The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2018 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
In the eyes of many, Omar Vizquel was the successor to Ozzie Smith when it came to dazzling defense. Thanks to the increased prevalence of highlight footage on the internet and cable shows such as ESPN’s SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight, the diminutive Venezuelan shortstop’s barehanded grabs, diving stops and daily acrobatics were seen by far more viewers than Smith’s ever were. Vizquel made up for having a less-than-prototypically-strong arm with incredibly soft hands and a knack for advantageous positioning. Such was the perception of his prowess at the position that he took home 11 Gold Gloves, more than any shortstop this side of Smith, who won 13.
Vizquel’s offense was superficially akin to Smith’s: he was a singles-slapping switch-hitter in lineups full of bigger bats, and at his best, he was a capable table-setter who got on base often enough to score 80, 90 or even 100 runs in some seasons. His ability to move the runner over with a sacrifice bunt or a productive out delighted purists, and he could steal a base, too. While he lacked power, he dealt in volume, piling up more hits (2,877) than all but four shortstops, all of them in the Hall of Fame or heading there: Derek Jeter (3,465), Honus Wagner (3,420), Cal Ripken Jr. (3,184) and Robin Yount (3,142). During his 11-year run in Cleveland (1994–2004), he helped the Indians to six playoff appearances and two pennants.
To some, that makes Vizquel an easy call for the Hall of Fame now that he has reached the ballot, but these eyes aren’t so sure. Via WAR and JAWS, Vizquel’s case isn’t nearly as strong as it is on the traditional merits, and his candidacy has the potential to be the next point of friction between old-school and new-school thinkers when it comes to the Hall of Fame. Is he the next Jack Morris?
Born to an electrical company technician and a kindergarten teacher in Caracas, Venezuela in 1967, Vizquel grew up in the poor neighborhood of Santa Eduvigis, where baseball was a constant. As a youngster he honed his quick reflexes and extraordinary hands by carrying around a rubber ball or tennis ball, which he would constantly bounce off of nearby objects and snare barehanded. Those skills were put to great use as he played on the rocky sandlots of his hometown, where preventing ground balls from hitting him in the face was a necessary survival tactic.
When Vizquel cut his teeth on those sandlots, the presence of his countrymen in the major leagues had begun to ramp up significantly. The first Venezuela-born major leaguer was pitcher Alex Carrasquel, who spent 1939–45 with the Senators, with a brief cameo with the White Sox in ’49. The third was his nephew, Chico Carrasquel, who spent 1950–59 in the majors, including six years with the White Sox alongside Nellie Fox as one the era’s great double play combos. The younger Carrasquel became the first Venezuela-born All-Star in 1951 and would make three more Midsummer Classic squads before being traded to the Indians for Larry Doby in October 1955. The White Sox replaced him with another Venezuelan, Luis Aparicio, who immediately validated the deal by winning AL Rookie of the Year and leading the league in stolen bases for the first of nine straight years. He would eventually win nine Gold Gloves, though one could quibble with the rest of his Cooperstown credentials. Through 1966, nine Venezuela-born players had reached the majors, but in ’67 alone, the year of Vizquel’s birth, five more did, the start of a steady stream that continues to this day.
The Mariners signed Vizquel in 1984, just short of his 17th birthday, for a mere $2,000 bonus and brought him to the U.S., where he lived with three other young Venezuelans. His parents had forced him to take a three-month crash course in English to prepare for his career, which began in Butte, Montana, with Seattle’s Pioneer League affiliate. He climbed the organizational ladder methodically: Low-A Bellingham in 1985, A-level Wausau in '86 (the year he began switch-hitting), A-level Salinas in '87, Double A Vermont and Triple A Calgary in '88, and finally the Mariners on Opening Day 1989, filling in for incumbent Rey Quiñones, who had sprained his ankle in spring training.
The 22-year-old Vizquel wasn’t an immediate success. He made a throwing error in his first game, added another error in his third, and was sent back to Calgary after going just 3-for-24. Quiñones returned from the disabled list and reclaimed his job but was traded to the Pirates on April 21. Vizquel returned for the rest of the season, and while he was above-average defensively (+6 runs via Total Zone), he hit just .220/.273/.261 in 431 plate appearances for an anemic 50 OPS+, the majors’ worst mark for any hitter with at least 400 PA that year.
After he sprained the medial collateral ligament of his left knee the following spring, the team left Vizquel at Calgary through his rehab and into early July. He went 2-for-3 with a homer in his July 5 return, and while he still hit just .247/.295/.298 for a 67 OPS+ in 285 PA, he was 13 runs above average afield en route to 1.5 WAR. His bat remained similarly sluggish in 1991, but in a lineup where Ken Griffey Jr., Jay Buhner and Edgar Martinez were developing into forces, the Mariners could afford to carry Vizquel. His defense (+14 runs) played a part in helping Seattle to a 83–79 record, their first season above .500.
