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Monday, August 09, 2004
Posted 12:01 AM by Brian
[NOTE: What follows is a first for Redbird Nation -- a piece with two authors. My buddy Richard Lederer, who runs the fantastic Rich's Weekend Baseball Beat, emailed me a couple weeks ago about the greatness of Jim Edmonds. The following profile is a result of our lengthy discussions since that time. So kick back and enjoy!]
THE MOST UNDER-OVER-UNDERRATED PLAYER IN BASEBALL
By Brian Gunn and Richard Lederer
In a fine article published last Friday in the New York Times, Lee Jenkins made the Cardinals sound like an army unit from a World War II propaganda film – they’ve got the aw-shucks hick Scott Rolen, the Bible-quoting Latino Albert Pujols, and Jim Edmonds, "who scales fences and streaks his hair, drives a Ferrari, and goes by the name of 'Hollywood.'" Indeed, at first blush Jim Edmonds seems like every jock you went to high school with – note the cocky swagger, the loping gait, the beefy shoulders and hammy thighs. He’s the very picture of California cool.
But put Jim Edmonds in a batter’s box and he’s transformed. Gone are the heavy eyelids and the cavalier attitude, and they’re replaced with something else altogether – a series of rituals, neuroses, and tics. He grimaces, jabbers with umpires and catchers, steps out to do calisthenics or pace around or talk to himself. Just last week he had an at-bat where he leaned in from a pitch on ball four, then righted himself by staggering toward the visitors’ dugout. His route was practically Magellan, perhaps the only time in the history of baseball a guy walked 120 feet to get to first. Last year in San Diego, Edmonds swung at a pitch, dropped the bat, clutched his right shoulder, doubled over in pain, caught his breath, then picked up the bat with his left hand and continued hitting! The whole thing was as melodramatic and masochistic as the Stations of the Cross: Edmonds is Condemned to Die, Edmonds Swings a First Time, Edmonds is Laid in the Tomb.
That’s Jim Edmonds for you – one of the most mercurial players in the game, and perhaps the only one to catch grief for being both under-emotional and over-emotional. He’s been called, variously, a showboat, a stud, a lazybones, a workhorse, a whiner, a powerhouse, an overachiever, an underachiever, you name it. But let us submit to you one label you almost never hear in relation to Jim Edmonds: Hall of Famer.
Hall of Famer? Jim Edmonds? The guy who’s finished in the top ten in MVP balloting exactly once? The player who’s never led the league in any hitting category, who’s not even halfway to 3,000 hits, who has fewer career homers than Kent Hrbek? Is that the Cooperstown Jimmy Edmonds you’re talking about?
Let us say right off the bat that Hall of Fame arguments have become increasingly degraded and muddled over the years. Part of this is due to a phenomenon that Bill James put his finger on years ago. See, the HOF is a self-defining institution; that is, a Hall of Famer is no more and no less than someone in the Hall of Fame. Therefore, if you want to make a case that your guy belongs in the Hall, all you have to do is prove he’s better than the lowest fungus taking up space in Cooperstown (Rick Ferrell, anyone?), and he’s in.
So let’s clear away some of the muddle and ask a couple simple questions to establish Hall credentials. Is he one of the top two players of his era at his position? (Think Mike Schmidt and George Brett.) And/or is he one of the dozen greatest players ever at his position? (That’s roughly one HOFer per decade at each position.) And then let’s stop right there. Does Jim Edmonds meet those standards?
Let’s take a look. There are three center fielders who have stood out during the current era. Despite a disappointing homecoming in Cincinnati, Ken Griffey Jr. has put up the best numbers of any CF in baseball during this time, hands down. The battle for second best is a close one between Bernie Williams and Jim Edmonds. Two opposites. Night and day. Big market, small market. San Juan, Puerto Rico vs. Orange County, California.
What Williams and Edmonds share in common are highly productive playing careers that have not registered on the average fan’s radar screen to the extent that they deserve. If it’s true that players who rank at or near the top of their position for a decade or longer are worthy of HOF consideration, then it’s time to take a bow to Bernie and Jim.
