It seemed as if Omar Vizquel played forever and, sort of, he did, for parts of 24 MLB seasons. He debuted in 1989 with Seattle Mariners a few weeks before his 22nd birthday and continued to play until he was 45 years old, finishing his career in 2012 with the Toronto Blue Jays. He is currently being featured on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot for the first time and, like Jack Morris before him, has become the at the center of the debate between the community of sabermetricians and people who follow their instincts and the eye test when evaluating a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy.
Morris, who was inducted to the Hall of Fame last month by the Eras Committee, was considered the ultimate big-game pitcher; he was an ace, a workhorse, a perennial starter for his teams on Opening Day. Vizquel was looked upon as a defensive artist, a sure-handed acrobat whose wizardry with the glove evoked comparisons to the great Ozzie Smith.
What is the similarity between an innings-eating starting pitcher from the 1980’s/1990’s and a defensive-minded shortstop from the 1990’s/2000’s? The similarity is that each has a career WAR (Wins Above Replacement) that is significantly lower than most enshrined Hall of Famers at their respective positions. For both players, there are a large contingent of passionate supporters and detractors. Morris, who spent 15 years on the baseball writers’ ballot, topped out at 68% of the vote (out of a needed 75%) in 2013. He will finally get his Cooperstown plaque this summer because he earned the vote last month of 14 out of 16 members of the Modern Baseball Committee, a committee which included Hall of Fame players against whom he competed.
Morris had a career WAR of 43.8; Vizquel’s was 45.3. While he was on the writers’ ballot, Morris was a turned into the poster child of a culture war between the analytics community who believe in WAR and others who wonder what it’s good for.
Vizquel, a flashy defensive player at shortstop, was considered the natural heir to Smith. Omar and Ozzie. Vizquel and the Wizard. The Viz and the Wiz. Ozzie was known for his signature back-flips. Omar was known for his acrobatic play and, in particular, his ability to cleanly field a bouncing ball with his bare right hand and throw to first base in one fluid motion.
Vizquel, on the ballot for the first time, is currently tracking at just under 30% of the vote, according to Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame Tracker. That total puts him far below the 75% total necessary for election to the Hall of Fame but it’s not a bad opening salvo. Many players who eventually made the Hall via the BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America) started with a first-year total less than that.
The product of Caracas, Venezuela has a devoted legion of backers who feel like he was the best defensive shortstop not named Ozzie that they ever saw. At the same time, he has a large contingent of critics who claim that his defensive prowess was overrated and that he wasn’t nearly proficient enough with the bat to merit a Cooperstown plaque.
In this piece, we’ll take a look at both sides of the Vizquel argument.
(Some portions of this piece were originally published in October and have been updated).
Cooperstown Cred: Omar Vizquel
- 11 Gold Gloves, 2nd most ever for a shortstop (Ozzie Smith had 13)
- Career: .9847 fielding percentage (best for all MLB shortstops in baseball history) (min. 500 games)
- Led league in fielding percentage 6 times
- 2,709 games played at shortstop (most all-time)
- 1,744 career double plays turned (most for SS all-time)
- Career .272 hitter, 404 stolen bases
- 2,877 career hits (5th most ever among MLB shortstops, behind Jeter, Wagner, Ripken, Yount)
(Cover photo: cleveland.com)
Born on April 24, 1967 (one day before the author of this piece, incidentally), Omar Vizquel made his MLB debut with the Seattle Mariners on April 3, 1989, 21 days shy of his 22nd birthday. Vizquel’s debut occurred on the same day as the major league debut of his highly heralded teammate, Ken Griffey Jr. In his rookie campaign, Vizquel mostly fielded his position well but contributed virtually nothing offensively, hitting .220 with a .273 on-base% and a .261 slugging%. Statistically, for a player with at least 400 plate appearances, it was the second worst offensive season in the first 14 years of Mariners’ baseball, second only to the 1979 campaign of Mario Mendoza.
