Give Edgar Martinez His Due

Edgar Martinez, clare_and_ben/Flickr

There is no position more debated than that of the designated hitter. Ever since its introduction to the American League in 1973, fans have been split — should the National League introduce it? Should the AL take it way? Should the DH remain in the AL only to maintain variety?

Perhaps as a result, some of the most deserving hitters in the game are being overlooked — because they happened to play as designated hitters. By far, the biggest snub is DH Edgar Martinez, who still has yet to be elected to the Baseball Hall Of Fame despite his qualifications — 65.5 fWAR over 18 years, 7 ASG selections, 5 Silver Sluggers, and a career 147 wRC+.

It is a travesty that one of the best designated hitters of all time, so great that the award for “Outstanding Designated Hitter” was renamed after him, has yet to be inducted. So how the could the HOF justify snubbing him thus far?

There exists a notion, among HOF voters, that by playing primarily as a designated hitter, a players’ career lacks dimension. The rest of the team has to bat and play in the field, but a DH is not given the second responsibility. As a result, by not providing defensive value, the DH either has an incomplete career regardless of the bat, or they needed to have provided enough value with the bat to reach the HOF.

But holding a DH to such standards is ridiculous. If the DH is a one-dimensional position, then isn’t a pitcher’s position one-dimensional as well? Rarely does a hard-hitting pitcher such as SP Madison Bumgarner come along — most pitchers are extremely poor batters. Some are also extremely poor in the field — look at SP Jon Lester, for instance. Most pitchers, especially those in the Hall of Fame, are completely one-dimension in terms of their game — they pitch, and that’s it. So why are designated hitters criticized for the same thing?

Never mind the fact that many position players were defensive liabilities in their time. Harmon Killebrew was worth -18.8 dWAR over his career. Willie Stargell was worth -19.7 dWAR. But both of them are enshrined in Cooperstown. dWAR isn’t a perfect measure by any stretch of the imagination, but it illustrates that both of those players were actually liabilities in the field. Had they both played at DH, they would have actually contributed far more to their team, because playing in the field, they cost their team runs.

It would make sense to play those players at DH in modern times, and that’s why players like Martinez, along with DH Frank Thomas and DH/1B David Ortiz were slotted into the DH position. But now, the BBWAA is punishing them for playing where they optimized their production, by minimizing their defensive deductions. Why keep players out of the hall for playing in the position that would best help their team?

There may be credence in that a DH should be better than an average player to compensate for the lack of value that they provide defensively — but Martinez is certainly not subject to that argument. Martinez’s career wRC+ of 147 is tied for 33rd all-time with HOFers 3B Mike Schmidt, SS Honus Wagner, and OF Ralph Kiner — 3 of the best bats of all time. Martinez was worth 65.5 fWAR, 86th-all time, on par with contemporary Hall of Fame players like 2B Craig Biggio and OF Tony Gwyn.

Martinez may not have achieved any of the typical milestones for induction, such as 400–500 HR, or 2500–3000 hits, but considering that he only played in about 15 seasons full-time, including 2 seasons cut short by injury or strike, his resume of 309 HR and 2247 hits seems much more impressive. And consider that from 1995–2002, there were only two better players by wRC+ in the majors — OF Mark McGwire and OF Barry Bonds, both players who owe their video-game numbers to steroids.

Martinez has no such taint, and managed to be the 3rd best offensive player during the biggest offensive era in MLB history. If that doesn’t speak to Martinez’s HOF qualifications, then nothing will. Ultimately, it’s up to the Hall of Fame to stop treating the DH as a detractor from a players’ career, and recognize greatness by enshrining Martinez.