Photograph by shgmom56 on Flickr
So Jim Edmonds' comeback really was too good to be true‚ a St. Louis favorite, half-shirt wearing, home run fist-pumping, incredible-diving center fielder has retired just a few weeks into his return to the Cardinals, citing a foot problem that never quite healed.
That means we have five years to get his Hall of Fame candidacy in the mind of every baseball fan and writer in America. I realize this is going to be tough, because it took long enough for me to think about him that way. It was easy to think of Jim Edmonds as a complementary player, because he joined the Mark McGwire Cardinals and left the Albert Pujols Cardinals; as a flash-in-the-pan because his great years in Anaheim were separated from his great years in St. Louis by the kind of season that gets you traded for Kent Bottenfield and Adam Kennedy.
But he really was one of the best center fielders in the history of baseball, and here's one way of thinking about why.
First: Look at his bat.
Edmonds is going to retire short of 400 home runs, 2000 hits, and most other interesting milestones because of his late start; he didn't have those first three or four average years a more typical Hall of Famer might have, when he's banking counting stats for later.
But between 2000-2005 he had the kind of offensive peak that's gotten a number of less valuable players elected to the Hall of Fame. Over that time period he hit .292 with an on-base percentage of .406 and slugging percentage of .584, averaging 35 home runs and 98 RBI a year.
If you're looking for useful comparisons, think Don Mattingly at his MVP-winning best‚ .332, 27 home runs a year and with an OBP 30 points lower in spite of that batting average. Their OPS (on-base plus slugging) relative to the league average is almost identical over their best five-year period‚ OPS+, a statistic that adjusts for offensive context by setting 100 as the league average, puts them both around 150.
Over a five year peak, that puts him well ahead of first basemen like Ryan Howard (141 and trending down) and Mark Teixeira (138). At his best, as a hitter, he was more or less as valuable as David Ortiz at his best.
So if he were a first baseman, and his career shape was a little more typical, he'd probably get a few Hall of Fame votes here and there. But he wasn't a first baseman.
Second: Put him in center field.
All of those first basemen are hitting well relative to the league average hitter, but the league average first baseman is a different animal entirely. You don't play first unless you can hit, and typically you don't play first unless you can't field. The average first baseman in the National League last season hit .269/.354/.459, for an OPS of .813. The average center fielder hit .260/.330/.407.
More than 500 at-bats, then, the average first baseman creates around 15 runs more than the average center fielder with his bat. 15 runs is worth about a win-and-a-half for a baseball team, and between 2000 and 2005 the Cardinals were able to put a guy who hit like an all-star first baseman in center field every day. (Considering they had an all-star first baseman at first base at the same time, this was a good arrangement.)
Third: Give him the Gold Gloves
Jim Edmonds had a reputation for "timing" his dives, but to be honest I'm not sure how he could have done that; Edmonds was already slow for a center fielder at 30, and at 40 last season, hobbling on a foot that was about to precipitate his retirement, he still played center field. Timing dives is for guys who don't have to run as hard as they can to catch the baseball in the first place; it's like accusing a guy with one arm of playing with one arm tied behind his back.
The defensive statistics we have now are in agreement with the Gold Glove voters, for once: Edmonds wasn't just a center fielder, he was a great one. Between 2000 and 2005, Total Zone Rating says he was worth 71 runs more than an average center fielder, 12 a year.
Fourth: Put it all together
Let's take Howard and Edmonds as an example. 2008, in which Howard came far too close to beating Albert Pujols for the NL MVP, is the best example of how easy it is to overrate a player of his kind; Jim Edmonds' 2005, the last season he was capital-letters Jim Edmonds, is the best example of how easy it is to underrate a center fielder.
Look at the bats
Ryan Howard's 48 home runs led the Major Leagues that year, and he drove in 146 runs for good measure. By Extrapolated Runs, a statistic that tells us the value of each baseball event, a home run is worth about 1.44 runs to a team. Edmonds hit just 29 in 2005, so that puts Howard in front by 27 runs to start our contest. Howard also hit four triples that year, somehow, and 19 more singles, which, rounding up, gets him to a nice, round 40-run lead.
But that head start is the last positive ground Howard will get in this contest. Edmonds hit 11 more doubles, which cuts the lead to 32, but the real difference comes in the plain, boring walk. Jim Edmonds walked 91 times in 2005; in 2008, Howard walked 10 fewer times in 133 more plate appearances.
Until recently, this was the forgotten component of hitting: Not making outs. Those 10 additional walks are worth four more runs by themselves, which gives Howard a 28 run lead, but it took him 115 more outs to generate those runs. 38 additional innings, more or less, all of Howard not getting on base. You only get 27 outs a game; they're the most valuable thing in baseball. That's why on-base percentage is so important, and why Edmonds, whose .385 OBP in 2005 is within 10 points of his career average, just covered most of the difference between them.
When you put everything together, Edmonds was worth 101 runs to the Cardinals with the bat in 2005. Howard was worth 113 to the Phillies, in 133 additional plate appearances. If you adjust for the league average to counteract Howard's playing time advantage the suspense is already blown, so let's keep going.
Put Edmonds in center field
Cautionary note: Do not put Ryan Howard in center field. I can't emphasize that enough.
FanGraphs, one of the best baseball sites on the internet, has done the math for us, based on the numbers we saw earlier. Anybody can play first base, and very few players can play center; per 162 games, the adjustment to account for that scarcity (or lack thereof) is -12.5 runs for a first baseman and +2.5 runs for a center fielder. Baseball-Reference gives us +2 runs for Edmonds and -11 for Howard, after adjusting for playing time.
Even acting as though Howard created all his runs in the same number of plate appearances as Edmonds, that sinks his offensive advantage. If you do adjust, you get Edmonds with an 11 run advantage with the bat, compared to an average hitter, and a 24 run advantage when you put them in their respective positions.
Now give Edmonds his Gold Gloves back
Between 2000 and 2005 Edmonds was, on average, 12 runs better than the average center fielder. Howard, in his career, is two runs a season better than the average first baseman.
Howard has 16 runs with the bat; loses three for his baserunning; picks up eight with the glove, a product of single-season defensive fickleness; loses 11 more because he plays first base; and is, altogether, worth 2.8 wins more than a "replacement-level", or scrap-heap first baseman.
Edmonds has 27 with the bat; loses one for his baserunning, which I remember as daring-but-too-daring; picks up 24 with the glove (fickleness, etc.); gains two because he played center; and ends up with 6.8 wins more than a "replacement-level", or Randy-Winn-shaped, center fielder.
Ryan Howard is an easy player to talk about because he does one thing right.
Jim Edmonds is a difficult player to talk about because he did everything right, and that's why he's a Hall of Famer.