Because of an injured knee, Vizquel didn’t join the Mariners in 1990 until July 5th. In a half season in ’90 and a full season in 1991, Vizquel emerged as one of the best defensive shortstops in the game but still contributed very little offensively. In his first three seasons, with 1,198 plate appearances, the young shortstop managed just a .230 average, .290 on-base% and .283 slugging%, which translates to a woeful ballpark-adjusted OPS+ of 60 (which is far, far below the league average of 100).
“Little O” quickly gained a reputation for being a slick fielder as a young player. It’s difficult to fully trust defensive metrics (especially prior 2002) but, according to the “Zone Runs at SS” metric on Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, Vizquel was a top 4 shortstop in the American League in each year from 1990 to 1993.
In 1992, Vizquel had a mini-breakthrough with the bat, hitting .294. He regressed a bit offensively in 1993, his his fifth year in the majors, but his reputation as a sterling defender was growing. It was in ’93 that Vizquel won the first of his nine consecutive Gold Gloves.
The Mariners weren’t a very good team in Omar’s years there but these were the early years of ESPN’s Baseball Tonight, affording fans throughout the nation to see his or any other player’s spectacular plays on a nightly basis, including West Coast games in-progress.
In April 1993, the nation got the opportunity to see Vizquel’s signature defensive move on the last out of Chris Bosio’s no-hitter on April 22. Click here to watch Vizquel’s bare-handed catch and throw to preserve the no-no.
After the ’93 season, Vizquel was traded to Cleveland in exchange for another Latin American shortstop (Dominican-born Felix Fermin) and first baseman Reggie Jefferson. Let’s just say that trade was not a good one for the Mariners.
Vizquel spent 11 productive seasons with the Indians, winning seven Gold Gloves while appearing in the post-season six times and the World Series twice, though his teams never won the Fall Classic. The Indians were a team that was filled with offensive stars (Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Eddie Murray, Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga). Being a solid contributor defensively was just what the doctor ordered and Vizquel was that.
On the 1995 team (which went 100-44 in a strike-shortened season and made it to the World Series before falling to the Atlanta Braves), Vizquel was installed by manager Mike Hargrove as the Tribe’s 2nd-place hitter, Although hardly a star offensively, Vizquel made modest contributions, setting career highs with 6 home runs, 28 doubles, 56 RBI, 87 runs scored and 29 stolen bases. In the ’95 post-season, Vizquel struggled mightily with the stick, hitting just .138 in 58 at bats.
In 1996, Vizquel established career highs for his entire slash line (.297 BA, .362 OBP, .417 SLG) while scoring 98 runs. His offensive numbers declined slightly in 1997 but he still contributed 89 runs scored, helped by a career-high 43 stolen bases. The ’97 Indians returned to the Fall Classic but fell short again, this time in 7 Games to the Florida Marlins.
In 1998, with Hargrove skippering the team, Vizquel made his first All-Star squad. With Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra re-defining the position, it was not easy for an American League shortstop to make the Mid-Summer Classic in the late 1990’s. Still, Vizquel made it back in ’99, in which he had the best year offensively in his career, establishing 24-year highs across his slash line (.333 BA, .397 SLG, .436 SLG), along with 42 steals and career bests in hits (191) and runs scored (112). His WAR of 6.0 was good enough for 11th best in the entire American League (for both pitchers and position players). For his efforts, Vizquel finished 16th in the MVP voting.
1999 was also the season in which Vizquel welcomed a future Hall of Fame double-play partner in switch-hitter Roberto Alomar. Like Omar, Robby dominated the Gold Glove Awards during this era, winning 10 awards in 11 years between 1991-2001. In the three years the slick-fielding duo played together (1999-2001), they became the first keystone combination to win three straight Gold Gloves together since the 1970’s, when Joe Morgan and Dave Concepcion were each awarded the hardware for four years in a row in the N.L. (1974-77); Bobby Grich and Mark Belanger also did it in the Junior Circuit from 1973 to 76.
