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Revisiting Edgar Martinez

Just when I thought I'd finally figured out Edgar Martinez, that pesky Dan Rosenheck comes along and pokes holes in a few of my assumptions ...

    One additional element must be considered. Hitters typically perform worse at D.H. than they do when playing the field. Frank Thomas, for example, had an O.P.S. 179 points lower as a designated hitter than as a first baseman. Many players, like David Ortiz, defy this pattern, and some of the drop-off is because of managers who put ailing batters at designated hitter. Because of this uncertainty, statisticians differ over whether to give hitters extra credit in the D.H. role. But those who do value the so-called D.H. penalty at some six hits a year.

    Taking Martinez’s career batting line and subtracting nine singles and two doubles per year, giving no extra credit for the D.H. role, his career O.P.S. drops to 37 percent above the league average from 47 percent. An average-fielding first baseman with Martinez’s 8,672 plate appearances at that rate would be in the neighborhood of Norm Cash, Boog Powell or Jack Clark — good, but short of the standard for the Hall of Fame.

When I wrote about Martinez last week, I cited his excellent wins above replacement (WAR) and concluded that yes, he does clear the bar. But I believe that WAR (or at least the cited version) does give DH's extra credit, and I don't believe they deserve that extra credit.

Why not? Because of the working assumption that while DHing might not make a player a better hitter -- might, in fact, make a player a slightly worse hitter -- it almost certainly makes him a more durable hitter, if only because one is more likely to get hurt while playing first base than while sitting on the bench. One of Martinez's comparables is Hank Greenberg, who missed almost all of the 1936 after suffering a broken wrist while playing first base. Conversely, doesn't it seem unlikely that oft-injured Paul Molitor would be in the Hall of Fame today if the DH slot hadn't been available?

Rosenheck does give extra credit to Martinez because 1) the Mariners kept him in the minors for a couple of extra seasons so they could play Jim Presley, and 2) he was a pretty good third baseman for a few years. Rosenheck concludes:

    After adding on the minor league years and four seasons of credit for playing third base, Martinez winds up with the same value as an average defensive first baseman with 9,141 plate appearances and an O.P.S. 44 percent above average. That translates to one notch below Harmon Killebrew (9,830 plate appearances and an O.P.S. 43 percent better than average) or Willie McCovey (9,686 plate appearances and an O.P.S. 47 percent better than average) — or near the bottom of deserving Hall of Famers but worthy of induction. Analysts who do give extra credit for the D.H. penalty would see Martinez as a peer of those sluggers, and an obvious selection for Cooperstown.

So here's what it comes down to, I think ... If you give Martinez credit for the minor league years or for DHing, it's not hard to argue that he belongs. These essentially are opinions. There certainly is no precedent for electing a player to the Hall of Fame because DHing is difficult, or because his team kept him in the minors for a year or two longer than necessary. Yesterday, I was comfortable arguing that Edgar belongs. Today I'm back on the fence, waiting for someone to give me a good push in either direction.