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Monday, January 10, 2011
An imaginary place for Omar Vizquel


When it comes to the Hall of Fame, most of my ESPN.com colleagues are capable of logical, consistent thinking. Sure, we've all got our blind spots (mine is Amos Otis). But for whatever reason, on this site there's a relative shortage of fuzzy thinking and self-righteous moralizing. Which is a good thing, I think.

And we're not alone. Bernie Miklasz gets it. So do some others.

That said, most baseball fans born after 1970 can't figure out why the Hall of Fame voters are doing what they're doing, and some of them wonder if maybe the job of choosing Hall of Famers shouldn't just be handed to the players themselves. After all, who's better qualified to judge greatness?

Then you read something like this, from Mike Schmidt:
Well, it's nice that Schmidt threw in that little bit about park effects there at the end. But is this really someone you want deciding who belongs in the Hall of Fame? Does Schmidt really not understand the difference between Bagwell's defense and Rice's? Does Schmidt really believe that Bagwell and Rice were really as good as Schmidt himself was? Mike Schmidt is the greatest third baseman who's ever walked this planet. Bagwell's maybe the fifth or sixth greatest first baseman, and Rice is ... well, let's just say he's one of the five or six greatest Red Sox outfielders.

All you need to know about the players is that they weren't smart enough to elect Ron Santo when they had the chance. Of course, the writers weren't, either. And they had more chances. Which sort of leaves us where we started ...

Even leaving steroids (and amphetamines) aside, there's an awful lot of fuzzy thinking when it comes to Hall of Fame voting ...

I know, I know, stop the presses.

Stick with me, though. There's a payoff at the end, honest (but no skipping ahead!).

Recently in response to a question about Omar Vizquel's Hall of Fame prospects, Paul Hoynes wrote this:
Hoynes' opinion is popular. Exactly how popular, I really don't know. I thought Bagwell would make a strong showing in this year's Hall of Fame balloting, so what do I know. But when Vizquel becomes eligible for the Hall, presumably in 2017 or '18, you're going to read a lot of passionate arguments for him, mostly along the lines of He's the best shortstop I ever saw or He was just as good as Ozzie Smith, look at all the Gold Gloves!

Which are intertwined, obviously. First of all, it's hard for me to believe that Hoynes really thinks Vizquel is the best he's seen, because I saw Ozzie Smith and I'm pretty sure Hoynsie's got a few years on me. But most of the voters who remember Ozzie Smith won't actually argue that Vizquel was Ozzie's equal. Rather, they'll argue that Vizquel, who won 11 Gold Gloves to Ozzie's 13, was almost as good.

Except he wasn't. Even if we assume that both players deserved all those Gold Gloves, it's silly to assume that all Gold Gloves are created equal. Ozzie Smith is probably the greatest defensive shortstop who's ever walked the planet. Among shortstops with real careers, anyway. Vizquel was good, maybe very good, maybe even excellent. But as good as Ozzie Smith? The Gold Gloves and the salaries and the statistics all suggest that Ozzie was the better defensive player.

Still, the argument will be that both of them won a lot of Gold Gloves, both of them were a lot of fun to watch, and both of them were subpar hitters. All of which is true. Again, though, that doesn't make them the same. Ozzie's career OPS+ was 87; Omar's was (is) 83. It's not a large difference, but it's a difference. Ozzie stole 580 bases and was caught 148 times; Omar has stolen 400 bases and been caught 163 times. Again, not a huge difference in terms of actual scoring, but it's a difference. And one might reasonably assume that Ozzie was the better baserunner otherwise, too.

My point being that Ozzie was the better fielder, the better hitter, and the better baserunner. And that when you add everything up, Ozzie belongs in the Hall of Fame and Omar ... well, he wouldn't be the worst shortstop in the Hall of Fame, but he wouldn't be among the top 15 or 20, either. Essentially, it's intellectually indefensible to trumpet Vizquel's candidacy while Alan Trammell's still on the outside, getting his piddly 20-some percent from the voters every year.

What I find particularly strange is how many writers are now arguing that Omar Vizquel was a great player, considering how few of them thought he was great when he was actually playing shortstop every day.

I mean, seriously. Vizquel's been around forever. Would you care to guess how many times he showed up on someone's MVP ballot? Remember, MVP voters are asked to list 10 players on their ballot. Same as the Hall of Fame ballot.

So, how many times in 22 seasons?

One.

In 1999, Vizquel finished 16th. He batted .333 and won a Gold Glove, and the 28 MVP voters -- many of whom will have Hall of Fame ballots in five or six years -- believed that Vizquel was just the 16th best player in the American League. But that's really not so instructive. Vizquel got three points, which means he might have appeared on just one ballot; probably just one, or perhaps two.