In the years that followed his signature 1999 campaign, Omar was unable to maintain his All-Star batting form and his base-running game declined as well. After averaging .300 with 39 stolen bases per year from 1996-99, he fell to .269 with 15 steals per year from 2000-03. Still, in 2002 he made his third and final All-Star squad in a season in which he set career highs with 14 HR and 72 RBI. 2002, however, was the year that his streak of 9 straight Gold Gloves came to an end (Rodriguez won it in 2002 and ’03).
After a solid age-37 campaign (in 2004), Vizquel left the American League, signing a 3-year contract with the San Francisco Giants, where he would win his final two Gold Gloves. He spent four seasons in the City by the Bay before spending his final four seasons bouncing from the Rangers to the White Sox to the Blue Jays.
In his first two seasons with the Giants, besides winning the Gold Glove hardware, Vizquel was respectable offensively. However, starting in 2007, despite still playing well in the field, Little O started to become an offensive liability. Over 6 seasons (as a mostly part-time player), he posted a woeful slash line (.250 BA, .305 OBP, .310 SLG), which translated to a 63 OPS+. According to Baseball Reference’s Player Index (as ranked by OPS+ and the batting component of WAR), Vizquel was the third least effective offensive player in baseball for that six-year period.
Vizquel retired after the 2012 season at the tender age of 45.
Making the Hall of Fame Case for Omar Vizquel
I never considered Vizquel to be a Hall of Fame player but many people do. I was struck by a column I read last January, shortly after the 2017 vote was announced, in which espn.com’s Jayson Stark said that Vizquel would get a check-mark next to his name on his 2018 Hall of Fame ballot.
Stark’s primary case was, of course, about Vizquel’s defensive prowess, that he was the most sure-handed shortstop of all-time. Stark acknowledged that Vizquel’s defensive range statistics showed that he actually wasn’t a modern Ozzie Smith but that “nobody was.” Stark noted that Vizquel had three seasons in which he played at least 140 games and had less than 5 errors, which is more than all other shortstops since 1900 combined. Stark ultimately did not vote for Vizquel (a casualty of the 10-player limit) but his column woke this writer up to the idea that his Cooperstown candidacy should be taken seriously.
There are some lists upon which Vizquel sits that speak positively to his Hall of Fame candidacy:
- He’s one of only 19 players to last long enough to accumulate over 12,000 plate appearances. All of the others are in the Hall of Fame except for gambling-tainted Pete Rose, PED-tainted Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro and the non-yet-eligible Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.
- He’s one of 7 position players to win at least 11 Gold Gloves. The only one not in the Hall is Keith Hernandez, who played first base, a much less important position on the defensive spectrum.
- He is one of 11 shortstops to get over 2,500 career hits. All of the others (except not eligible Jeter and A-Rod) are in the Hall of Fame.
- He had 2,877 career hits. The only players with more who do NOT have a plaque in Cooperstown are either ineligible (Rose), not YET eligible (Jeter, Rodriguez, Ichiro Suzuki, Adrian Beltre, Albert Pujols) or tainted by PED’s (Bonds and Palmerio). You might be amused to know that he had four more career hits than Babe Ruth. The Bambino, of course, had a few more home runs.
Some viewpoints of the scribes who checked Omar’s name on their ballots:
“Vizquel was the Ozzie Smith of his day. His shortstop play was ridiculous for a long time and his 2,877 career hits are proof that he was no easy out.”
— Randy Miller (NJ.com, 12/27/17)
“A consummate fielder — I said consummate — fielder, and teamed with Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar to form the best DP combo I ever saw. Yes, I am partial to defensive whizzes, and I refuse to apologize for it.”
— Bob Ryan (Boston Globe, 1/8/18)
Anyway, if Ozzie Smith is the most germane comparison, let’s stack up their numbers against each other, remembering of course that, for each, it’s the more difficult to measure defensive skills that are at the core of their greatness. Just going by the hardware, Ozzie finished his career with 13 Gold Glove Awards, two more than Omar’s 11.
