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#EdgarHOF - Day 34

Was Edgar really so bad at defense?

Mariners v White Sox
look at those sweet kicks. Under Armor got nothin’ on ‘em.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When a player retires, he begins the transformation from man to myth. Away from the game, outside of everyday view, a player’s legacy is reliant on the stories told about him. This is how certain players get tagged with the whiff of PED use despite never having a positive test; how others are lionized for their on-field contributions while the nastier aspects of their personal life recede into the background. Of all of the Edgar myths, the one that puzzles me the most is the stubborn myth that he was useless in the field.

In fact, during his long years of toil in the minors, Edgar wasn’t promoted because he was seen as a glove-first player, something the offensively anemic Mariners didn’t need in the late 1980s. Director of player development Bill Haywood was quoted as saying: “His glove is his strength. Hitting over .300 is a pleasant surprise.” The Toronto Star, in an article from February 9, 1989 called “Changing Faces” about the newest arrivals for the Seattle Mariners, lists prospect “INF Edgar Martinez, an apparently talented defensive player.” Defense wasn’t supposed to be the problem. It was the bat Seattle wasn’t sold on.

Initially, Edgar’s defense at the hot corner wasn’t the problem. In 1989, the first year he had significant time in MLB, Fangraphs’ Total Zone system likes him for +4 runs saved, or the very height of “average” and just brushing “above average.” In 1990 that number rockets up to +13, or midway between “great” and “Gold Glove Caliber.” He fell off a little in 1991 but still posted +6, again “above average.” In 1994, the last year Edgar saw any significant time at 3B, he posted a +7.

So where does the image of Edgar as a lousy, limited range defender come from? Most likely, from a stat the sabermetric community has begun to distrust: the error. In 1990, a gimpy-kneed Edgar was charged with a painful 27 errors at the hot corner, including an infamous four-error game, the most in the AL. But he also ranked fifth-highest in assists in the AL that year. The next year, in 1991, Martinez cut his errors to 15, which was still good for the 4th-most errors in the AL; however, he also ranked third in games played at third base as the Mariners leaned more on their young(ish) slugger, ranking second in assists and fifth in double plays turned. In 1992, he was unable to get himself off the 3B error leaderboard, tying for fifth with two other players, but came up in double plays turned, all the way to third place. So some of Edgar’s errors, then, come from sheer volume: as opportunities to make a play arise, so does the chance that the ball will take the dreaded “unlucky hop.” We don’t have batted ball data from pre-2002, but you can look at the raw numbers for hit trajectory and make an educated guess that Erik Hanson was a groundball pitcher, as were Chris Bosio and Brian Holman, who all spent time in Seattle’s rotation during Edgar’s time at the hot corner.

Who knows what would have happened if the grounds crew at BC Place Stadium had been a little more attentive to their turf, and Edgar hadn’t tripped on an unzipped seam and torn his hamstring? My guess is that over time, Edgar’s defense would have evened out, eventually wiping away the ignominy of the four-error game. One doesn’t go from being impressive at third base to falling off a defensive cliff overnight. Sure, he might not have put up stellar numbers, but the history-adjusted TZ system likes him enough for a career score of +17. However, by 1995, the Mariners realized Edgar was too valuable—and maybe too accident-prone—to risk out at the hot corner every day. They could have moved him to first, but Tino Martinez, himself a fairly limited defender, had that spot, so DH Reggie Jefferson was shipped out to Boston, and the Mariners tucked their unlikely superstar safely in the dugout. We will never know what might have happened had Edgar spent more time in the field, but the reputation he earned off errors might be as unjust as those who would keep him out of the Hall for “only” being a DH.