The team regressed to 64–98 the following year, even as Vizquel hit a relatively robust .294/.340/.352 en route to a 95 OPS+ and 3.5 WAR, but he couldn’t maintain that gain, slipping back to .255/.319/.298 (67 OPS+) in 1993. He did claim his first Gold Glove via defense that was 16 runs above average—a mark that would stand as his career best—and bolstered by the notoriety he gained for sealing Chris Bosio’s April 22 no-hitter against the Red Sox. With Bosio’s no-no hanging in the balance, Vizquel barehanded a chopper behind the mound on the second-base side and threw out batter Earnest Riles by two steps at first base.
In 1993, the Mariners drafted Alex Rodriguez with the No. 1 pick. Though they weren’t teammates yet, the contrast between the light-hitting 5’9” Vizquel and the powerful 6’3” Rodriguez couldn’t have been more striking. Big men had played the position before, but not until 6’4” Ripken came along in the early 1980s had one flourished as a two-way threat. With Rodriguez waiting in the wings, the Mariners traded Vizquel to the Indians for stopgap shortstop Felix Fermin and DH Reggie Jefferson in December 1993.
It was an astute move by Cleveland general manager John Hart. The Indians had cracked .500 just once in the previous 12 seasons, but they were in the process of assembling a powerhouse lineup featuring youngsters Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Carlos Baerga, as well as Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton and others. Though he missed seven weeks early in the season due to a right knee sprain, Vizquel solidified the defense, and the lineup could more than support his limp bat. The team went 64–47 during the strike-shortened season and the following year went an MLB-best 100–44 en route to Cleveland's first pennant since 1954.
Vizquel hit just .266/.333/.351 for a 71 OPS+ that season and snagged his third Gold Glove, though for what it’s worth, Total Zone valued his defense that year at just one run above average, part of a four-year stretch (1994–98) in which he was barely in the black. Still, he gained no small amount of attention for his fieldwork in the postseason, with Sports Illustrated’s Tim Kurkjian gushing the following spring, calling Vizquel “the Indians’ most fascinating player to watch.”
The Indians lost that World Series to the Braves, but Hart’s foresight in signing Ramirez, Thome, Baerga, Lofton, Charles Nagy and Sandy Alomar Jr. to long-term extensions—many of which bought out players’ arbitration years—enabled the small-market team to afford its top players, creating a core that would win six division titles and two pennants from 1995 to 2001. That included Vizquel, who was heading into his age-29 season; Hart signed him to a five-year, $15.35 million extension that December.
Working with hitting coach Charlie Manuel (who would take over from Mike Hargrove as manager in 2000), Vizquel matured considerably as a hitter. From his debut through 1995, he batted .256/.315/.314 for a 72 OPS+ and a combined -106 batting runs (the offensive component of WAR). From '96 to 2004—a high-offense era—he hit a composite .286/.356/.385 for a 93 OPS+; for the period, he was just 29 runs below average at the plate, with four seasons either at zero or in the black. In 1999, he set across-the-board career bests with a .333/.397/.436 line, a 111 OPS+, 42 steals and 6.0 WAR.
Vizquel collected Gold Gloves every year from 1996 to 2001—the last three while paired with Roberto Alomar for one of the most visually arresting double play combos in recent memory—though the advanced metrics suggest his defense wasn’t so exceptional. Here it’s worth yet another reminder that single-season defensive data captures a fair bit of noise along with the signal, and it’s better to consider in the context of multiple seasons. Via Total Zone, Vizquel’s defensive value ranged from +14 to -8 runs relative to average in this six-year span. His 16 runs above average for the period ranked just 15th in the majors, far behind Rey Sanchez (+89) and Rey Ordonez (+62), the top two at the position.
Despite repeatedly winning their division, the Indians couldn’t nab that elusive championship. They came agonizingly close in 1997, despite just an 86–75 record. After defeating the defending champion Yankees in the Division Series and the Orioles in the ALCS, they took a 2–1 lead into the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series against the Marlins. Alas, closer Jose Mesa surrendered the tying run in the bottom of the ninth via two singles and a sacrifice fly, and an error by second baseman Tony Fernandez on Craig Counsell’s grounder in the 11th inning led to the series-winning run.
The sting of that loss lingered, and became part of the biggest controversy of Vizquel’s career. Though he had been close to Mesa to that point—“We lived five minutes away from each other. We fooled around a lot. We cooked together,” he later said—Vizquel’s subsequent actions towards his teammate were anything but friendly. First he irritated Mesa by cartwheeling across home plate after homering off him during an intrasquad game in 1998—that’s right, an intrasquad game. In exchange, after the pitcher was traded to the Giants in midseason and signed with the Mariners the following winter, he brushed his old friend back during a 1999 encounter.
