The Reds' recent acquisition of Jim Edmonds got me thinking about his career and the value he's added to his clubs. It seems like not so long ago that Edmonds was teaming with Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen in a formidable St. Louis offense in the mid-2000's. In addition to his offensive prowess, Edmonds had a knack for highlight reel catches, with his backwards diving catch against the Royals in 1997 a prime example of his abilities.
It seems fairly obvious, though, that what we see with our eyes often does not tell us the whole story. Spectacular catches are often the result of a bad jump or a poor read, with the dive or jump serving as compensation for the mis-play. The common perception of Edmonds was that he was a defensive master, and statistical evidence seems to disagree with the visual conclusion. Although Edmonds' performance was above average, his UZR/150 of 3.1 runs places him in the "good, not great" defensive category. This performance, however, is good enough to contribute to Edmonds' WAR and confirms that his defense was an asset to his team.
Edmonds' primary contributions have come via his bat. His 12.5% career walk rate, .376 OBP, and .242 ISO suggest a patient batter with a knack for extra base hits and his .325 career BABIP indicates a propensity for line drive contact. For those who were able to watch Edmonds in his prime, he was arguably one of the top multi-tool threats of the era. He could beat you with his glove and bat and was a long-ball threat capable of changing the game.
As I contemplated his career, I wondered how he stacked up to his contemporaries. A cursory look at his peers with as many or more WAR features the stars one would expect (Bonds, Clemens, A-rod, Maddux, Johnson, Pujols, Bagwell, Chipper, Griffey, Big Hurt, Mussina, Pedro, Glavine, Jeter, Larkin, Thome), all of whom I expect to someday be enshrined. I found myself more interested in the case of the three position players already enshrined in the HOF who rank closest in WAR to Edmonds. All three players were perceived as superstars during and after their careers and also played as many or more seasons than Edmonds.
A plot of career WAR (courtesy of FanGraphs) can be seen below:
Viewing Edmonds through this spectrum seems to validate him as a Hall of Famer. Brooks Robinson clearly maintained his greatness for longer than the other three players and accumulated greater WAR over the course of his career. While Gwynn's best seasons were not as good as those of the other three, the slope of his WAR is less severe, indicating he maintained his skill set better relative to the other players, though that skill set at its peak was not as impressive.
Edmonds' career seems to compare most favorably with Snider's, with both having similar skill sets. Snider's four best seasons exceed Edmonds' four best in WAR, but both have an eerily similar WAR graph afterwards. Snider was an exceptional talent, a legend in every sense of the word, so it's not surprising that his best few seasons were better than Edmonds'. This does not, however, exclude Edmonds from the conversation for the HOF.
In the world of some stone-aged HOF voters (that is, the world of un-quantifiable intangibles like "leadership," "greatness"), the idea of comparing Edmonds to any of these players seems laughable, but the numbers place them all in the same category.
That Edmonds, in his power hitting prime, was over-shadowed by Albert Pujols' freakish displays of offensive prowess doesn't make his abilities any less intimidating or his contributions any less valuable. Overwhelming sentiment is that Edmonds was merely a "very good" power hitter in an era of power hitters. Statistics indicate, however, that Edmonds was a tremendously valuable player who, unfortunately, played in the shadow of a once-in-a-lifetime talent.
For those voters who have recently elected players like Jim Rice and Andre Dawson, while excluding such talents as Tim Raines and Bert Blyleven, there should be no question that Jim Edmonds is a Hall of Famer. I won't hold my breath, though.