Monday, September 24, 2012
Omar Vizquel and the Hall of Fame
By David Schoenfield
Omar Vizquel won 11 Gold Gloves in his career. Will that get him elected to Cooperstown?
A few weeks ago, Joe Posnanski challenged his readers to construct a Hall of Fame argument for Jack Morris. The catch: Whatever your framework for Morris as a Hall of Famer, you then had to agree that any pitcher who also met those criteria should also be a Hall of Famer. So, for example, if your argument is that "Morris won 254 games," any pitcher with more wins should also be in Cooperstown (Jamie Moyer, Jim Kaat, Tommy John and others). As Posnanski wrote, you also end up with issues like Bob Forsch winning more games than Sandy Koufax or Jerry Reuss winning more games than Pedro Martinez if you apply the framework to other pitchers.
You can read the whole post and reader comments here. That idea leads me to Omar Vizquel, who is winding down the final days of his 24-year career. It's actually fairly easy to construct a Hall of Fame framework for Vizquel: Any position player with at least 10 Gold Gloves is clearly one of the greatest fielders of all time and merits a Hall of Fame selection purely on his fielding ability. The list of those with at least 10 Gold Gloves:
Most of those guys are already in the Hall of Fame or will eventually get elected. OK, you'd have to include Keith Hernandez (who peaked at 10.8 percent of the vote but was a fine player and MVP winner) and Andruw Jones (Willie Mays-like in center field and has more than 400 home runs).
So that wouldn't be so bad. We have to include the "10 Gold Gloves" corollary, because you once you get below that you start getting to names like Don Mattingly and Torii Hunter (nine Gold Gloves) or George Scott, Mark Belanger and Frank White (eight apiece), players who don't really fit a Hall of Fame profile.
Of course, Vizquel's Hall of Fame currency doesn't solely reside on his defense. You could add a few other things:
1. Played more games at shortstop than any other player.
2. Ranks 41st on the all-time hits list (2,874) and 78th all time in runs scored (1,444).
3. Key member of six division winners with Cleveland.
4. .272 career hitter with more than 400 stolen bases, so not a complete zero on offense.
There are probably a few other things you could add on his ledger, but those are the big ones.
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When Vizquel joins the ballot in a few years, his candidacy -- like the one with Morris -- will spark an intense debate, divided among old-school purists and new-school statheads. When it comes to career Wins Above Replacement, Vizquel does not fare particulary well: His 40.6 Baseball-Reference WAR, while higher than some of the more marginal Hall of Famers, is well-below the general threshold of most Hall of Famers.
Complicating the debate is that many will hold up Vizquel as a beacon of the steroids era, a little guy who played the game the right way in an era of muscled-up sluggers. Vizquel will also be hailed as the National League version of Ozzie Smith, down to the singular first name. The latter debate is a difficult one to make when you look at WAR:
Compared to his contemporaries at shortstop, Ozzie was a little more productive at the plate: 44.5 offensive Wins Above Replacement compared to Vizquel's 27.8. Compared to an average hitter of his time, Smith was 119 runs below average over his career while Vizquel was 243 runs below average. Of course, this gets back to the steroid era argument. Vizquel is being evaluated against all those big hitters (and players at his position that included Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Miguel Tejada), while Ozzie gets Garry Templeton and Shawon Dunston.
Still, this brings the argument back to Vizquel's fielding. How good was he? Baseball-Reference does rate him as a superb fielder, 29th among all players since 1947 in runs saved and fifth among shortstops (behind Belanger, Ozzie, Cal Ripken and Luis Aparacio). Belanger (240 runs saved) and Ozzie (239 runs saved) rank second and third overall behind Brooks Robinson. You may not like advanced fielding metrics, but it's hard to argue with the rest of Baseball-Reference's top-10 list: Jones, Clemente, Adrian Beltre, Carl Yastrzemski, Mays, Ripken and Barry Bonds. Maybe you don't recognize Belanger's name, but he was the shortstop for the Orioles during the Earl Weaver dynasty years, a tall, think shortstop with great range but even less of a bat than Ozzie or Omar. He won those eight Gold Gloves despite a .228 career average, so was certainly recognized as a great fielder during his time.
Even if you believe the metrics underrate Vizquel a bit, is there enough there? Even at his peak, he was the fifth-best shortstop in the American League. He received MVP votes just once in his career (16th in 1999), which isn't a reason to dismiss him entirely, but doesn't equate with a player viewed in his own time as one of the best in the league (Ozzie once finished second in the MVP vote).
Vizquel's longevity, while unique, doesn't increase his value; he just managed to hang a long time. Since turning 40, he's scratched out 400 more hits while batting just .250/.305/.310. Many voters will cite his career hits total, but that ignores that he hung on for six seasons as basically a replacement-level player.
Two more issues to raise. Personally, I would find it hard to see Vizquel as a Hall of Famer while Alan Trammell (67.1 career WAR) remains unelected. Any easy rule for any Hall of Fame debate: Is he the best player at his position not in the Hall of Fame? But Trammell doesn't have that one signature element to his career like Omar ("Best shortstop other than Ozzie!") and besides he'll be off the ballot in four years.
Finally, there are players like Jones and Hunter, who nobody seems to really consider as Hall of Fame-caliber even though they were regarded as terrific fielders (remember, Hunter has won nine Gold Gloves) and contributed more at the plate than Vizquel, even for their positions. What makes Vizquel a better candidate than them?
You can probably see where my opinion sits. It's been an amazing career, no doubt; as someone who watched him when he first came up with Seattle, I can guarantee you that there wasn't one Mariners fan who believed Little O would someday turn into a Hall of Fame candidate. I actually think he will get elected after a few years on the ballot.
Maybe Jack Morris will be sitting behind at the induction ceremony.