Edgar, Moose and Vlad: Making the case for three borderline Hall of Famers

ByBradford Doolittle ESPN logo
Tuesday, January 10, 2017

We're less two weeks away from this year's Hall of Fame announcement. And thanks to the enterprising work of vote junkies like Ryan Thibodaux of Baseball Hall of Fame Vote Tracker, we can track who's polling well in near real time as ballots are gradually made public -- which, by the way, will be mandatory for all voters next year.

Keeping in mind the 75 percent threshold for gaining enshrinement, the current results look promising for Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines and Ivan Rodriguez. The attitudes towardBarry Bonds and Roger Clemens appear to be evolving in the right direction, though maybe not enough to get them into Cooperstown this time around. But around that quintet are several borderline cases worth delving into.

We're going to ignore the asterisked players on that list for now, as their cases are very much impacted by nonperformance factors. For Bonds and Clemens, it's their association with PEDs. Trevor Hoffman doesn't face that stigma, but instead is part of an ongoing debate about the place of relievers in the Hall, though he may get in this year anyway. Curt Schilling's support has wavered this year and it seems likely he's paying a price for his controversial use of social media. But as you read what follows, keep in mind that much of what is said about Mike Mussina holds true for Schilling, who also has some historic-level postseason highlights to boost his cause.

That leaves three players in the gray zone we can look at from a straight baseball angle: Vladimir Guerrero, Edgar Martinez and Mussina. Granted, there are similar reservations about Martinez's status as longtime DH as there are about Hoffman's worthiness. My position on that is that I pretty much don't care. The DH rule exists. It's hard to find players who do it well. Whether or not a player can play the field is irrelevant to his contributions as a DH. If his career value reaches the level of a Hall of Famer, then that's what really matters -- a win added is a win added. Martinez had 68.3 career WAR, per baseball-reference.com. Hoffman had 28.0. It's not the same debate.

My go-to Hall of Fame metric -- the one I, and many others, begin my investigations with -- has become Jay Jaffe's JAWS system, which uses WAR to bridge the gap between career value and peak value, and compares players to others who have played the same position. There isn't really such a thing as a bottom-line metric when making these arguments. But JAWS is a fine jumping-off point.

Martinez has a JAWS score of 56.0, which is just a little over the Hall of Fame averages at both third and first base, the positions he played in 29 percent of his career starts. The bulk of those were at the hot corner, but in the remaining 71 percent of his starts he was a DH. Meanwhile, Guerrero ranks 21st all time in right field with 50.2 JAWS, 7.9 below the average for Hall of Famers in right. Mussina's 63.8 JAWS ranks 28th among starting pitchers and is 1.7 above the average for enshrinees.

In other words, all three of these players are worthy of serious Hall consideration. None of them is a no-brainer. The JAWS scores aren't close to the end of the objective argument, but rather than venturing further into those weeds, let's shift direction. What follows is a more subjective approach that (with one tweak) uses Bill James' famed Keltner list, or at least the version of it contained in his book "Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?"

It's a 15-question survey. There is no target score a player needs to get to be considered Hall-worthy. Instead, we're hoping a holistic portrait of each player's career will emerge, one that we can judge for its Hall worthiness.

Keltner questions

1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?

This is a very tough standard, but an important distinction for those players who reached such heights. The answer is clearly no for Martinez and Mussina. Martinez finished in the top 10 of AL MVP voting a couple of times but wasn't even the best player on the Seattle teams with which he shared the spotlight with Ken Griffey Jr. Mussina never won a Cy Young Award but finished sixth or better in the AL voting nine times. From 1992 to 2001, he ranked 10th in baseball by WAR. Great, but not best-in-show stuff.

Guerrero may well meet this standard head-on. He won the AL's MVP award in 2004. From 1998 to 2007, he ranked 10th in the majors by WAR. But James asks if anybody suggested if a player was considered the best. With Guerrero, Tom Verducci did just that.

2. Was he the best player on his team?

Again, Martinez was overshadowed by Griffey and, later on, Alex Rodriguez. There were a couple of years in which he led Seattle in WAR but no appreciable stretch of seasons in which he was considered to be the Mariners' best player. The competition was rough.

Mussina, on the other hand, was easily the best player on the Orioles during the bulk of his time in Baltimore. His 45.4 WAR from 1992 to 2000 was 12.1 more than any Orioles hitter and a whopping 31.4 more than any Orioles pitcher. Guerrero was Montreal's top player his last few years there, after Pedro Martinez left, and was probably also the Angels' best performer his first few years there.

3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?

Martinez is largely regarded as the best designated hitter in history. In fact, he won the award as best DH five times and the award bears his name. Even if you think David Ortiz ranks ahead of him, their primes didn't overlap, so that's not pertinent here. Mussina didn't win a Cy Young, didn't win an ERA title, and while he did lead AL pitchers in WAR in 2001, it takes more than one season to be called the best at your position -- close, but not quite. Guerrero passes this test easily. As mentioned, he ranked 10th overall during his best 10-year stretch in WAR, and none of the players ranked ahead of him was a right fielder.

