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.

Ripken does not live by 2,131 alone

With his parents Vi and Cal, Sr. behind them, Cal Ripken, Jr. accepts congratulations from Joe DiMaggio, whose teammate’s streak Ripken had just broken 25 years ago.

After the game in which Cal Ripken, Jr. passed Lou Gehrig for consecutive major league games played, Joe DiMaggio—Gehrig’s teammate from 1936-39—spoke to the jammed Camden Yards crowd. He opened his on-field tribute by quoting Gehrig’s Yankee Stadium monument.

“A man, a gentleman, and a great ball player whose amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time,” the monument still reads, beneath a bronze impression of Gehrig’s face beneath his Yankee cap. DiMaggio finished quoting the sentence, then tilted his head a bit to his right.

The Clipper arched his right eyebrow, as if in slightly bemused disbelief. He pursed his lips into a half-mischievious, half-astonished look on the face age softened into a kind of regal handsomeness. As the crowd began to cheer again, he continued.

“Well, that goes to prove even the greatest records are made to be broken,” said the man whose own record 56-game hitting streak was once thought more likely to fall before Gehrig’s consecutive game streak. “And . . . wherever my former teammate Lou Gehrig is today, I’m sure he’s tipping his cap to you, Cal Ripken.”

Ripken’s father, Cal, Sr., an Oriole legend in his own right as a longtime minor league manager and teacher, stood behind DiMaggio beaming as DiMaggio turned to the son who’d just “reached the unreachable star,” as ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman said the moment 2,131 became an official game.

Ripken himself smiled in both relief and a little bit of awe as DiMaggio continued, “He’s a one in a million ballplayer, who came along to break [Gehrig’s] record, and my congratulations to you, Cal, you certainly deserve this lasting tribute.”

DiMaggio was 6’2″ in his playing days. Ripken was 6’4″ as he remains today, so far. Thanks to age, DiMaggio now stood a full head shorter as he shook hands with Ripken’s parents. He hadn’t just come forth to give a formal scripted tribute. The Clipper had watched the entire game (so had fellow Hall of Famers Frank and Brooks Robinson, the latter in the Orioles broadcast booth), including Ripken’s hefty drive halfway up the left field seats in the bottom of the fourth.

In game terms the Orioles’ 4-2 win meant almost nothing in their American League East standings, headed as they were for a third-place finish fifteen games behind the eventual East champion Boston Red Sox. The California Angels, in first place in the AL West that night, ended up finishing a game behind the champion Seattle Mariners after they couldn’t force a playoff game against Hall of Famer Randy Johnson.

But in baseball terms, of course, Ripken’s achievement meant more than the outcome of any pennant race or World Series. In the aftermath of a players’ strike that disillusioned the country, abetted no end by a sporting press two thirds of which at least bought into the owners’ insistence that the players stop them before they overspent yet again, Ripken told his country and the world it was more than okay to love the game all over again.

“My favorite piece of memorabilia of my years playing is the lithograph of him hitting that home run off me that he had signed for me the next year,” says Shawn Boskie, the Angels pitcher who surrendered that fourth-inning bomb, as part of The Athletic‘s remarkable oral history of the record night. “The biggest thing that can be said is that the electricity and the anticipation for that game, building up to that moment, is something that I would expect I’ll never see again.”

Ripken wasn’t always understood so well until he finally did pass Gehrig. For months he’d had to put up with notions from intelligentsia and fans alike that he was putting himself ahead of his team. The consummate team player, who’d been raised to believe that being an everyday player meant just that so long as you could play, must have bristled under that unwarranted lash.

He turned 35 shortly before he consummated the streak. He wasn’t having a classic Ripken year in a season shortened to 144 games by the hangover of the strike. To this day, he doesn’t buy the selfishness argument.

“I always thought my job was (as) a player. My job was to come to the ballpark ready to play, and the streak was not created because I dictated I was going to play,” he said for The Athletic‘s oral history.

It was created because I brought value to each and every day. The manager chose me . . . It was more about being there for the team and you could even make the case that it was a little bit more unselfish than selfish. But I endured the criticism. People enjoyed taking that position when it happened. And I always thought your best protection against that was to get out of your slump. As soon as you got out of your slump, all of that stuff went away.

Ken Rosenthal, today an Athletic writer and Fox Sports broadcaster but then covering the Orioles for the Baltimore Sun, understands well. “Whether it was a worthwhile endeavor or not, whether he could have had an even better career,” he said for the oral history, “we can debate that until we’re blue in the face.”

