Between December 28 and January 6, Call to the Bullpen’s Zach Bernard will analyze players on the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot, look at their career numbers, and determine their worthiness for baseball’s great museum.
You see his name every year. Edgar Martinez has been a mainstay on the Hall of Fame ballot since his eligibility began in 2009, and every year he’s the subject of statistical analysis and great debate over his worthiness.
Martinez only mustered 27% of the vote in 2015, which is almost insulting when you look at his career offensive output. There’s one significant issue standing in his way en route to Cooperstown: his notoriety as a designated hitter.
In an 18-year career, Martinez slashed an extraordinary .312/.418/.515 with 2,247 hits and 309 home runs. He made his major league debut in 1987 with the Seattle Mariners as a third baseman, and in his first six seasons showed a tremendous eye at the plate, logging a .311 average and .393 on-base percentage, becoming an asset in a lineup that included young superstar Ken Griffey Jr.
Tragedy struck Martinez during an exhibition game in 1993 when he tore his hamstring on bad turf in Vancouver. He only played 131 games between 1993 and the strike-shortened 1994, walking 20 more times than striking out but struggling to hit for significant power and losing his effectiveness at third (which isn’t to say he was a great fielder to begin with).
In many cases, this would mark the end of a promising young career (or at least derail it significantly), but to Edgar’s benefit, he played for an American League team, and transitioning to the designated hitter role full-time remained an option. So in 1995, Mariners manager Lou Piniella slotted Martinez into the DH slot 138 times. And at 32-years-old, Martinez experienced a rebirth in baseball.
His 1995 regular season numbers remain one of the best offensive seasons in decades. He slashed .356/.479/.628 in 511 at bats, drawing 116 walks to just 87 strikeouts, smoking 52 doubles and 29 home runs and driving in 113 runs. His offensive surge, alongside sluggers like Griffey, Jay Buhner and Tino Martinez, propelled Seattle to a 79-66 record and an appearance in the American League Division Series.
But Edgar’s renaissance didn’t end there. The 1995 ALDS between the Mariners and New York Yankees remains one of the most exciting divisional rounds since its inception, and the drama of its Game 5 at the Kingdome would serve as the historical peak of the 1995 postseason.
Tied 4-4 entering the eleventh inning, Randy Johnson — in his third inning of relief — surrendered an RBI single to Yankees utility man Randy Velarde, scoring Mike Stanley who reached on a leadoff walk. Things looked bleak in the Emerald City. That was, until Jack McDowell surrendered back-to-back singles to Joey Cora and Griffey in the bottom half of the inning, setting the table for Edgar Martinez.
Entering Game 5, Martinez was hitting .600/.714/1.067 against the Yankees, and was the hero the previous night with two home runs and seven driven in, capped off by a go-ahead grand slam off John Wetteland in the eighth inning of Seattle’s 11-8 Game 4 victory. You couldn’t have a better postseason than the one Edgar Martinez was having.
Or, maybe you could. Martinez launched a double into left field scoring Cora to tie the game, and Griffey — who spent half of the ’95 season sidelined with a leg injury — sprinted all the way from first to score the game, and series, winning run, resulting in “Junior” gleefully celebrating at the bottom of a pile of Mariners at home plate.
Edgar’s double in Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS remains not only the single greatest moment in Seattle Mariners franchise history, but also one of baseball history’s finest moments. And he was that moment.
What makes the story of Edgar Martinez so interesting is that he never slowed down from 1996 until he retired after the 2004 season. He continued to average 25 home runs and 100 RBI almost every year, and only logged an on-base percentage under .400 once, in his age-41 season in 2004.
From becoming a full-time designated hitter in 1995 to his retirement, Martinez hit 247 of his 309 career home runs, slashed .316/.430/.541, walked 59 more times than he struck out and compiled 1,561 hits in the ten-year stretch. In total, Edgar Martinez’s career showcases one of the finest offensive outputs in decades, even after moving to the not-so-hitter friendly Safeco Field.
So is he a Hall of Famer? He put up tremendous offensive numbers as a franchise player and made a necessary adjustment at a time where his career could have very well been over. But there’s that damn designated hitter problem.
As a fan of National League baseball, I despise the designated hitter. But there will come a time when David Ortiz’s — a lifetime DH — name is on the ballot and, PED allegations notwithstanding, he will get a lot of votes. Part of this will be the fact that he’s one of the greatest postseason performers ever, but it will no doubt help his cause that he spent his finest years in Boston. I think Ortiz is a Hall of Famer, but I think there will be a hypocrisy if he earns overwhelming support while Martinez has not.
It’s a matter of exposure. If Edgar Martinez were on better teams, in a more esteemed market, perhaps in a social media age, would he be getting more than 27% of the vote? Would he have been able to expand on those 1995 ALDS numbers and win a few championships? I’m inclined to believe he would.
We should scrutinize designated hitters and their numbers because of their advantage as non-defensive players, and save our acclaim for the exceptional. In his time, Edgar Martinez was exceptional. He belongs in the Hall of Fame.