Runs Created Above Average
Center Fielders, 1995-2004
Position Classified By Season
RCAA1 Jim Edmonds 3402 Bernie Williams 3393 Ken Griffey Jr. 287
Source: Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia
Not only is Edmonds number one, he clearly has the most momentum of the trio and seemingly the brightest future. In fact, the product of Diamond Bar High School (Calif.) is on his way to perhaps his best season ever in 2004.
2004 Statistics and League Ranking
OPS 1.062 6thSLG .649 2ndOBP .414 3rdTot Avg. 1.186 3rd HR 30 T4thTB 229 7thBB 67 T10thRuns 75 8thRBI 79 T5th
The top five center fielders of all time are some of the most revered names in the game’s history. Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays. MVPs all. You might debate their order, but there is no denying that these five are in a league of their own when it comes to center fielders. This quintet led the league in batting average 17 times and home runs 12 times.
The sixth and seventh spots on the list of greatest center fielders are as etched in stone as the top five. Duke Snider and Ken Griffey Jr. are without a doubt the best of the rest. Over 900 homers and twelve titles.
That leaves number eight up for grabs. Using Hall of Famers as a first cut, the candidates include (in alphabetical order) Richie Ashburn, Earl Averill, Max Carey, Earle Combs, Larry Doby, Kirby Puckett, Edd Roush, Lloyd Waner, and Hack Wilson.
Other than Puckett, all of the players in the paragraph above were passed over by the Baseball Writers Association of America and elected by the Veterans Committee decades after their playing careers ended. Of these eight, only Averill (133), Combs (126), Doby (136), Roush (126), and Wilson (144) had adjusted on-base plus slugging averages (OPS+) greater than 111. Other retired CF of significance with OPS+ totals above 120 include Wally Berger (138), Fred Lynn (130), Jimmy Wynn (128), and Dale Murphy (121). However, only Lynn played at least 100 games in CF for more than seven years.
Edmonds played his 100th game in center field on Sunday and has now hit the century mark for nine years. Going into this season, Edmonds had an OPS+ of 135 and is currently on track to produce his fourth consecutive total of 150 or more -- a feat accomplished only by the Big Five, Snider, and Hack Wilson. Although Wilson put up HOF numbers from 1926-1930, his career was nearly as short as his 5’6” height and he was a notoriously poor defensive center fielder.
Edmonds is already in the top 20 among CF in most of the important counting stats and in the top 10 in terms of rate stats. As the 34-year-old slugger ages, his rate stats may slip but his cumulative totals will continue to grow. Using Wins Above Replacement Value (WARP) and Equivalent Average (EqA) as proxies for counting and rate stats, we find there are only six CF who exceed Edmonds’ rankings in both categories. Yes, six!
Granted, if Edmonds were to retire today, his career would look more like Fred Lynn’s than not (absent the ROY and MVP awards). However, Edmonds is fast approaching – and in many cases exceeding – the run creation totals of nearly every CF in baseball history not named Cobb, Speaker, DiMaggio, Mantle, Mays, Snider, or Griffey.
Runs Created Above Average
Center Fielders, Modern Era (1900-)
Position Classified By Season
RCAA1 Ty Cobb 11072 Tris Speaker 10543 Mickey Mantle 10094 Willie Mays 10085 Joe DiMaggio 6726 Ken Griffey Jr. 5477 Duke Snider 4068 Earl Averill 3949 Larry Doby 36910 Bernie Williams 35411 Jim Edmonds 34012 Hack Wilson 33213 Edd Roush 302T14 Fred Lynn 285T14 Jimmy Wynn 285
Source: Sabermetric Baseball Encylopedia
True, Edmonds has never dominated any statistical category – the closest he came to leading the league was when he finished 3rd in the AL in runs as a youngster in 1997. But it’s also true that Edmonds is a classic multi-tool player who hits for average, hits for power, fields his position, and has a great arm. He’s sorta like the overlooked girl who never won any contests for best legs, lips, hair, or eyes, yet was considered one of the prettiest overall.