4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

I'm going to rephrase this question as, "How much postseason impact did the player have?" This is the reality for wild-card-era players, when making the playoff bracket is a different challenge from the ones faced by their pennant-chasing forerunners.

Martinez never played in a World Series and hit a composite .156 in 17 career American League Championship Series games. Mussina was tremendous in the 1997 playoffs, going 2-0 with a 1.24 ERA in four starts. Overall, though, he was up and down, with a 7-8 record and an ERA very similar to his career regular-season figure (3.42 to 3.57). He won one World Series game and no titles. Guerrero put up a .664 postseason OPS in 44 games, and went 1-for-14 in his only World Series, a loss.

5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?

All three players were regulars throughout their long careers.

6. Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

Another doozy of a standard. As long as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens aren't in Cooperstown, no one else can make this claim.

7. Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?

We'll revert to the JAWS comments above. For all three the answer is yes and no, which is why we're doing this in the first place.

8. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?

This refers to the point system James created for his book and the totals can be found on each player's page at baseball-reference.com. The average Hall of Famer scores a 50. That's the exact total for Martinez, Mussina is at 54 and Guerrero at 58. Check, check and check.

9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

Martinez and Guerrero both played in an era of extreme offensive prowess, and that has to be taken under consideration. But WAR accounts for this, so it shouldn't be a huge concern. Martinez ranks 33rd all time in OPS, but 46th in OPS+, which is adjusted for league and ballpark context. Guerrero, conveniently enough, ranks 34th in OPS; his OPS+ comes in at No. 79. Hmmm. These same factors should work in Mussina's favor and they kind of do: His career ERA of 3.57 is high for a Hall of Famer and doesn't crack the historical top 100. But context, people: His ERA+ ranks 93rd of all time.

This is also the question on which some of Martinez's detractors might land. He wasn't a swift baserunner, and for the games in which he did don a glove, he posted a minus-9.7 defensive WAR. But Guerrero was even worse -- minus-10.7 in the field. Still, Guerrero was a good base stealer in his youth and had a highlight-reel throwing arm in right field. His 126 career assists at that position rank 28th.

Mussina was a terrific fielder, winning seven Gold Gloves in his career.

10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?

Martinez is the best DH not in, and he's right there with Scott Rolen if you want to group him with the third basemen. Guerrero ranks well behind Larry Walker and the ineligible Joe Jackson, but you can make a case for him in the next group, which includes Dwight Evans, Sammy Sosa and Bobby Abreu. As for Mussina, he's right there with Schilling as the best pitcher other than Clemens who hasn't made it in.

11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?

We covered this. Martinez came close but didn't win. If a typical MVP lands in the 9.0-11.0 WAR range or so, he falls short with a career best of 7.0. Guerrero won an MVP award in 2004 with 5.6 WAR, though there were five players in the AL that season who were at 7.3 or better. Ichiro Suzuki had 9.1; Guerrero's career high was 7.4. Mussina was never in serious contention for an MVP award.

12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star Games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go into the Hall of Fame?

Using B-Ref's benchmark of at least 5.0 WAR as an All-Star-caliber season: Mussina had 10 such campaigns and made five All-Star rosters. Martinez had eight and made seven. Guerrero had only five such seasons, but made nine All-Star rosters.

Most of the eligible players with at least nine All-Star appearances are in the Hall, save for those with extenuating circumstances -- Bonds, Pete Rose et al. But among those others with nine All-Star Games and no Hall of Fame invite, you can count Dave Concepcion, Elston Howard and Fred Lynn. So it happens.

13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?

This is really subjective, but I'm inclined to say yes on all three, though none of them did in fact play on a pennant winner when they were clearly the best player on a team. The closest was Mussina in 2001, when he led the pennant-winning Yankees with 7.1 WAR. But that was just one year and my standpoint is that you have to string together multiple best-on-the-team years to acquire that title.

14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?

Martinez became the prototype of a designated hitter, and whatever you might think of the rule that's a historic accomplishment. Guerrero will live on in highlight packages. He was one of the more exciting players to play the game, with his long strides in the field, cannon arm and uncanny knack for hitting pitches he shouldn't have swung at into the seats. Of course, excitement cuts both ways. Mussina ... well, he was very consistent. His nickname ("Moose") was catchy. That you can't say anything sexier about him is, in the end, a fine defining characteristic.

15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?

Big thumbs up in this area for all three.

The bottom line

Is there really anything in these questions that would move any of these three off the bubble and out of Cooperstown? If there is, I'm not seeing it. Martinez, Guerrero and Mussina all have solid objective cases for enshrinement. But when you combine that with a level-eyed survey of how their careers fit with the résumés of the greats who have come before them, they stack up very well. If there are tiers in the Hall, none of them may occupy the upper reaches. But all three are worthy members of the club of baseball immortals.