In February of this year, former Cardinal Jim Edmonds declared his retirement from professional baseball. "Jimmy" was a fan favorite during his eight years in St. Louis, and Cardinals fans will always be grateful for his service. Edmonds was undoubtedly a great player, who coupled a sweet left-handed stroke with legendary defensive play in center field, but now that he has retired it is time to begin the same debate that follows all great-but-not-incredible MLB players into retirement: Was Jim Edmonds a Hall of Fame caliber player?
Any time one starts this debate, it is imperative to first define what qualities make up a Hall of Famer. Any Hall of Famer, fielder of pitcher, must be a respected name in the sport, so first we must look to his position in yearly awards voting. For a field player like Edmonds, the most important possible award is the league MVP, followed by Gold Gloves, All-Star selections, and Silver Slugger designations. Secondly, a potential Hall of Famer must have been either consistently among the league leaders in some significant offensive category while in his prime, or, if not an offensive stalwart, must have possessed an uncanny defensive knack rarely seen in other players at his position. To do this, we must look at Edmonds’ yearly and career statistics. Next, we must consider if the player made the playoffs in his career, and if so, how he performed in these high pressure moments. Edmonds’ success in the playoffs must be considered. Lastly, any Hall of Famer must compare favorably to other guys at his position who are already in the Hall of Fame. Given these criteria – respect, offensive and/or defensive influence, playoff success, and comparability – let’s take a look at Edmonds’ candidacy.
First, his career statistics. Edmonds hit .284/.376/.527/.903, fell just short of 400 home runs (393), one RBI short of 1200, scored 1251 runs, hit 437 doubles, and walked 998 times. His two weakest career stats are his 1,949 hits (didn’t reach 2000 despite playing 17 seasons (only 13 100+ game seasons though)) and his 1,729 strikeouts, which place him 20th all time. Strikeouts, however should not bar Edmonds from a place in the Hall as ahead of him on the all-time strikeouts list include Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson (most all time with 2,597), Willie Stargell (6th), Mike Schmidt (7th), Tony Perez (9th), and Lou Brock (19th), along with expected Hall of Famers Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Ken Griffey Jr., and Craig Biggio. Sabermetrically, his career WAR (via Baseball Reference) of 68.3 stands 63rd all-time among position players, placing him directly behind HOFers Tony Gwynn (62nd) and Brooks Robinson (60th), ahead of still active HOF shoo-ins Manny Ramirez (though Manny’s candidacy is in flux considering his disgraceful retirement) and Ivan Rodriguez, and just ahead of notable HOFers Willie McCovey (81st in WAR), Carlton Fisk (69th), Ozzie Smith (82nd), and Ernie Banks (84th). If left out of the Hall of Fame, he would end with the third highest career WAR of eligible (i.e. not Pete Rose) position players shut out of the Hall, behind Bill Dahlen (42nd) and "Sweet Lou" Whitaker (56th) – assuming A-Rod, Pujols, Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, and Derek Jeter (all still active) and Bonds, Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, and Barry Larkin (still eligible to be elected by the committee) all make the hall, as they should. His career statistics are great, if not outstanding. However, now we must explore one of the best things about Edmonds: his extended prime.
Edmonds played with six franchises, but only really blossomed with two teams: The California/Anaheim Angels and the St. Louis Cardinals. He started out a California Angel, and, after excluding a "pre-rookie" season in which he only played in 18 games with 63 PA as a September call-up, he hit .292/.360/.501/.862 with 121 home runs and 408 RBI’s over 6 seasons. His best season as an Angel came in 1995, when he hit .304/.375/.571/.946 with 33 HR and 107 RBI and 120 Runs. From ’95-’98 he hit 25+ HR each season, averaged 86 RBI, and hit .298 with an .891 OPS. Indeed this was solid production that was paired with his first two Gold Gloves and an All-Star selection, but, admittedly, these are not Hall of Fame numbers. After an injury destroyed his 1999 season, the Angels gambled that he would never exceed the sort of production he managed as a 25-28 year old and opted to trade him to the Cardinals.
