Prospect Retrospective: Edgar Martinez
"He's too old to be a prospect." "If he is such a good prospect, why has he been in the high minors for four years?"
That was the talk about a prospect named Edgar Martinez 25 years ago. One of the best hitters of the last quarter-century, Martinez spent two years in Double-A and two years in Triple-A, and didn't play regularly in the major leagues until he was 27.
How the hell did that happen? Let's find out.
Edgar Martinez was born in New York in 1963, but he moved to Puerto Rico with his family as a child. Puerto Rican players were not draft-eligible back then and were signed as non-drafted free agents. He signed with the Seattle Mariners in the winter of 1982, then made his pro debut with Bellingham in the Northwest League in '83.
He didn't hit well at all, batting just .173/.304/.202. He drew a lot of walks (18 in 126 plate appearances) but showed no power, along with a so-so glove at third base. He would have been nothing more than a Grade C prospect at that stage.
That changed in 1984: Martinez moved up to Wausau in the Low-A Midwest League and raked, hitting .303/.414/.490 with 15 homers, 84 walks, and only 57 strikeouts in 533 plate appearances. He ranked sixth in the league in OPS, and his BB/K ratio was exceptionally good. I don't have detailed scouting reports that go back that far, but I remember being aware of his performance and thinking that he was an interesting player to track, though not, to my recollection, a top prospect.
A player like that nowadays, with excellent peripherals but not being particularly young for the league would get something like a C+ or maybe a B-, depending on the exact reports, perhaps with a sleeper notation if he was being overlooked.
The Mariners liked Martinez enough to jump him up a level in 1985, sending him to Double-A Chattanooga. He maintained excellent command of the strike zone, with a 71/30 BB/K ratio in 455 plate appearances, but his power disappeared again and he hit just .258/.378/.353 overall. He did receive a late promotion to Triple-A Calgary and put up much better numbers in the Pacific Coast League (.353/.450/.485), granted in a small sample of 20 games.
He played quite well on defense, turning 37 double plays in 129 games, a huge number for a third baseman.
It is really hard to say what his grade would have/should have been. The power disappearance against better pitching would have been quite disconcerting, but his command of the strike zone remained exquisite, and the late surge at Calgary could give hope. Sleeper-C? C+?
Martinez returned to Chattanooga in '86 and improved only slightly, hitting .264/.383/.390 with six homers, 89 walks, and 35 strikeouts in 553 plate appearances. This time there was no Triple-A trial. Again, plate discipline and contact ability remained his hallmarks, but with two disappointing power seasons since reaching the high minors, there was no reason at all to think he would be anything more than a role player in the future.
He moved up to Triple-A in 1987 at age 24, hitting .329/.434/.473 with 10 homers, 82 walks, and 48 strikeouts in 531 plate appearances for Calgary. For the third year in a row, he had a very high number of double plays turned for a third baseman, with 31, which is usually an indicator of a fine gloveman. He got a brief major league trial with Seattle, hitting .372/.414/.581 in 46 plate appearances.
However, the Mariners were committed to veterans Jim Presley at third base and Alvin Davis at first base. They had Steve Balboni and Ken Phelps for DH duty, and Jay Buhner and Darnell Coles for the outfield, so there was no obvious place to put Martinez in 1988.
Back to Calgary for 1988, Martinez continued to blast PCL pitching with a .363/.467/.517 mark with a 66/40 BB/K ratio in 407 plate appearances. He led the league in batting average and was named to the PCL All-Star team. He got another very brief trial in Seattle, hitting .281/.351/.406 in 38 plate appearances.
Taking stock for 1989, Martinez was a 26-year-old with two strong Triple-A seasons under his belt, but without enthusiastic scouting reports and little shot for regular playing time. He spent most of '89 on the Seattle bench, hitting .240/.314/.304 in 196 plate appearances.
So now he's 27 entering 1990. The Mariners finally dumped Presley and went with Martinez at third base. He responded with a .302/.397/.433 season with 74 walks and just 62 strikeouts in 572 plate appearances. His defense at third base was quite good, helping push his WAR all the way to 5.5. He followed that up with outstanding seasons in '91 (5.7) and '92 (6.2).
'92 was truly special, as he led the American League with a .343 average, 46 doubles, and won his first All-star nod.
A severe hamstring injury limited him to just 42 games in 1993 and almost ruined his career. By the time he was back to full strength in '95, he was a full-time DH, no longer able to handle the rigors of defense, which was unfortunate because his glove was quite solid before he got hurt.
Resuming full-time play in '95 at age 32, Martinez began a seven-year run as a devastatingly effective hitter: between '95 and 2001, he hit .329/.446/.574, a 164 OPS+ in 1020 games played during that period. His worst WAR in that time frame was in '01 at 4.7; he racked up 40.7 WAR over those seven seasons.
He hung on for three years after that until retiring after his age '41 campaign in '04. Overall, Martinez was a career .312/.418/.515 hitter, 147 OPS+, 148 wRC+, with a grand total of 66.6 WAR.
Among all hitters at all positions, Edgar's 66.6 WAR ranks him 79th all-time, in the neighborhood with Manny Ramirez (67.0), Tim Raines (66.9), Robin Yount (66.8), Joe Cronin (66.6), Mark McGwire (66.3), and Harmon Killebrew (66.3). That's amazing company for a player who didn't even obtain a regular major league job until he was 27 years old and who didn't add defensive contributions after he got hurt.
So, Hall of Fame or not Hall of Fame?
It seems clear to me that Martinez certainly hit like a Hall of Famer at his peak; I don't think anyone doubts that. Yes, he played during an era of high offense, but WAR accounts for that and his production was Hallworthy.
Dave Cameron pointed out a couple of years ago that there have only been 22 players in history with eight or more seasons of 500 plate appearances with a minimum of 150 wRC+ produced. Of those 22 players, 16 are in the Hall of Fame, two more (Albert Pujols and Frank Thomas) will get in, two more would be in if not for steroids (ARod and Manny). The other is Dick Allen, who played like a Hall of Famer but pissed too many people off while doing so.
Among players who spent much or most of their career as a DH, Edgar ranks fourth in WAR behind Thomas (72.6), Jim Thome (68.1), and Paul Molitor (67.8).
Essentially the anti-Edgar-HoF argument boils down to anti-DH stigma. Personally I'd vote for the guy, although I understand why others might not.
As a prospect, the key sabermetric marker for Edgar Martinez was his outstanding BB/K/PA ratios that persisted even as he moved up against better pitching, and even when he had problems producing power.