Things came to a head when on the opening page of his 2002 autobiography, Omar! My Life On and Off the Field, Vizquel wrote of Game 7:
Mesa, by that point a member of the Phillies, was understandably livid. He plunked Vizquel during a 2002 interleague game and was fined $500. In the spring of 2003, he told reporter Randy Miller, “I will not forgive him. Even my little boy (Jose Jr.) told me to get him. If I face him 10 more times, I’ll hit him 10 times. I want to kill him.”
The two didn’t face each other again until 2006, but in their first encounter, Mesa, by then with the Giants, again hit Vizquel. He was suspended for four games. They squared off three more times without incident, with Mesa retiring him twice but Vizquel collecting a garbage-time–two-run single in the last encounter. They never did mend fences, and the shortstop somehow remained puzzled even while saying in 2014, “It was kind of sad that I never got to tell him that I didn’t really mean anything bad about what I said in the book.”
While Vizquel generally got high marks for his comportment throughout his career, his ongoing feud with Mesa was a low point. Game Sevens are inevitably filled with heroes and goats, but it takes some chutzpah for a player to try to humiliate one of the latter—let alone one he called a close friend—in the opening page of his memoir.
In February 2001, Vizquel signed a two-year, $15 million extension with the Indians, one that also raised his salary for that season from $3 million to $4.5 million and included a $5 million mutual option for 2005. His streak of Gold Gloves ended in 2002, but he set a career high with 14 homers and earned All-Star honors for the third time; the first two had been in 1998 and ’99, no small achievement with Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra in their collective heyday as “the trinity.” A pair of surgeries to repair the meniscus of his right knee—he tore it again while rehabbing—limited Vizquel to 64 games in 2003, and, after he failed a physical, prevented a trade of the 36-year-old shortstop back to the Mariners that winter.
At 37, Vizquel enjoyed a solid rebound with the Indians, batting .291/.353/.388 for a 99 OPS+ en route to 4.0 WAR, the second-highest total of his career. The Indians declined their end of the mutual option, but Vizquel parlayed that performance into a three-year, $12.25 million deal with the Giants. He won Gold Gloves in the first two of those years, albeit with Defensive Runs Saved totals of just +1 and +7, and WAR totals of 1.5 and 2.9. His bat fell off the table in 2007, his age-40 season (.246/.305/.316/61 OPS+), and despite a career high +16 DRS, his total value was just 0.6 WAR.
While the Giants re-signed Vizquel, his performance slipped even further in 2008. That year began with a seven-week stint on the DL for surgery to repair the meniscus in his left knee, as well as a bone bruise, and finished with career worsts in OPS+ (45) and WAR (-0.5). One highlight: On May 25, 2008, he surpassed Aparicio for the most games played at shortstop with 2,584.
Moving into a utility role that included ample time at second and third as well as short, Vizquel spent four more years in the majors with the Rangers (2009), White Sox ('10–11, while wearing Aparicio’s No. 11, un-retired with his blessing) and Blue Jays (’12), the last of those coming at age 45. He hit a combined .262/.312/.320 for a 70 OPS+ in 931 PA, and only in 2010 did he play regularly. In June 2012, he announced that he would retire at season’s end; on Oct. 4 in Toronto, with former teammate Baerga and fellow Venezuelans Aparicio and Andres Galarraga on hand, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch and collected a single in the final at-bat of his 24-year career.
Vizquel’s longevity, which allowed him to play a record 2,709 games at shortstop, collect 2,877 hits (higher than all but the aforementioned quartet of Jeter, Wagner, Ripken and Yount among shortstops) and win 11 Gold Gloves (more than all but Smith), is perhaps the best point in his favor when it comes to the Hall of Fame. But beyond those standings, his résumé is a mixture of good news/bad news. Vizquel helped his teams reach the playoffs six times and the World Series twice, though he was less productive at the plate there (.250/.327/.316 in 264 PA) than in the regular season. Thanks in large part to the presence of the shortstop trinity, he made just three All-Star teams, a comparatively low total for a modern Hall of Famer, and the entirety of his MVP consideration consisted of a 16th-place finish in 1999. Still, his Hall of Fame Monitor score of 120, while not indicating a slam dunk, is on the side of “more likely than not.”
Then there’s the defense. Vizquel’s flair afield produced countless highlight loops that got their share of attention thanks to the Internet and cable TV, not to mention the routine exposure he got in the postseason from 1995 through 2001. Observers like Kurkjian weren’t shy about using superlatives, and Vizquel was a fan favorite, albeit not enough of one to be voted to start a single All-Star Game. Having written more than once on the pros and cons of his case, I can attest that his defenders will come out of the woodwork to drop a good word on his behalf (along with a few unprintable ones on mine).
