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Some Baseball Stories Can Be Told in Numbers. Look at Jim Edmonds.

Jim Edmonds was tough. He dove for balls. He was an irrepressible gamer. He “embodied excellence” and did all the things that would make George Will gooey inside. Writing about his retirement, Dan McGrath laments how the statisticians will parse his various fielding percentages and soil that pristine memory. It’s a fine narrative, except for one snag: The little spreadsheet gnomes are Jim Edmonds’ biggest fans.

Here is McGrath’s argument encapsulated.

Somewhere there’s a number that quantifies how good Edmonds was in the outfield, a number more esoteric than fielding percentage, putouts, assists — the usual suspects. There’s just as likely a number that will suggest he wasn’t any good at all, that other metrics like his range factor or his total zone runs or his win-probability-added don’t measure up to the immortal Willie Tasby.

Numbers. They are the lifeblood of baseball, but I fear we have gone too far in our attempts to quantify everything that happens on the diamond, from a pitcher’s ground-ball frequency to a hitter’s productivity when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars.

The game that developed as pastoral relief may be morphing into a calculating, industrial anti-pastime, but advanced metrics are the best argument supporting Jim Edmonds’ hall of fame candidacy.

Edmonds has a case, purely as a hitter. In the meat years from 25 to 36, Edmonds was a .293/.388/.554 hitter. He had a 141 OPS+. He hit 25 or more home runs in ten straight full seasons. He drew walks. He hit for power. He wreaked more havoc than Jim Rice. That’s besides being, at minimum, a good defender at a crucial defensive position, center field.

WAR sounds combative and scary. It’s just how many wins, by our best estimate, he was worth over an average player.  It’s not perfect, but it’s interesting. Jim Edmonds was worth 68.3 WAR. That’s eighth all-time among center fielders and 14th among players not in the hall of fame. Everyone above him will or should be in the hall of fame. By that measure he was more valuable than Manny Ramirez.

The dorks won’t keep Jim Edmonds out of the hall of fame. The “I know what I saw damnit!” guys and the people who think the total number of hits is meaningful probably will.

Statistics are merely a tool to understand baseball. Dicks use them frequently to dispel everything sacred, but in Jim Edmonds’ case they help us understand and contextualize a player we should have better appreciated.

[Photo via Getty]

 

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