Almost every baseball fan – even casual baseball fans – can conjure up one highlight-reel play from Jimmy Edmonds. Maybe it’s the one from June of ’97, when he raced straight back and made a diving, over-the-shoulder grab at the base of the wall in Kaufmann Stadium (it won an ESPY, doncha know). Maybe it’s the time he deked out Sammy Sosa, pretended like he was going to catch a deep fly, then threw him out trying to score from second on a double. Or maybe it’s one of the four times over the past two years he leaped over the wall to rob a Cincinnati Red of a certain home run. (The last of these, when he made a running, leaping, backhanded snag of a drive by Jason LaRue on July 16th, is Edmonds’ personal favorite.)
Now, we all know that great fielders are more than the sum of their flashy plays, but Jim Edmonds is perhaps the only guy in the league whose feats of derring-do at times work against him. Take this scouting report from Jim Edmonds’ player page on ESPN.com: "He will have lapses in concentration and occasionally seems to time his leaps and dives for dramatic effect."
Anyone who’s ever fooled around with a baseball glove knows what ESPN is talking about. As a kid playing catch, you may have run after a thrown ball, waited ‘til the last second, then dove, sprawled, and held up the ball in triumph like you were on "This Week in Baseball." Some people say Jim Edmonds does this in the big leagues – plays for the cameras.
Only one problem with this theory: Edmonds’ fielding stats are exceptional. If he’s going out of his way just to look good, why then do his numbers look so good? Bill James Win Shares system rates Edmonds an A+ fielder from 1993 to 2000 – the same grade given to Curt Flood, Willie Mays, and Tris Speaker. (Like Speaker, Edmonds plays an extremely shallow center, allowing him to snare the short stuff with enough wheels to flag down hits over his head.) The six-time Gold Glove winner hasn’t lost his mojo, ranking second among N.L. center fielders in fielding Win Shares through the first of August.
Let’s tease out the numbers even further. How does Edmonds stack up with the best defensive center fielders of his era? The active CFers with four or more Gold Gloves are Edmonds, Griffey, Bernie Williams, Andruw Jones, Steve Finley, Marquis Grissom, and Kenny Lofton. Here’s how they rank in terms of range factor (putouts + assists /games):
Jones 2.68Edmonds 2.59Williams 2.55Lofton 2.52Griffey 2.48Grissom 2.40Finley 2.32
By this measure, only Andruw Jones covers more ground than Edmonds. Now of course, range factor is a pretty crude stat – a good range factor could result from a staff that gets lots of fly balls and strikes out very few. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to see how Edmonds could get to that many baseballs if he was primping and preening in the outfield.
What about Edmonds’ supposed Howitzer of an arm? Well, here are the same seven Gold Glovers ranked by assists per 100 games:
Edmonds 7.9Lofton 7.2Jones 7.2Griffey 6.9Finley 5.7Grissom 4.9Williams 3.4
Again, this isn’t the be-all-end-all stat for measuring a guy’s arm, but common sense tells you that Bernie Williams belongs near the bottom of that list and Edmonds near the top. In other words, Edmonds might have his defensive lapses in the field, he might go for style points now and again, but it seems clear that Edmonds is much more than a Web Gem generator.
There have always been those who want to poke holes in these accomplishments. One favorite of the naysayers is that Edmonds will heat up big time – like in ’00, when he reached base in 12 straight plate appearances – and then he’ll just as suddenly go as cold as interstellar space.
But if Jim Edmonds is a streaky player (and really, what player isn't?), then he certainly chooses the right times to go on a rampage. Case in point: over his career he’s brutalized division rivals Chicago, Houston, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, hitting .311/.421/.632 against them compared to .289/.375/.515 against everyone else. And Edmonds was largely responsible for the Cards’ furious stretch run in 2001, when he slugged .639 in August and September and helped the team hijack the division title.
Edmonds also has a habit of stepping up large in the postseason. Overall he’s slugged .679 in five postseason series (and bopped at least one HR off of each foe). He simply destroyed Atlanta pitching in 2000, his first-ever playoffs. His slugging percentage for the three games: a ridiculous 1.286, including six extra-base hits and the game-winning jack in the clincher at Atlanta. (True story: There was a wedding taking place in St. Louis during this game. The groomsmen were all big Cardinals fans; the groom was not. So in order for the groomsmen to get updates on the game, guests in the back of the church – tuned into KMOX radio on mini-headphones – had to pass along the score via complicated hand signals. Edmonds went yard right around the time bride and groom were exchanging vows, and the place nearly erupted.)