First, the offensive profiles:
Well, if you just look at that, Omar Vizquel looks pretty good. Vizquel’s statistical profile, in fact, matches up very well in comparison to multiple already-enshrined Hall of Fame shortstops. On Baseball Reference, every player profile contains something called “Similarity Scores.” This was a Bill James invention designed to simply compare the statistical profiles of two players. If you are interested in the details, the methodology is linked here. If you’re not, here’s the short version: you start with 1,000 points and deduct points for each statistical discrepancy; for example, if Player A had 15 more hits than Player B, you would deduct one point, two points if the difference was 30 hits, etc. The formula includes 13 offensive categories.
Anyway, here is the list of the top 8 players with the most “similar” offensive profiles to Omar Vizquel:
- Luis Aparicio
- Rabbit Maranville
- Ozzie Smith
- Bill Dahlen
- Dave Concepcion
- Luke Appling
- Pee Wee Reese
- Nellie Fox
With the exception of Concepcion and Dahlen (a turn of the 19th century player), all of the most “similar” players have plaques with their names on it in the Hall of Fame.
The Case Against Omar Vizquel for the Hall of Fame
With 11 Gold Gloves and nearly 2,900 hits as a shortstop, that should be enough for a Hall of Fame plaque, right? Well, not so fast, there are three major problems.
- Some of the defensive metrics don’t back up Vizquel’s reputation as an all-time premier defender. I realize that this will be a point of contention for many people since defense is more difficult to quantify numerically.
- On balance, he was not helpful to his teams offensively.
- Finally, while the game’s coaches and managers gave Vizquel all of that hardware shaped as a glove, the writers who covered the sport did not accord that same respect when it came time to cast MVP votes. Only once (in 1999) did Vizquel receive any MVP consideration at all. In addition, he only made 3 All-Star teams in 24 years.
We’ll go through each of these objections one at a time, starting with the criticism that his defense wasn’t perhaps as great as our memories of it.
The Basic Defensive Statistics
At the most basic level there is this: as of the end of the 2017 season, Vizquel’s fielding percentage of .9847 is the best in the history of baseball for shortstops. Considering that the Baseball Reference page that lists him at #1 only requires 500 games played to be eligible for the list, his spot on top is even more impressive because he maintained that success over the course of 2,709 games. This statistic is the one that most certainly forms the primary basis for the 11 Gold Gloves.
Vizquel wasn’t always so sure-handed. In his first eight seasons, his fielding percentage was .979, still excellent but only .008 better than the league average. Since turning 30 years of age, however, he posted an astounding .988 fielding percentage. That might seem like a trivial difference, but it isn’t. It’s remarkable.
- 1989-1996: in 1,008 games played, Vizquel committed 95 errors at shortstop.
- 1997-2004: he committed just 88 miscues in 1,701 games at the position.
As we’ve learned over time, there is much more to defensive excellence than not making errors. Omar was never at the top when it comes to metrics that relate to his range factor. Bill James made us aware of Range Factor as early as the 1980’s in his annual Baseball Abstract, must-reads for yours truly as a teenager. Unlike most of the modern metrics, Range Factor is pretty simple to understand:
Range Factor per 9 innings = 9 *(putouts + assists)/innings played
In his career, Vizquel’s Range Factor per 9 innings was 4.62. The league average over those 24 seasons was 4.61. This essentially means that Vizquel, over his entire career, was merely “average” when it comes to how many plays per 9 innings he was involved in.
What makes this metric meaningful in conjunction with Fielding Percentage is that a player with a super-high Fielding Percentage but a lower Range Factor can be fairly viewed as a player either with limited range or a cautious player. Having watched many of his games over the years, I’m inclined to view Vizquel as the cautious type.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Many infielders, in a futile attempt to make an impossible play, throw the ball away. Sometimes it’s better to eat it and allow the runner to reach base. My point is that, statistically, a super-high fielding percentage combined with a league average range factor is indicative of a smart player who makes lots of plays but doesn’t hurt his team by making foolish throws when there’s no chance for an out.