Baseball-Reference.com credits Vizquel as being 128 runs above average for his career defensively, via a combination of Total Zone (+80 runs through 2002) and Defensive Runs Saved (+48 from '03 to '12). Ultimate Zone Rating credits him as 48 runs above average as well for the latter period. The combined total, while very good, doesn’t blow the doors off the shrine; it ranks 18th all-time among shortstops, better than 12 of the 20 enshrined.
Should it be better? Advanced fielding statistics aren’t easy to penetrate, but feel around the margins of the basic stats and you can begin to see why the metrics don’t put Vizquel on the same level as Ozzie Smith. In Vizquel’s favor, he holds the edge in fielding percentage, .985 to .978, but both were 12 points higher than their respective leagues’ shortstops during the course of their careers. From there, the comparison becomes more lopsided in the Wizard’s favor.
While Vizquel is third all-time in assists for a shortstop (7,676), that’s a product of his longevity. He never led his league in the category, and while he ranked in the top five eight times, six of those were fourth or fifth. Smith, the all-time leader among shortstops with 8,375 assists—in 1,175 fewer innings, roughly 130 games—led his league eight times, and was second in four others. The story is similar when it comes to double plays: Vizquel, the all-time leader at 1,734, led his league once and was third three times; Smith, second all-time with 1,590 double plays, led his league five times and was second six times.
True, Smith played in an era with more balls in play and fewer strikeouts. Via B-Ref, during his time in the field, 83% of his pitching staff’s plate appearances ended with a ball in play; for Vizquel’s teams, the rate was 77%, so there would have been fewer chances for him to make a play. Likewise, his staffs faced a smaller proportion of righthanded batters, whose natural pull tendency would be to the left side of the infield: 58%, in line with the league average. Smith’s teams faced 61% righties, two points above average.
Calculations such as those go into the Total Zone defensive metrics. While it’s an oversimplification to say that the difference between Smith and Vizquel can be boiled down to range factor (putouts plus assists per nine innings) relative to their league averages, such a comparison gets the point across. The Wizard averaged 5.22 plays per nine while the league’s shortstops were at 4.78, a difference of 0.44 per nine. Vizquel averaged 4.62 per nine for his time at shortstop while the league was at 4.61—a difference of just 0.01. Aparicio and Rabbit Maranville, who are both enshrined for the way their glove work offset similarly light sticks, both have larger gaps as well; the former was 0.16 above his leagues, the latter 0.28 above.
Via the advanced stats, Smith has an edge of 111 runs over Vizquel on the defensive side, and that’s before considering offense. Vizquel’s .272/.336/.352 line translates to an 82 OPS+, five points lower than Smith, who played in the lower-scoring era. Over the course of his 12,013 plate appearances, Vizquel was 244 runs below average with the bat, the 13th-lowest total among players who spent the majority of their careers at shortstop. That’s 16 runs worse than Maranville, the worst among current Hall of Fame shortstops, and 127 runs worse than Smith. What’s more, where Smith made up 79 runs on the bases (steals as well as advancement on hits and outs) and 23 more on avoiding double plays, Vizquel—who stole 404 bases, albeit with just a 70.8% success rate—was one run below average in the former and nine above in the latter. His net offense was -236 runs to Smith’s -15.
Thanks to his defense, Vizquel was still worth 45.3 WAR for his career, which ranks 29th among shortstops, but is higher than just four of those enshrined, and 21.4 WAR below the position standard. Within 2.0 WAR of him on either side are Art Fletcher, Miguel Tejada, Jimmy Rollins, Vern Stephens, Tony Fernandez, Roger Peckinpaugh, Garciaparra and Travis Jackson, of whom only the last is enshrined, and that’s thanks to some Veterans Committee cronyism. For all of his Gold Gloves, Vizquel ranked in the top 10 in his league in WAR just once, with a career-high 6.0 in 1999. Smith, for a point of comparison, made his leagues’ top 10 six times, Maranville five times, Aparicio twice.
The news is even harsher when it comes to Vizquel’s peak score of 26.6: it ranks 61st all-time. Of the 16 players within two wins on either side, there are notable names, including Cecil Travis, Marty Marion and Edgar Renteria, but of the lot, only Monte Ward, whose career is so bifurcated between pitching and shortstop that I exclude him from the JAWS set entirely, is enshrined. Thus Vizquel’s 36.0 JAWS ranks 42nd, just ahead of popular Era Committee candidates such as Davey Concepcion and Maury Wills but lower than all of the enshrined shortstops, with Maranville (42.8/30.4/36.6) bringing up the rear.
Those just aren’t numbers that can support a Hall of Fame case, though Vizquel appears poised to garner a good amount of support. Even on a crowded, top-heavy ballot where many voters feel constrained by the 10-slot rule, Vizquel was included on 13 of the first 22 ballots cast at Ryan Thibodaux’s ballot tracker. That’s only about five percent of the electorate, but 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 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.