Making Sense of Baseball's Edgar Martinez, Designated Hitter HOF Debate

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 12, 2017

SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 08:  Former Seattle Mariners great Edgar Martinez waves to the crowd as he heads to the mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to the game between the Seattle Mariners and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Safeco Field on June 8, 2012 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The Hall of Fame lists Frank Thomas as a first baseman.

Not as a first baseman/designated hitter. Not as a designated hitter/first baseman.

Thomas started 340 more games as a DH than he did at first base, but nowhere on his Cooperstown plaque or on his page on the Hall of Fame website does it even mention his time at DH. Paul Molitor is a third baseman, according to the Hall, even though he started 1,168 games as a DH and 786 at third base.

When will we put a DH in the Hall of Fame? We already have.

Just not Edgar Martinez.

He was so good at the job that baseball named the annual DH award after him. He's so connected to the job that you get the feeling it's the biggest thing keeping him out of Cooperstown.

He was, as ESPN.com's Jayson Stark wrote, "one of the great hitters of his generation."

And yet until this year, I didn't give him a Hall of Fame vote. I'm not alone. As recently as 2014, Martinez got just 25.2 percent of the vote.

He jumped to 43.4 percent last year, and Ryan Thibodaux's Hall of Fame Tracker has him taking another jump this year. He's gaining votes, but he's also running out of time. It doesn't look likely he'll get in this year, and he'll be on the ballot only two more times.

In other words, it's about time we figure out what to do with him. It's about time we figure out how to judge a guy who barely wore a glove for the final decade of his career.

Martinez never played in a World Series, but his 11th-inning double to beat the New York Yankees in the 1995 American League Division Series is the biggest moment in Seattle Mariners history.
Martinez never played in a World Series, but his 11th-inning double to beat the New York Yankees in the 1995 American League Division Series is the biggest moment in Seattle Mariners history.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

It's about time we come to grips with the DH rule, now in its 45th year in the American League.

Do we judge a guy who was almost exclusively a DH (71 percent of his career starts and 98 percent of his starts in his final 10 seasons) the way we would any other hitter? Or does he need to be even better to make up for not contributing anything on the other side of the game?

Is Edgar Martinez Hall-worthy?
OPSOPS+HRWAR
Edgar Martinez.93314730968.3
David Ortiz.93114154155.4
Frank Thomas.97415652173.7
Baseball-Reference.com

Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated, who spends as much time as anyone evaluating Hall of Fame candidates, calls Martinez one of the top 30 or 40 hitters of all time. During the best seven-year stretch of his career (1995-2001), Martinez ranked third in the majors in Baseball-Reference.com's OPS+, which equalizes for league and ballpark.

The only two guys ahead of him during that span? Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire.

Neither of them is in the Hall of Fame, either, but that's another argument. It's that other argumentthe steroid argumentthat dominates Hall of Fame debates. It's so overwhelming that it obscures other just-as-interesting discussions, such as what to do with closers and what to do with designated hitters.

The Martinez debate is more than just a DH debate, though. He finished in the top five in MVP voting just once (1995), and his career totals (2,247 hits, 309 home runs) look a little light, in part because he didn't become a major league regular until he was 27.

Yes, he did own a glove. Before a serious hamstring injury in the spring of 1993, Martinez was the Mariners third baseman.
Yes, he did own a glove. Before a serious hamstring injury in the spring of 1993, Martinez was the Mariners third baseman.Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

He didn't have as many big postseason moments as David Ortiz, a DH who will likely find an easier path to Cooperstown.

But Martinez was still a great hitter, and it's hard to believe he'd have such a hard time with voters if he'd spent the majority of his career at third base.

"I can't believe any AL voter would discriminate against him," Bob Ryan wrote in the Boston Globe. "Has to be those NL Luddites."

Yeah, except that two of the guys who didn't vote for Martinez this year (Nick Cafardo and Dan Shaughnessy) have covered the Boston Red Sox for the Globe.

"I have left off Edgar Martinez, never feeling his numbers were quite good enough," Cafardo wrote.

I know the feeling. I looked at Martinez's numbers every year, and every year I thought, "Not quite good enough."

Eventually, I realized I was looking for too much. I was asking for too much, trying to make up for what Martinez didn't do on defense. I never eliminated him because he had been a DH, but I set unrealistic standards for him because he was one.

I switched this year, and I don't expect to switch back. I'm not alone on that, either. Thibodaux's Hall of Fame Tracker has Martinez adding 31 votes this year (while inexplicably losing one). My Bleacher Report colleague Scott Miller was also one of the switches, citing many of the same reasons I did.

Martinez finally has momentum on his side. He has plenty of numbers on his side, including those where he compares favorably to Ortiz (147-141 edge for Martinez in OPS+, .933-.931 in OPS, 68.3-55.4 in Baseball-Reference.com's version of WAR).

And just as it ought to help Trevor Hoffman that baseball named its National League Reliever of the Year Award after him, it should help Martinez that it's the Edgar Martinez Outstanding Designated Hitter Award (which Ortiz won in 2016).

Cy Young is in the Hall of Fame, isn't he?

                                

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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