His point always was, ‘Hey, if my manager feels that I’m the best guy to be out there, well, that’s it.’ It wasn’t always that simple, of course, because managers felt afraid, I think, to (not start him). But I remember (former Orioles manager) Johnny Oates always saying, ‘Hey man, two outs in the ninth, that’s where I want the ball hit.’ And even when he wasn’t hitting, that was always the case. It was just a remarkable accomplishment. … It was a testament to his toughness, his mental strength, all of the physical attributes, everything. Just to do it was unreal.

Ripken would finish his career with 431 home runs, hitting 353 of them as a regular shortstop—ahead of Alex Rodriguez (345 as a regular shortstop) and fellow Hall of Famer Ernie Banks (298 as a regular shortstop). Remember: he was the prototype of the big man who could play a field position formerly governed by not-so-big men with spaghetti bats. Eight men have finished careers with 3,000+ hits and 400+ home runs; Ripken’s the only mostly middle infielder in the pack.

Baseball Reference defines fielding runs as the number of runs saved above the league average based on how many plays you make. Ripken’s 181 lifetime are behind only two shortstops, ever: his Oriole predecessor Mark Belanger* (238) and his fellow Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith (239). Belanger’s Oriole predecessor, Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio (who did most of his best work for the White Sox previously), is 27 behind Ripken.

For those willing to set aside Alex Rodriguez’s baggage, know that A-Rod isn’t even among the top 24 shortstops for fielding runs. He’s barely among the top one hundred. (His career total: +18.) We now know that those Seattle seasons during which he was hyped as possibly the greatest all-around shortstop of all time in the making was just that, hype.

Without the complete defensive numbers for Hall of Famer Honus Wagner (fielding runs weren’t even considered in his time, and Wagner’s only eleventh all-time in range factor, 23rd in career assists, and 79th in double plays turned, if that helps), we may or may not be able to say Ripken is the greatest all-around shortstop who ever played the game in any era. But it’s very safe to say he’s the absolute best all-around shortstop of the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era. No questions asked.

Would Ripken have done even better, after his throwing arm finally began resigning after all those years and games, had he been moved to second base instead of third for his final five and a half seasons? Would he have been healthy enough to hit 500+ if he had taken time off when injured? We’ll never know. We don’t have to know, either.

Once upon a time, reviewing DiMaggio’s war-interrupted career, Bill James suggested that times come when we shouldn’t measure a player “by what he could have done, by what he should have done, by what he would have done, but what he did done.” Ripken did done an awful lot more than just put on a two-decade show of physical and mental endurance.

He earned the right to be measured by far more than just what proved to be 2,632 consecutive games played before he finally took himself out of the lineup. He shakes out on the evidence as the number three shortstop ever to play the game. (A-Rod and the Flying Dutchman are ahead of him only because of their bats; Ripken has more defensive wins above replacement-level than a) the pair of them and b) any shortstop other than Belanger and Smith.) He didn’t get there only by showing up to work every day.

Twenty-five years later, Ripken doesn’t have to apologise to anyone or justify himself for hanging in tough and proud enough to break Lou Gehrig’s streak. He did it in honest competition; he came out of far fewer games than Gehrig actually did. It wasn’t Gehrig’s fault that an insidious disease ended his streak and career at once; it wasn’t a black mark against Ripken that his health allowed the Iron Bird to pass the Iron Horse.

Joe DiMaggio was right—Gehrig probably did tip his cap from the Elysian Fields to Ripken that night. Today, from those same Elysian Fields, Gehrig and DiMaggio will both tip their caps. So will every Oriole in uniform at Camden Yards this afternoon—when the Orioles play the Yankees.

The only shame in either the streak itself or its silver anniversary is that the coronavirus world tour continues keeps fans out of the ballparks. The idea of canned noise of a standing ovation celebrating Ripken this afternoon somehow seems as fraudulent as Ripken’s achievement wasn’t.


* So why isn’t Mark Belanger—clearly Ozzie Smith’s near-equal as a defensive shortstop—in the Hall of Fame, despite the Hall more recently taking defense, preventing runs, far more seriously than it had during his era?

I suspect three reasons:

1) He couldn’t hit even compared to Ozzie Smith, who laboured to improve as a hitter as his career went on.

2) His career ended before the advent of the ESPN/SportsCenter/cable era that so boosted Smith as Smith’s career really began taking off, leaving Belanger’s own acrobatic defense away from reaching the audiences outside Baltimore that it should have reached. He won eight Gold Gloves at shortstop but never made an All-Star team, so he never got even that chance before national television audiences.

3) He only appeared in two World Series almost a decade apart, the second toward the end of his career. He didn’t really have the chances Brooks Robinson, his Hall of Fame partner at third base, had to show the country beyond Baltimore [in the 1966, 1969, and 1970 World Series] what he was made of in the field in the pre-cable era.