Taking a Deep Dive into WAR
Anyway, advanced metrics available to us now combine these factors into one number. A brief warning to those not statistically inclined: this is a really deep dive into the weeds. If that dive is too deep for you, feel free to scroll down to “The Accolades Problem.”
In the next table, there will be two metrics shown:
- “WAR Runs Fielding”: from Baseball Reference, the number of runs better or worse than average the player was for all fielding plays. This is one of the five elements that make up a position player’s WAR, the others being batting, base-running, double play avoidance, and positional adjustment.
- “Defensive WAR”: also from Baseball Reference, this is a “defense only” Wins Above Replacement calculation, adjusted for each position on the defensive spectrum.
I’m sharing the Top 15 for each category dating back to any player who debuted in 1902 or later. If you’re wondering why I picked the somewhat arbitrary year of 1902, it was to exclude Hall of Famer Bobby Wallace, who debuted in 1894. It’s nothing against Wallace, just wanted to limit this to the modern game. Also excluded by choosing 1902 instead of 1901 was George McBride, a lifetime .218 hitter who would not have made the top 10 in the defensive metrics and is not germane to this discussion.
As an aside, if you’re wondering why Jack Wilson, Rey Sanchez, and Andrelton Simmons crack the top 10 in WAR Runs Fielding but not in dWAR, it’s because of longevity. The dWAR metric gives players credit merely for playing the position of shortstop. Therefore, the more games you play, the more “position points” you get. This does mean that Wilson, Sanchez and Simmons (considered the best at his position in today’s game) were/are really spectacular defensive players and play for play, better than Vizquel (if you believe the metrics).
Longevity is important and most of the players on the Defensive WAR (dWAR) Top 15 list are in the Hall of Fame,. Therefore, it’s logical to conclude that Vizquel might belong in Cooperstown as well. Anyway, the numbers here generally back up Vizquel’s defensive reputation but there are some other players on this list who are not Hall of Famers, most notably Mark Belanger. It’s worth a moment to look at that.
The Offensive Record
So, let’s look at a few offensive numbers for the top 7 members of the dWAR leaders, the Hall of Famers on the list and also two members of Vizquel’s “similarity score” list (Concepcion and Appling). We’ll rank the players by OPS+ (on-base% + slugging% adjusted for ballparks and seasons).
First of all, we can see why comparing Mark Belanger to a prospective Hall of Fame shortstop with a defensive resume is not needed. The longtime Orioles shortstop may have won 8 Gold Gloves but a .228 career batting average and 68 OPS+ does not cut it.
What jumps out here regarding our man of the hour is that Vizquel’s 82 OPS+ is really poor but that it’s identical to two Hall of Fame shortstops (Aparicio and Maranville) and just a few ticks below that of the Wizard of Oz. So let’s shorten the list to those at the lower end of the chart with respect to offensive productivity and, if we can conclude that Vizquel is at the same caliber as the others, then perhaps he belongs in the Hall.
The chart below is a “WAR” chart. It shows each player’s overall WAR, their offensive WAR and also two key components that go into the offensive component (“runs above or below average batting” and “runs above or below average for base-running.”) The latter includes stolen bases, stolen base success percentage and extra bases taken, such as going from first to third on a single.
I’m adding one other player into the conversation here. It’s the longtime member of the 1970’s Oakland A’s dynasty, Bert Campaneris. He, like Vizquel, played a great many years on a team of superstars. Campy’s presence is germane because he is the only Hall of Fame eligible shortstop in the modern era with a WAR of over 50 who is not enshrined in Cooperstown.
OK, so now we understand, whether you believe in it or not, why WAR puts Vizquel 10 wins below his boyhood idol Aparicio (another Venezuelan product). Aparicio was better as a hitter and much better as a base-runner. Meanwhile, Ozzie Smith was also a superior batsman, a better base-runner and, of course, the owner of off-the-charts defensive metrics. Hence why Ozzie was a first-ballot Hall of Famer and Vizquel the subject to what may now seem to you (the reader) of an endless discussion of the topic. It’s also a fair question to ask whether Campaneris (who won three World Series titles) would be a better Hall of Fame choice than Vizquel.
