Jim Edmonds retired with 68 rWAR. (You can probably find me waving around this extremely satisfying number—60 WAR being the super-rough in-and-out line for Hall of Fame discussions—in several posts on Viva El Birdos.) In 2012, still retired, his bat and his glove collapsed all at once, and he had 57.3 rWAR. He's gotten back in shape since then, to his credit, and although his wins above average have declined slightly he's now back over the 60 WAR line.
I don't bring this up because I enjoy scoring Andy-Rooney-style points on WAR; I don't even bring it up because I know it to have disproportionately affected Jim Edmonds. I bring it up because the Hall of Fame case for Jim Edmonds is marginal—it's not obvious and it's not simple, and much of it is carried in the wins that slosh around the rim of the bucket when we refine our defensive metrics or adjust our park effects. Cut 10 WAR from Albert Pujols's career—say, all the suspiciously brilliant defense at first base—and you've changed nothing. Donate it to Fred McGriff and you've made two Hall of Famers.
You should be nervous about making a marginal Hall of Fame case, in the same way you should be nervous when you begin drawing huge crowds to your fiery speeches about national unity in the mid '30s. Each one builds on the last until the thing moves under its own power; by the time you're done you've elected Jim Rice and above-average Red Sox are marching through your capital.
It's easy to make the case for one not-quite-great player as a Hall of Famer, and it's hard not to prove too much, to inadvertently make the case for ten not-quite-great players. You're duck-walking around the Groucho Marx problem, trying very hard to find the one club rarefied enough for your player that would have him as a member.
Almost three quarters of position players with 70 WAR are in the Hall of Fame; about two-thirds of position players with 60 WAR; a little over half of position players with 50 WAR.
Jim Edmonds bobs up and down in the part of this chart where we are asked to draw a line somewhere between Richie Ashburn (63.4) and Willie Davis (60.5) and Bobby Abreu (59.9) and Darrell Evans (58.5) and Robin Ventura (55.9), among others. Even up where he used to sit there's Kenny Lofton (68.2) and Graig Nettles (68) and Duke Snider (66.5) and Buddy Bell (66.1). And I haven't even gotten to FanGraphs yet, or to the Veterans Committee picks that dot the 40s and 30s and 20s of the WAR rolls.
We can and should cut down the noise—and hopefully not too much of the signal—by looking at other things: his place relative to other center fielders, his disproportionate number of wins above average, rather than replacement level. But what we're getting at by then is not, or not entirely, a dispassionate analysis of the facts. It's an attempt (mostly successful and mostly justified) to read onto the facts our sense that Jim Edmonds—almost entirely during the five years between 2000 and 2004—was as good as nearly anybody, and that that should mean something.
And when we begin describing Jim Edmonds as a Hall of Famer this way we're accepting (finally) that our Hall of Fame campaign requires its own set of standards, and not just a broadside against the ones our predecessors came up with. It's not enough to find that Jim Edmonds is as good as a lot of Hall of Famers, and that on center field leaderboards he is all that stands between Ken Griffey, Jr., and the rest of the universe.
For going on 10 years of Jim Edmonds Hall of Fame advocacy I stopped there, and I have the continuing evolution of WAR to thank for pushing me to recognize that in believing Jim Edmonds is a Hall of Famer I am advocating for other things, as well—a somewhat larger hall, maybe, or one that adjusts the balance between career-long greatness and momentary brilliance, but nothing so simple as an objectively smarter and better one than everybody else's.
A Hall of Fame is supposed to be a celebration of the very best a field has to offer, and given enough voters of different backgrounds and preferences maybe it can be. In practice, though, mostly alone, we spend our time carving adjectives onto the plaques we don't share in common. Our Halls of Fame spring up around our marginal Hall of Famers.
Jim Edmonds is mine. 60 WAR sounds about right because he has it; focusing on peak greatness works for me because that's one of the things I most want to remember about the players I loved watching. If your Hall of Fame is different from mine I'll bet I find a different marginal Hall of Famer at the back of it, and a different picture of baseball fandom, and that's why they give both or neither of us a vote.
Legends are tainted by stubborn good-faith attempts to make them loom larger in memory than they did in life; every time a boomer insists that nobody made real music before or after the Beatles a millennial is born who will wince every time "A Day in the Life" begins to play. Every time Sunny Jim Bottomley comes up, Sunny Jim Bottomley who hit 20 triples and 31 home runs in a season, who once drove in 12 runs in a game, it's as an example of somebody who shouldn't be a Hall of Famer. His admirers polished his reputation until the finish rubbed off.
There are standards for the Hall of Fame, then, and we can find them by looking at what's come before us—but we change them by looking at them in a way that's maddening when the solid parts of your case, the numbers that gave you a reason to push forward, shift and settle too.
Jim Edmonds wasn't as good as Ken Griffey, Jr, and he wasn't obviously better, as far as I can tell, than Kenny Lofton or Carlos Beltran or Andruw Jones. He could be an excellent Hall of Famer, neither the best selection nor the worst omission the voters will make in the next five years. And silhouetted against his peers he was a remarkable player, daring and reckless and inexplicably patient. Anyone who actually gambled as much as Jim Edmonds seemed to—swinging at a high fastball, chasing a pitch he should play off the wall—would have run out of his hitting coach's patience or through a brick wall by 25. At 25 Jim Edmonds was, instead, in the process of discovering whatever it was that cheated the house out of its advantage until he was 40—the marked cards, the extra information we didn't have when his heel popped up and he readied himself to swing at a pitch that seemed hopeless from where we sat.
The numbers justify his election, but they don't justify the campaigning, all the posts and tweets we'll make supporting it and the comments we'll leave when voters don't. Electing him is only the beginning; Frankie Frisch, backed by the full faith and credit of the Veterans Committee, could not make us care about Ross Youngs. We'll have to pass along the numbers, and the memories, and all the highlight videos. We'll have to explain why Jim Edmonds is a Hall of Famer, and then we'll have to explain what a Hall of Famer is.