Another stick used to poke holes in Jim Edmonds is that he’s just not durable enough. And there’s some evidence that Edmonds is not exactly an Iron Horse. His plate appearances over the last four years have dwindled (643 - 608 - 576 – 531). Last season he hit only .214 after the All-Star Break while battling various ailments. And earlier this year Edmonds griped to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "I'm tired of waking up with my feet numb and my right knee sore... If I was just sore and achy every day, that's no big deal. But waking up every morning and the first 10 steps I take my left foot is completely numb. I've had four knee surgeries, three shoulder surgeries. I want to play, but when it's time to retire, I'll get on with it."
Nevertheless, the image of Edmonds as a guy held together by baling wire and chewing gum is a bit overblown. To wit: only five center fielders have played in 135+ games over each of the last four years – Andruw Jones, Steve Finley, Johnny Damon, Mike Cameron, and, yes, Jim Edmonds. And believe it or not, sometime this year Edmonds will likely pass Willie McGee for games in center field. Add in the fact that Edmonds seems to be getting better after age 30 and it becomes harder and harder to nag about his so-called lack of durability.
Despite all these talents, Jim Edmonds plays on perhaps the worst team to exploit his skills. Last year he led all center fielders in homers, walks, slugging percentage, and OPS, and yet he was only the fourth-best player on his own team. Over the last two years he has the 9th highest VORP (120.1) of any player in baseball – in other words, he’d be the biggest star on almost any team in the majors. In St. Louis, however, he comes in third, behind Pujols (#2, with 172.3) and Rolen (#7, with 128.0).
But there are other reasons Edmonds isn’t a bigger name. Part of it is due to the odd practice whereby All-Star voters cast ballots for outfielders irrespective of left, center, or right. As a result, Edmonds – who’s been one of the top two center fielders in the league for each of the last five years – has never started on an All-Star team.
But the reason there are doubts about Edmonds’ abilities has less to do with All-Star balloting, or the team he plays for, and more to do with something else: his character.
In 1992, when Edmonds was at Double-A Midland, Angels farm director Bill Bavasi gave this assessment of his young prospect: "His body language will drive you nuts." He wasn’t just talking about Edmonds’ swing – although if Edmonds grew up with a dad who coached Little League he’d have already corrected his son’s loopy tetherball swing and his tendency to bail out of the box.
No, Bavasi wasn’t talking about Edmonds' mechanics so much as his cocky demeanor. Even after Edmonds burst on the scene, made the All-Star team in his first full season, and immediately took his place as one of the top two or three center fielders in the league, the Angels were not fully satisfied with his approach. They thought he should do something, anything – maybe dive into first base now and again, or get medieval on a water cooler – to show his martyrdom for the team. And Jimmy just wouldn’t do that.
Edmonds bumpy tenure in Anaheim came to a head in the spring of 1999, when he had surgery on his right shoulder that would sideline him for the next four months. Players and coaches immediately questioned Edmonds’ motives for not getting the surgery over the winter. Chuck Finley said of Edmonds, “Jimmy’s biggest problem is Jimmy.” And in one notorious incident Mo Vaughn packed Edmonds’ suitcase and told him to leave if he didn’t want to be on the team.
A funny thing happens when a player is on the outs: even his strengths become weaknesses. Edmonds’ awesome rookie campaign became an example of how he had wasted his potential, how he could be so much more if only he tried. Or every time he hit a huge home run, people would gripe about his annoying knack of turning his talents on and off at will. By the end of 1999 Edmonds was on the trading block.
At the time the Angels were flush with four starting outfielders, and someone had to go (a logical enough thought for anyone not named Terry Ryan). Darrin Erstad had to stay – he was a former #1 draft pick and a media darling for his gung-ho approach to the game. Tim Salmon wasn’t going anywhere either – he had been a star even longer than Edmonds, and had the right kind of whole-milk attitude. Garret Anderson was younger than Edmonds and, better, more stoic and inoffensive. So GM Bill Stoneman – who took over for Bavasi in October 1999 – shipped Jim Edmonds out of Anaheim.
