The right reason to send Vizquel to Cooperstown

Omar Vizquel leaping over Charlie Hayers to avoid getting clobbered while possible thinking double play turn in 1997.

Omar Vizquel’s Hall of Fame candidacy sometimes seems a product mostly of the perception that he was the second coming of a Hall of Fame shortstop whose career overlapped his for a few seasons. The perception comes mostly from Vizquel’s more voluminous presence on highlight reels.

It’s not that the Other Guy was obscure, of course, but the continuing metastasis of cable sports in the 1990s showed Vizquel’s acrobatics far more often than they showed the Other Guy’s—and the Other Guy got exposure enough by way of fans watching his teams play against three cable superstation teams, the Braves, the Cubs, and the Mets. (Not to mention a few World Series.)

When Sports Center and Baseball Tonight metastasised in the 1990s, so did the looks at Vizquel’s own acrobatics. They were real enough. And shown frequently enough, more so than the Other Guy got despite his teams’ contests against the superstation teams. That ubiquity of the highlight-reel plays made it simple to forget that Vizquel—who got to play in a few postseasons himself—had a modest throwing arm who made up for it with his field positionings and his marshmallow-soft hands.

What made him more delightful to watch, too, was that he was a not-so-huge guy (well, he’d resemble Hercules if positioned next to Jose Altuve) who played like a pest. He was at least as much fun to watch in the field as the Other Guy was, and it proved worth only two fewer Gold Gloves than the Other Guy won.

The perception of Vizquel also comes, I think, from people understanding how long it took the Hall of Fame and its voters to grok (with one or two exceptions) that preventing runs is just as important as producing them, and that Vizquel looked like one of the greatest run preventers you ever saw at his position. No point in your team putting up crooked numbers if they can’t keep the other guys from putting up just as many, right?

Right. And when it comes to what he did at the plate, Vizquel wasn’t exactly of the Cal Ripken, Jr. breed of big-hitting shortstops, but he was as close as you could get to the Other Guy. They were both slap-and-tickle hitters who knew how to reach base by hook, crook, and practically anything else available to them. They played with brains as well as arms, hands and legs.

Look at Vizquel and the Other Guy by way of their Real Batting Averages—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances. (Sorry, sac bunts aren’t included: these two guys were smart bunters, but I don’t give credit for surrendering precious outs deliberately.) This pair could be fraternal twins, practically.

If you disallow that Vizquel played mostly in a far more hitter-friendly time than the Other Guy did, the Other Guy hitting his mid-30s by the time his career careened into that hitter-friendlier time, there’s only a hair between Vizquel and the Other Guy. (The Other Guy hit most of his career in a far tougher park for hitters, too.) They both used up just about the same number of outs to produce at the plate, even if the Other Guy was a little better at taking walks:

Player PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Omar Vizquel 12,013 3,727 1,028 25 94 49 .409
The Other Guy 10778 3,084 1,072 79 63 33 .402

I don’t care that Vizquel came up 123 hits short of 3,000 lifetime. For one thing, the Other Guy would have crossed the 3,000 threshold if he’d gotten to play 24 seasons. Bank on it. For another thing, how many hits you get matter less than what you and those hits really did to help your teams win. Vizquel averaged 72 runs created a year; the Other Guy averaged 73. They were practically the same batter.

Did you know that once he reached base Omar Vizquel was worth +8 runs lifetime but the Other Guy was worth +102? Did you also know that Vizquel took extra bases on followup hits 42 percent of the time . . . but the Other Guy did it 53 percent of the time? Did you know Vizquel has a .707 stolen base percentage . . . but the Other Guy has a .797?

And we haven’t yet gone deeper into the number one factor that keeps people comparing Omar Vizquel to the Other Guy—defense. Vizquel was an above average defensive shortstop in his prime, but we need to remind ourselves this isn’t the Hall of Above Average. (It sure as hell isn’t the Hall of the Gold Watch, either, Harold Baines’s election notwithstanding.)

Vizquel’s prime didn’t last quite as long as the Other Guy, and he spent his final four seasons as a utility man while the Other Guy was kept strictly as a shortstop even when he became a part-timer in his final three or four seasons. So let’s look at whether Vizquel really was the second coming of the Other Guy at shortstop.

Uh-oh.

Vizquel totals +128 putting total zone runs and defensive runs above average together—but the Other Guy totals +110 more. Vizquel’s range factor is 0.1 above league average—but the Other Guy is 0.44 above average. It isn’t even that close between Vizquel and the Other Guy, and close counts only in horseshoes, hand grenades, nuclear weapons, and bad plate umpire pitch calling.

It’s even less close between Vizquel and Mark Belanger, a shortstop whose prime preceded the Other Guy’s but whose all-time high of +241 total zone/defensive runs above average (113 more than Vizquel) still won’t put him into the Hall of Fame because of one problem: compared to Belanger, Vizquel and the Other Guy hit like Cal Ripken, Jr.

(It’s the same thing that keeps Clete Boyer out of the Hall of Fame: Boyer may have been the greatest defensive third baseman ever, even better than Brooks Robinson, but 1) Robinson could and did hit a lot more than a little; and, 2) Boyer couldn’t hit if you paid him by contact frequency.)

And I haven’t even thought about wins above replacement-level player until now. Well, now. Vizquel’s 45.6 career WAR are 1) 31.3 fewer than the Other Guy; and, 2) 21.9 below the average Hall of Fame shortstop. His 26.8 seven-season peak WAR are 1) 15.7 below the Other Guy; and, 2) 16.3 below the average Hall of Fame shortstop’s seven-season peak. (For the record: Vizquel broke into his league’s top ten WAR only once; the Other Guy did it six times.)

The Other Guy, of course, is Ozzie Smith.

(And we didn’t even think about Smith’s famous cartwheeling back flips out to his position for the home fans.)

I’m not arguing against Vizquel being elected to Cooperstown. The Hall of Fame should continue recognising run prevention as equal to run creation and run production. (If nothing else, it’s the number one reason Rabbit Maranville made it into the Hall of Fame on deep thought: he couldn’t hit if you set the ball on a tee for him, but Maranville was a reputed gazelle at shortstop.) Vizquel was the best defensive shortstop of the 1990s and the early Aughts.

But electing the Little O to the Hall of Fame on the grounds that he was the second coming of the Wizard of Oz would be false. There hasn’t been a shortstop yet who’s that second coming, and you don’t have to be the new Wiz to earn a Cooperstown plaque. Elect Vizquel for who he really was, not for whom you only think he was.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s