If Edgar Martinez Played the Field

The respect Edgar Martinez receives as a staple of Seattle baseball is an admirable tribute to his great career, yet as a player who spent more time at DH than any “real” position, his legacy draws divisive opinions. Some say his bat should carry him into the Hall of Fame; some say playing “half” the game isn’t enough. In his 9th year of eligibility, he is finally looking like a decent bet for election, but if Edgar Martinez played the field, you would already find his plaque in Cooperstown.

It is frustrating to see such a great player’s accomplishments ignored in the favor of ranting about playing “half the game,” but it is an understandable argument to some degree. Are we to enshrine someone among the greatest players in history when (mostly) all they did was hit the ball? That possibly is the most important part of the game, but it still is just one part. Well, there wasn’t anything that indicated that Edgar couldn’t hold his own in the field, so why don’t we retroactively put him out there?

I wanted to see how valuable Martinez would be if instead of primarily being a DH, he split his time between 1B, 3B, and DH, so I dipped into FanGraphs and did just that.

The Assumptions

Edgar was a third baseman before his full-time shift to DH in 1995, so initially, he will primarily receive playing time at 3B. That playing time will wane, as Martinez is given more reps at 1B and eventually DH. The play-time splits are fairly arbitrary.

In the 3 years prior to his full-time shift to DH, he logged roughly 30% of his plate appearances at DH, so I maintained that to an extent.

Finally, he was made to be an average fielder every year (0.0 TZ/UZR) at both 1B and 3B and was fully moved off 3B in 2000 at age 37.

The Adjustments

Starting in 1995, I split the games Martinez spent at DH between 1B, 3B, and DH according to the following table:

Edgar Martinez (Age) 1B 3B DH
1995 (32) 0% 75% 25%
1996 (33) 5% 65% 30%
1997 (34) 10% 60% 30%
1998 (35) 25% 45% 30%
1999 (36) 40% 30% 30%
2000 (37) 70% 0% 30%
2001 (38) 65% 0% 35%
2002 (39) 60% 0% 40%
2003 (40) 55% 0% 45%
2004 (41) 50% 0% 50%

To clarify, for the 1995 season, 75% of the games Edgar played at DH were changed to games played at 3B and 25% were kept at DH. In 1996, 5% went to 1B, 65% to 3B, and 30% stayed at DH, and so on.

So where does this leave us?

The Improvement

In his career, Edgar accumulated 65.5 fWAR, but with these adjustments, that mark jumps to 71.3 fWAR. To put that into context, we can look the impact of this increase on Edgar’s all-time rank (by fWAR) among 1B, 3B, and DH’s.

Edgar Martinez Prior Ranking New Ranking
Among 1B 20 (not actually listed) 13
Among 3B 15 9
Among DH 4 2

A 5.8 fWAR bump over 8500+ plate appearances doesn’t seem like much — we are just dealing with positional adjustments after all — but here are a few names Edgar passes in career fWAR on his way up: Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey,  Mark McGwire, Jim Thome, Miguel Cabrera, Scott Rolen, Ron Santo, Paul Molitor. Not a bad list of guys in your rearview.

From a value standpoint, Martinez goes from having a strong HoF case to looking more like an obvious selection just by playing more innings of league-average defense and leapfrog-ing the right guys. And that doesn’t even consider the potential change in his perception to a complete, playing-the-whole-game player.

If we want to get greedy, we could take Edgar off DH almost entirely. Let’s give him around 10-20% of his plate appearances at DH and split the rest of his play time as follows:

Edgar Martinez (Age) 1B 3B DH
1995 (32) 5% 85% 10%
1996 (33) 15% 75% 10%
1997 (34) 25% 65% 10%
1998 (35) 35% 55% 10%
1999 (36) 50% 40% 10%
2000 (37) 80% 0% 20%
2001 (38) 80% 0% 20%
2002 (39) 80% 0% 20%
2003 (40) 75% 0% 25%
2004 (41) 70% 0% 30%

This mix of play time pushes Martinez to 72.6 fWAR. It’s a smallish bump, but it’s enough to make him the 10th best 1B of all-time ahead of Rod Carew as well as the best DH ever by fWAR  — although he might not be considered a DH at this point, having spent so much more hypothetical time playing the field.

The Conclusion

Of course, we can’t really give credit to Edgar for innings he didn’t play in the field. This exercise was done simply to underscore his value as a hitter and demonstrate the influence of positional adjustments on fWAR, particularly when looking at a career as a whole.

Those who discredit Martinez for not playing the field may also want to ponder the next bit of info. To get from 71.3 fWAR back to 65.5 based on defense alone, from 1995 on, Edgar would have had to average roughly -6.5 TZ/UZR per year. That isn’t terrible, but it is decidedly below average.

So, sure, he spent more time sitting on the bench than most all-time greats, but he doesn’t deserve the disservice of being denied a ticket to Cooperstown based on that. The “What if?” is more or less laid out in front of us. What if Edgar Martinez played the field more often? With little doubt, he would be one of the top 15 first or third basemen ever.

 

 

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