As you can see from this and the previous chart, the player most truly similar to Vizquel is the Hall of Famer Maranville, who has been described by Bill James in The Historical Baseball Abstract as “one of baseball’s most famous clowns and eccentrics.” Rabbit is one of those first half of the 20th century Hall of Famers who probably would not have made it through today’s stacked ballots.
For whatever it’s worth, in 2000 James ranked Maranville as the 38th best shortstop of all-time, behind a great many non-Hall of Famers, including Campaneris, Concepcion, Jim Fregosi, Tony Fernandez and Jay Bell. In that same book, James ranked Vizquel #61 (acknowledging that his career was still in process) and wrote that “a couple of more good years will put him in the top 50.”
I need to put some perspective on the “WAR runs from batting” number. Minus 248 is really, really miserable, almost as miserable as Rabbit’s minus 228. Since 1901, there are have been 195 shortstops who have accumulated at least 3,000 plate appearances. Of those 195, Vizquel ranks #185 with respect to WAR runs gained or lost due to batting. That’s 11th to last in 117 years of baseball. That may seem hard to fathom for a man who racked up 2,877 hits but 79% of those hits were singles and Omar made a lot of outs along the way as well.
There are 27 players who finished their careers with between 2,700 and 2,999 hits. Of those 27 players, Vizquel is last in OPS and OPS+, by a lot. He made the most outs in this group. Of the 19 players with over 12,000 plate appearances, only he and Barry Bonds failed to make it to 3,000 hits (Bonds walked 2,558 times in his career, by far the most ever).
2,877 hits puts him in 43rd place all-time. The 43rd place-holder on the all-time home run list is Jason Giambi, who is one spot behind Dave Kingman. I’m sorry but 2,877 hits is not a legitimate offensive Cooperstown credential, not with a 82 OPS+.
In addition to his woeful offensive record, you might be surprised that Vizquel gets no credit from WAR for his base-running ability, despite his 404 career stolen bases. So, let’s stack him up against the others (excluding Maranville, because Caught Stealing statistics are not complete from the years that he played).
Well, here it is in a nutshell. Vizquel was successful only 71% of the time when attempting to steal. Any base-runner who is successful less than 75% of the time is not really helping his team. Aparicio and Ozzie, both near 80%, were assets on the bases in a way that Omar was not. In addition, taking an extra base was not something that Vizquel excelled at. An Extra Base Taken rate of 42% is a really low number for a player with good speed.
The Accolades Problem:
Summarizing what we’ve discussed, here are the arguments against Vizquel for the Hall of Fame:
- Not a good hitter: his career batting average (.272) and on-base% (.336) were about league average; his slugging % (.352) was poor.
- Not a great base-runner: 404 career steals negated by 171 times caught stealing for a middling 71% success rate.
- Sure-handed defender but one with merely average range: his career Range Factor (putouts + assists) of 4.62 per 9 innings was barely above league average.
- Never in contention for an MVP award and only made three All-Star squads.
Arguing in favor, it comes back once again to these three things:
- 11 Gold Gloves at one of the top two key defensive positions on the diamond.
- Highest fielding percentage at his position in the history of the sport.
- 2,877 hits, which is the most for any eligible player not in Cooperstown already except those tainted by scandal (Palmeiro, Bonds, Rose).
It’s the Gold Gloves that are key. They were conferred upon Vizquel by the collective will of the league’s players and coaches.
However, the BBWAA membership never saw fit to give Omar the same level of recognition when it came time to vote for the league’s Most Valuable Player each year. So finally, let’s look at Vizquel’s MVP problem, perhaps the biggest missing piece on his resume.