Edmonds prospered as a Cardinal, and as such, defined himself as a late bloomer. His best seasons didn’t come until his early 30’s, unusual for a field player in baseball. In his eight year Cardinal career, he hit .285/.393/.555/.947 with 241 HR, 713 RBI, 690 R, and, unfortunately, a whopping 1029 strikeouts. He played 135+ games 6 times, Smashed 30+ home runs 4 times (two 40+ HR seasons) and surpassed the 100 RBI plateau three times. In two seasons he had an OPS above 1.000, and six times had a 6+ WAR, the accepted WAR number for a legitimate All-Star caliber player. He was a dependable member of the Cardinals lineup, always the second or third most productive offensive player during his Cardinal career. At times, he frustrated due to his tendency to strike out when you least wanted him to, but this was easily balanced by a number of big hits in his career. As a Cardinal he won six Gold Gloves, was elected to 3 All-Star games, finished top 10 in MVP voting twice, and won one Silver Slugger.
When combining the two teams he prospered on, and excluding injury shortened or seasons at the age of 36 or higher (no longer his prime), he had a 10 year prime spanning from his second full season in 1995 (age 25) to his 11th full season in 2005 (age 35), during which he averaged 32 Home Runs, 93 RBI’s, hit .294/.390/.561/.951, 99 runs, 148 hits, 33 doubles, 77 walks, and the unfortunate 128 strike outs. He racked up every one of his 8 Gold Gloves in this period, played in 4 All-Star games (though his WAR totals per year suggested he deserved 7 All-Star selections), and finished with two Top-10 MVP seasons (including one legitimate 8.4 WAR MVP caliber season). This sort of extended consistent offensive production was what made him so valuable to the Angels and, more so, the Cardinals during his career.
We’ve analyzed his respect among players and writers, his career and prime statistics, and his comparability so now lets look at the playoffs, where great players define themselves. He played in 7 postseasons, 6 with the Cardinals. In 64 career postseason games he hit .274/.361/.513/.874 with 13 HR, 42 RBI, 33 Runs, 63 Hits, 16 Doubles, 30 Walks, and 72 Strike Outs. Extrapolate that out to a 162 game season, and you get 33 HR, 106 RBI, 83 Runs, 159 Hits, 40 doubles, 76 walks, and 182 strikeouts. Compared to his regular season career 162 game averages, He was within 10 points of his career batting average and 30 points of his career OPS, came close to his averages in Runs and Walks, slightly exceeded his 162 game average in HR,RBI, Hits, and doubles. The only noticeable difference between his playoff and regular season lines is the fact that he struck out even more in the playoffs, but as any Cardinal fan who witnessed his work in our 2004 postseason campaign, or even in playoffs that we didn’t make the World Series like 2000 or 2002, this strike out tendency didn’t make him any less clutch in the playoffs.
Edmonds, like almost every major league ball player in history, coupled a number of strengths with a few weaknesses. His strengths included an impressive power stroke, dependable and extended offensive production, A+ range in Center Field, and an above average OBP/SLG. His weaknesses included a susceptibility to strike outs and the inability to play 155+ game seasons, due to way he treated his body while playing Center Field. As a Cardinal fan who witnessed his greatest seasons and his greatest plays, I am obviously a little biased as to his candidacy, but, still, I believe the numbers speak for themselves in proving his HOF worth. Also, any baseball fan who watched ESPN’s Baseball Tonight or Sportscenter between 2000 and 2006 knows that Jimmy was an incredible, balls to the wall defensive player, as witnessed by his plethora of Web Gem and Top 10 plays laying out for bloopers, making incredible over the shoulder catches, or scaling walls to rob hitters of Home Runs. Two Edmonds defensive plays in particular will always stand out in my mind. One was a play at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati where he tracked down a towering drive to straight away center field from his usual shallow stance in center, scaled the wall with time to spare and reached probably four feet over the wall to make an incredible grab. Every fan in the stadium, whether supporting the home team Reds or the Cardinals, stood up and applauded to recognize Jim Edmonds for the unfathomable play he had just made. Another, similar instance of Edmonds magic occurred at Minute Maid Park in Houston where Edmonds tracked down a long fly ball to deep center field again, scaled the hill in center field, and dove uphill to make a ridiculous over the shoulder diving catch on a ball hit 425 feet from home plate. Every Hall of Fame player has these moments that separate them from mere baseball mortals, and I would argue that Edmond’s defensive moments are the moments that should push Edmonds over the top and into the Hall of Fame.