I think they were wrong. I think Vizquel was actually one of the six or eight best players in the league that season. But 1999 was Vizquel's best season, by far. There was never another season in which he showed up in the MVP voting at all, or deserved to.

So the vast majority of MVP voters never thought Vizquel was great enough to rank among the top 10 players in his league, but now a number of them -- again, many of the MVP voters from Vizquel's career are now Hall of Fame voters -- are willing to rank him among the 10 best players on the Hall of Fame ballot in a few years? Remember, many voters are now complaining that 10 slots isn't enough, and the ballot will only get more crowded with qualified candidates in the next few years.

So, the Obvious Question: Why are so many baseball writers so excited about Omar Vizquel?

It's simple, I think. The writers desperately want to do something for Vizquel, and they just can't think of anything except the Hall of Fame. Roger Maris had two great seasons, a few good ones, and in 1988 43 percent of the Hall of Fame voters voted for him. Essentially, Maris got the same support in his last year on the ballot that Jeff Bagwell just got in his first year. Don Larsen had zero great seasons, a few decent ones, and one year 53 Hall of Fame voters voted for him. Today, roughly half the Hall of Fame voters fervently believe that Jack Morris belongs in the Hall of Fame ... even though Morris, with the exception of one brief moment in 1991, was never considered a great pitcher by many of these same voters.

What the writers need is something for Vizquel, and I think I've got just the thing (sorry, but I haven't come up with anything for Morris yet) ...

*******

I'll let you in on a Dirty Little Secret, that I wasn't actually supposed to mention for a long time but recent developments have conspired to give me a little wiggle room.

The dirty little secret is that there's no such thing as "the writers' wing" or "the broadcasters' wing" of the Hall of Fame. Those places don't exist. If you've been to Cooperstown and weren't paying attention, you would have seen absolutely no proof that the winners of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award (writers) or the Ford C. Frick Award (broadcasters) ever existed, because their names simply don't appear in the Hall of Fame, which is a big room covered with the plaques depicting all the men (and one woman) who are actually, you know, in the Hall of Fame.

There's no wing. There are a couple of plaques, one for each award, hanging on a wall just outside the Hall's research library. The Spink and Frick Award winners are not "enshinees" (i.e. Hall of Famers) but rather "honorees," which is a completely different thing.

The confusion is partly the Hall of Fame's fault, because for some years the Hall of Fame has allowed the honorees to give an acceptance speech the same afternoon as the enshrinees give theirs.

But the confusion is mostly our fault, and by "our" I mean my colleagues in the business and our employers. Obviously, it makes everyone happy to add "Hall of Fame" in front of "writer" or "broadcaster." It's gratifying to the ego, and it's gratifying to whoever's signing the checks.

It's just not true.

The "wings" are largely imaginary places, invented for everyone's convenience.

So why not imagine one more wing, for our convenience?

What I am proposing is a Wing of the Amazing, for players who really don't belong in the Hall of Fame because they weren't good enough, but did some things that do deserve to be celebrated. A few criteria:
  • No one-game wonders. This leaves out Don Larsen.
  • No freak shows. This leaves out Eddie Gaedel and Minnie Minoso (though one can make a pretty decent case for Minoso as an actual Hall of Famer.
  • We're not talking about really good (or great) players who belong in the Hall of Fame, but have been overlooked. Lou Whitaker and Bobby Grich were both fantastic players and they belong in the Hall, but when you look at their careers do you think, Amazing? Probably not.
  • These standards are inviolable until someone convinces me they're not.

  • Now, it seems to me that while Omar Vizquel might not be the best candidate for the Wing of the Amazing, he is a fine candidate.

    Why? Because what he's done over the past five or six seasons really has been amazing. I don't think there would be any Hall of Fame talk without the past five or six seasons. Which might seem strange, considering Vizquel has a .266/.330/.340 line in the past six seasons, and hasn't been an every-day shortstop in the past three of them. But before those past six seasons, Vizquel was sitting on slightly more than 2,000 hits and nobody was really talking about him. What really got writers jazzed about him was the two Gold Gloves he won at the ages of 38 and 39, and the ability to play respectably well in a utility role at 42 and 43. And he's coming back for another season at 44, and the writers will get even more jazzed if he manages to hang on to his roster spot.

    We should be jazzed. As Chris Jaffe writes -- at the conclusion of a long piece in which he concludes that Vizquel will wind up in the Hall of Fame -- Vizquel's career has been "bizarrely unique" ... which is another way of saying it's been amazing. He deserves a place, and it's a real place if we believe that it's real.

    My message to all the writers who so desperately want to reward Omar Vizquel for his amazing career?

    You're welcome.