As we’ve seen, in 24 big league seasons, Vizquel’s best offensively 1999, when he hit .333, had a .397 on-base%, stole 42 bases and scored 112 runs. Still, even though he also occupied a key defensive position and was part of a flashy DP combo with Roberto Alomar, when it came time to select the MVP, Vizquel finished just 16th in the voting. He was overshadowed by two of his teammates (Alomar and Manny Ramirez) who finished tied for 3rd.
All in all, Omar’s 16th place finish put him just ahead of the legendary Matt Stairs, John Jaha and B.J. Surhoff. The rules for MVP voting have changed over the years and it’s actually hard to find the specific breakdown retroactively but, according to the LA Times, the 1999 vote allowed writers to rank players from 1-to-10, assigning more points the higher the rank. Vizquel got a total of three points, which means at best one 8th place vote, a 9th and 10th or three 10th place votes.
This is important: 1999 was the only time in his 24-year career that Omar Vizquel received even one MVP vote. Vizquel was considered one of the top 8-to-10 players in his league just once, and only one to three out of 28 writers had that opinion.
Now, regarding the MVP issue, it is fair to ask if there’s an anti-defensive player bias. So let’s look at that. The chart below shows the number of times that the Hall of Fame shortstops (and other wannabes we’ve discussed) since 1931 have received MVP votes and made the All-Star team. Why 1931? It was the first year that both leagues voted on an MVP without interruption in subsequent years.
Because I know you’re curious, I’ll throw Derek Jeter’s and Ernie Banks‘ accolades into the chart as well. Jeter, of course, isn’t eligible for the Hall of Fame yet and Banks actually played more games at 1st base in his career than shortstop. Still, his best years were in the middle of the infield so we’ll include him here. We’ll list the players in order of the number of career All-Star appearances.
We can see plainly that Omar Vizquel was never accorded even close to the same level of respect by the writers as other top shortstops in history when it came time to cast MVP votes or by the league managers when it was time to pick All-Stars. It’s not the writers voting for MVP simply ignored defensive-oriented players. Every single Hall of Fame shortstop since 1931 received some MVP love at least 6 times in their career.
One more look at the Defensive Metrics
So this is the bottom line. The biggest selling point for Omar Vizquel for Cooperstown are his 11 Gold Gloves, which is the 2nd most by any shortstop not named Ozzie Smith. But Gold Glove voting is a mostly subjective process, conducted by the league’s managers and coaches. Using objective methodology, even with the caveat that they can’t fully be trusted, this final chart shows where Vizquel ranked in Defensive WAR (dWAR) during his 11 Gold Glove seasons.
This is amazing chart and almost impossible to disregard. In the 11 years that Omar Vizquel won a Gold Glove, he never led his league in Defensive WAR and only finished in the top five twice. If Gold Gloves were handed out based on dWAR, he would have none instead of 11. Incidentally, Vizquel did finished second in dWAR in the A.L. in 1991 & 1992; he was second to Cal Ripken Jr., who won the Gold Glove in both of those years.
OK, so does that mean that dWAR is a useless statistic or does it mean that Vizquel’s greatness was overrated? Well, by point of comparison, Ozzie Smith (the undisputed gold standard at the position) won the Gold Glove award 13 times. In those 13 seasons, he led the National League in dWAR (among shortstops) 10 times and finished 2nd the other three times so, based on that information, it’s hard to simply dismiss the defensive metric dWAR as being categorically flawed.
The Wizard was famous for his acrobatic back flips that he performed to delight the crowd before the game. Vizquel also displayed an acrobatic flair in the field and reminded us all (players, coaches, managers, writers and fans) just a little bit of the great Ozzie. He established his golden reputation early in his career and the rep stuck with him. And he absolutely was an excellent defensive player.
I don’t profess to be an expert on how dWAR or “Total Zone Runs” are calculated but I think it’s likely that it underrates Vizquel’s sure-handedness, his extraordinary ability to minimize errors. However, is it also possible that the official scorers throughout the league gave him, based on his reputation, the benefit of the doubt on borderline “hit or error” scoring decisions? Yes, that’s very possible, even likely.
