (1967), Ralph Kiner (1975), Jim Rice (2009) and Raines as candidates elected in their last turn. Whether by the first ballot or the 10th, the most potent designated hitter in history belongs in Cooperstown, for the advanced metrics show that he surpassed the value of many a 500-homer or 3,000 hit legend. Quite simply, his superiority with the bat transcended the limitations of his role. Let the countdown begin.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Stevil
Member
Stevil

Edgar not getting in would be a great injustice to baseball and the man himself. He absolutely belongs in the Hall.

Ken
Member
Member
Ken

Very well written. Edgar absolutely deserves enshrinement.