In the late eighties, the Mariners had a promising young third baseman who was going to anchor the lineup for a long time to come. It was felt that that man was Jim Presley. In 1987, the following words were written about him:
"Presley entered baseball at 17, and is just 25 now. If he can control the strikeouts just a little, he might well be one of the top RBI men of the next decade."
The man who wrote these words was Bill James, but it was a sentiment echoed by many, including the front office of the Seattle Mariners. Presley’s career was in fact already in decline, and he was never really as good as people thought he was in the first place; his all-or-nothing power and strong arm belied his range at third and his inability to reach base. The Mariners gave their former All-Star three years to recover his touch before giving up on him in 1990.
Of course, that third baseman of the future was there all along; he just happened to be trapped in the wheat fields of Calgary, the Mariners’ AAA affiliate. The quiet, mustachioed Edgar Martinez would have to wait until 1990, at the age of 27, to start his incredible career, one that led him to the cusp of the Hall of Fame.
Martinez’s strengths and weaknesses as a Hall of Fame candidate are by now well-established: he was an elite hitter, if somewhat lacking in counting stats, who played 72% of his games as a designated hitter. For the most part, people’s feelings about his candidacy boil down to how much weight he or she places on the former as opposed to the latter.
There has been precedent, when considering the career of a player, for taking into account certain elements that are out of that player’s control. The men who went into military service, for example, do not have their lost seasons held against them; rather, we try to approximate their value on the curve of their career performances. Likewise, there have been examples of players’ careers that ended too soon, and for non-baseball reasons; Kirby Puckett’s glaucoma serves as a recent example. In each of these cases, the voters have been willing to fill in the gaps of a career, to reward based on what should have been.
I would argue that organizational incompetence, which robbed Edgar Martinez of his age 24, 25, and 26 seasons, is equally valid to those above. In order to get a better idea of Martinez’s true talent would have produced if it were unfettered by Dick Balderson and Woody Woodward, we have to look at Edgar’s minor league numbers and try to extrapolate what he might have produced on a major league level.
Here are Edgar’s major league batting statistics, from 1987-1990:
The miracle that is Mike Trout notwithstanding, it’s rare to see a rookie provide All-Star caliber production in his first full season. It’s particularly rare to see them doing so after three years at the AAA level. Clearly, Martinez was ready for his chance well before he got it, and Jim Presley, who was worth 1.4 combined WAR in the 1987-1989 seasons, was not much reason to keep him down.
In order to try to draw Edgar’s natural WAR curve for those seasons, we’ll need to use another Bill James invention, Minor League Equivalency. The purpose of MLE (which can be found in the FanGraphs glossary) is to use a player’s minor league performance to predict his hypothetical major league performance. Obviously, this isn’t an exact process, but MLE does have surprisingly strong predictive value, and it was the formula James was perhaps most proud of from his Abstract days. First, we’ll look at Edgar’s minor league statistics over those three seasons, all with the AAA Calgary Cannons of the PCL:
Being of the Pacific Coast League, it will hardly be a surprise to learn that Calgary was a bit of a hitter’s park; data does not exist for its park factor at the time, but Keith Scherer gave the stadium a park factor of 111.4 in 2001, before the stadium closed. There were no mentions of any changes in dimensions throughout the park history, so this number was used to translate Martinez’s numbers to the big leagues. Of course, the Kingdome was fairly kind to hitters as well, having an overall park factor of 103-105, which takes some of the sting out of the transition.
Using the process detailed by Dan Szymborski here, we can find that by adding the MLE of Edgar’s minor league totals to his various cups of coffee, we arrive at this hypothetical stat line:
1989 is actually a tricky year to calculate. Martinez spent the majority of the season with the big club, where he received erratic playing time and saw many of his plate appearances through service as a pinch hitter or defensive replacement. Rather than try to estimate what might have happened in 1989 if manager Jim Lefebvre hadn’t lost faith in him, and had a full season to hone his skills, the model will stay conservative and stick with the plate appearances he received.
Other estimations were necessary. Though Martinez was hardly as sluggish in his early days as he is remembered, he is treated as being a below-average base runner for the purposes of calculating WAR. More difficult to estimate is his defensive contribution. The fielding metrics are actually fairly kind to the young third baseman, and it’s important to remember that he was removed from the position to protect his hamstrings, rather than because of any detriment to the team. Even so, the model will treat his defensive prowess conservatively again, perhaps assuming that he was still mastering the position, and rate it as below-average.
Having made these adjustments, here’s an updated model of Edgar Martinez’s career in terms of WAR:
What does all this prove? Nothing, really; there’s obviously no way to prove that a .984 OPS in Calgary translates to a .918 OPS in Seattle. But at the same time, that graph isn’t exactly out of line with what we would expect from the early stages of a star’s career. The question is whether we should punish Edgar Martinez in his bid for the Hall of Fame just because his bosses failed to recognize his talent.
These hypothetical numbers also perform several tasks in mollifying the fan or writer who has resisted Martinez’s candidacy so far. The first of these is defense; any games Edgar would have played at a younger age would have been at third base, rather than designated hitter, which would help placate those who are uncomfortable with a designated hitter in the Hall. The 256 games during those three seasons would increase his percentage of games played in the field from 27% to 40%: not a majority, and perhaps not enough to stifle any arguments, but enough to draw kinder comparisons to Paul Molitor, who started 55% of his games in the field and was elected to the Hall of Fame with few qualms.
The second aspect of restoring Edgar’s lost service time is the effect on his counting stats. Martinez had a fairly short career by Hall standards, despite playing until the age of 40. These three seasons bring his statistics more in line with the average ballplayer’s career span. Below are his adjusted career counting statistics:
The two most important improvements among these are hits and WAR. There are plenty of people out there who care about counting statistics, and number of hits in general. Edgar’s three seasons bring his hit total over the 2,500 mark, which is visually appealing and fairly exclusive; only 62 Hall of Famers have reached that plateau. It lifts some of the burden off of the "advanced" statistics to prove how special a hitter he actually was.
Perhaps more importantly, those five wins, a seemingly small amount over the course of three seasons, make a humongous difference when ranking players, especially those on the cusp of the Hall of Fame. Martinez currently ranks 91st among hitters in terms of career WAR, a fair number but not overwhelming. By adding his age 24, 25, and 26 seasons, he’s lifted all the way to 60th, ironically just below our old friend Paul Molitor.
There have been lots of numbers in this article, most of them easily ignored. We know, based on the rest of his career and his minor league performance, what a young Edgar Martinez would have looked like. What we need to decide is whether Edgar Martinez should be punished by his organization’s inability to recognize his talent and give him the playing time he deserved. Most Hall voters would claim that they don’t look solely at numbers, and that context matters; this is Martinez’s context. No player, no matter how great, can control how his team uses or misuses him. For all the damage Dick Balderson and Woody Woodward have already done to Seattle baseball, it would be a shame if they were responsible for destroying Edgar Martinez’s Hall of Fame chances as well.
Harley Soltes, Seattle Times, 1991