He was an excellent defensive player but he wasn’t so great that one can ignore that he was mediocre when it comes to the offensive side of the game and just average as a base-runner.
Conclusions and Cooperstown Prognosis
Despite the less than other-worldly defensive metrics and his obviously shortcomings with the bat, Vizquel is still doing quite well with the voters, tracking at just under 30% of the publicly revealed BBWAA vote. Compare that to the other defensive-oriented first-ballot candidates. 3rd Baseman Scott Rolen won 8 Gold Gloves, hit 316 home runs with a 122 career OPS+ and is tracking at just 12%. Center Fielder Andruw Jones won 10 Gold Gloves (and hit 434 home runs) and is in danger of falling off future ballots with less than 5% of the vote.
Vizquel has a significant number of advocates and, for those who have put their thoughts on paper, it’s usually about the “eye test.”
“Face it, Vizquel’s was his generation’s Ozzie Smith, or the closest facsimile… Stats are important, and newer metrics that better compare players through different eras are valuable. But they are the sum of a player’s career. If you use numbers alone to shunt Vizquel into that mythical Hall of the Very Good, it’s a fair bet you did not see him play. Sometimes a man is a Hall of Famer because, well, he just is.”
— Henry Schulman (San Francisco Chronicle, 12/26/17)
“A beautiful, acrobatic shortstop, Vizquel was one of those rarities you figured could play his position into his 60s… He was a great little shortstop all kids should know about.”
— Rick Telander (Chicago Sun-Times, 12/22/17)
“I have two very simple Hall of Fame criteria: The first is the ‘see’ test. In watching a player for 10 or more years, did I say to myself: ‘I’m looking at a Hall of Famer?’ The four greatest fielding shortstops I ever saw were Vizquel, Ozzie, Luis Aparicio and Mark Belanger. Ozzie had the flair and the back flips, but Vizquel, for me, was the best. Made every play look easy.”
— Bill Madden (New York Daily News, 12/8/17)
If the eye test is enough for Schulman, Telander, and Madden, that’s fine. They’ve been covering the sport for a long time and have earned their Hall of Fame votes. Their eyes and the opinions formed by them represent a legitimate point of view. But these gentlemen, veteran baseball writers all, are part of a fraternity that almost never considered him one of the top 10 players in the league.
In my view, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say “this guy isn’t one of the 10 best players in the league,” virtually ever, and then say “he’s one of the top 1% of all players in the history of the game.” That is inconsistent.
Omar Vizquel was a very good player and perhaps the most sure-handed shortstop in the history of the game. There is statistical evidence that his defensive prowess might be overrated and, with virtually no MVP votes in his entire career and no World Series titles, it’s hard to make a Hall of Fame case.
Despite all of this, nearly a third of the BBWAA electorate still likes Vizquel for the Hall. One of the leading authorities on the Hall of Fame (the author of The Cooperstown Casebook) draws this conclusion from his early vote total:
“It certainly points to the possibility of a long stay on the ballot for Vizquel, which will inevitably cause a ruckus in the battle between the eye-test crowd and the statheads, à la (Jack) Morris. It would be a shame if the debate becomes as shrill and polarizing as it did for Morris. Omar Vizquel was a fine ballplayer and an icon to his countrymen. He deserves to be remembered with respect, but his road should stop short of the Cooperstown dais.”
— Jay Jaffe (si.com, 12/6/17)
After 15 years of failure on the BBWAA ballot, Morris just got inducted to the Hall in his first crack at the modern-day Veterans Committee, which contained voters who were his fellow competitors on the diamond. Personally, I’ve been a long-time advocate for Morris. His case is very different and I invite you to hear my case by clicking here.
With respect to Omar Vizquel, I’m with Jaffe. He’s not a Hall of Famer. And I agree that it would be a shame if the debate becomes as polarizing as it did for Morris. Unfortunately, I think that outcome is the most likely of all.
Thanks for reading.