Of all the lopsided trades in baseball history, the Cards have made some doozies: Eric Ludwick for Mark McGwire, Bob Sykes for Willie McGee, Ernie Broglio for Lou Brock.
But the discussion should probably include Kent Bottenfield and Adam Kennedy for Jim Edmonds. It was a classic Walt Jocketty trade: find an established veteran in a contract year, preferably one undervalued as a malcontent; trade either unproven prospects or peaking veterans to get him; deliver your new star to the loving arms of the St. Louis fan base; then lock him up to a long-term deal below market cost. You don’t normally think of Jocketty as the type of Moneyball wheeler-and-dealer who has to take risks on "men of questionable character," but remember that Jocketty, like Billy Beane, learned at the feet of Sandy Alderson, one of the great bargain-hunters of our time.
This model fits perfectly with Jocketty’s resources. After all, St. Louis – only the 26th largest media market in the major leagues – will never have enough money to win an all-out bidding war with the New Yorks and Bostons of the world. But Jocketty is able to land big-name stars like Rolen, McGwire, and Edmonds by auditioning them before the local crowd, encouraging them to soak in the Red Sea down at Busch Stadium, and letting them bask in the womblike environment that’s so different from whatever town they’re fleeing. It’s a clever approach for signing superstars, Midwestern-style.
Looking back on it, Jim Edmonds was probably the riskiest property that Jocketty landed via this method. It’s funny to laugh about Kent "the Body" Bottenfield now, but back then he was coming off his 18-win season (albeit a hollow 18 wins), the only Cardinal with double-digit wins in 1999. And Adam Kennedy was a highly regarded second baseman, the Cards’ Minor League Player of the Year in a system that included Rick Ankiel. Edmonds, on the other hand, had just completed a year in which he hit .250 with 5 homers in only 55 games. But Jocketty gambled that he could sell high and buy low.
The move paid off almost immediately. Edmonds smoked 42 home runs and the Cards strolled to their first division title in four years. More importantly, Jim Edmonds had found a home. He liked playing Tonto to Mark McGwire; and he liked that he didn’t have to be The Man in a city that already had at least one.
It hasn’t been all wine and roses since then. In May of last year Edmonds hurt his shoulder diving for a ball – some said needlessly – and the whispers started up again, the old idea that Edmonds would rather look good than help his team. The whispers got louder in July, when he wrenched his shoulder during the Home Run Derby, of all things, and fizzled in the second half.
In fact, Edmonds – who struck out in 47% of his at bats in September – took a lot of blame for the Cardinals late-season swoon. People said he was part of a clubhouse faction led by Tino Martinez, and there were heavy rumors that he would be shipped off to the Dodgers for younger talent. Around that time Edmonds told CBS Sportsline, "One thing I can say, and I truly mean it from my heart, when you don't play well [in St. Louis], you feel bad. You feel bad for the city, for the organization, for your teammates... When you lose here it's different, because it brings the whole city down. People really care about you."
But as the Cards have heated up this season, so has Jim Edmonds. They’ve raced to 72 wins in their first 110 games and Jimmy has the majors’ second-highest OPS (that is, if you exclude non-mortals). And what about the idea that Jim Edmonds is a me-first ballplayer who swings too much from the heels? Well, the other night Edmonds came up with Pujols on first, one out, down by a run. Just then the Cards’ big lefthander, who hit more homers in July than anyone else, laid down the prettiest bunt you ever saw. Three Mets players watched it meander up the third-base line, then come to a complete stop smack-dab in the middle of the chalk. The hometown crowd cheered as if he had hit it 435 feet.
Whether laying down bunt singles, hitting game-winning home runs, or preventing runs with his glove and arm, Edmonds can beat you in a number of ways. Let’s face it, Edmonds could be an upper-echelon corner outfielder or first baseman based on his hitting alone. Throw in a solid – even spectacular – glove and arm at a key defensive position and you have the makings of one of the premier players in the game.
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