Pitcher List Hall of Fame Voting: Omar Vizquel
The Pitcher List staff took part in Hall of Fame voting over the past month. Omar Vizquel fell short, but there was still a discussion to be had on his candidacy. In this article, both Ben Ruppert and Colin Ward give their takes, with Ben making the case for and Colin the case against.
THE CASE FOR VIZQUEL
Omar Vizquel didn’t light the world on fire with his bat, but his defensive prowess was unmatched through the ’90s. If you’ve never seen him play, you certainly missed out on some stellar barehanded, off-balance, insane defensive plays that made you drop your jaw on a regular basis. Many refer to him as the defensive second coming of Ozzie Smith, which is extremely high praise but is quite accurate; Vizquel was smooth as silk in the field for 24 seasons, most of which was spent in a Tribe uniform.
After a tough offensive start to his career, Vizquel constantly got better and posted some solid seasons at the plate with Cleveland. Over 10 seasons he posted four straight years of 35+ steals while displaying solid top of the lineup numbers hitting .283/.352/.379 over his 6,542 plate appearances as a member of the Indians. In total, he stole 404 bases and compiled 2,877 hits over 12,013 plate appearances (one of only 19 players to eclipse the 12,000 PA mark) with six different franchises. That number of hits is fewer than only four shortstops, and perhaps you’ve heard of some of them: Derek Jeter, Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken Jr., and Robin Yount.
He was the table setter for the dominant ’90s Indians team, featuring elite bats such as Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and Albert Belle, who led Cleveland to six playoff appearances and two AL Central pennants. In addition, he excelled as a bunter which added to his offensive game. Also known as the Sultan of Sacrifice, Vizquel is the modern era leader in sacrifice hits, with 350 (256 sac bunts and 94 sac flies), a stat which Sabermetrics does not support well. On his 256 bunt sacrifice bunt attempts, he has a hit on 151 of them, giving him a whopping .597 average on those attempts. That’s about where the positives end on Vizquel’s offensive HOF case. His bat is not the reason he’d make it to the hall. He really flashed his talents by flashing the leather.
Vizquel spent much of his childhood in Venezuela, bouncing tennis balls around and making barehanded snags, slowly developing his quick reflexes and soft hands which led him to become one of the top defensive shortstops of all time. I could dive right into the stats, but I prefer showing some of the insane grabs before doing so. Vizquel made his living off of barehanded plays, and though he didn’t make all of them, he was able to save Chris Bosio’s no-hitter with a great charging play.
Plays like this led to Vizquel winning a crazy 11 Gold Glove Awards, one of seven position players to win at least that many and the second-most ever for a shortstop. He wasn’t just a flashy fielder, he made almost every single play he had to in the field. His career .985 fielding percentage is the second best for all MLB shortstops, behind only Jose Iglesias (?!?). Last but not least, more excellent stats that help boost his HOF bid:
- 5th in career assists, 3rd at SS
- Hutch Award Winner
- 9th in Defensive WAR
- 1,744 career double plays turned, most all-time for a SS
- 2,709 games played at SS, most all time
Finally, the craziest stat of all: Vizquel had three seasons in which he played at least 140 games with less than five errors, more than all other shortstops combined since 1900. Vizquel was the premier defender of his decade, and despite his offensive shortcomings, he deserves the HOF nod. In his first year, he garnered 37% of the vote, which is more than Eddie Mathews, Luis Aparicio, and Tim Raines had in their first years, before eventually being elected. I do think Omar will make it eventually, and rightfully so.
Advanced statistics shine a duller light on Vizquel (45.1 WAR), but despite what the statistics say, when you watched him you knew you were watching one of the most sure-handed shortsops of all time.
– Ben Ruppert
THE CASE AGAINST VIZQUEL
When I look at what makes a Hall of Fame player, it comes down to a couple of things: Were they an elite game changer on the field? Do their statistics back them up as being one of the greats during their time? To me, Vizquel does not quite fit the bill.
The argument for Vizquel always comes down to his defense and his longevity in the league. Among players who have played at least 50% of their games at the shortstop position, Vizquel ranks seventh in defensive WAR. And while he was not equipped with the strongest throwing arm, Vizquel used intuitive positioning and incredibly soft and quick hands to become one of the greatest defenders of all time.
With defensive statistics sometimes being a little questionable, especially with players from 10-20 years ago, Vizquel always passed the eye test. I was able to see when watching him play defense that he was superior to most at his position. The man was constantly on highlight reels and was a big part of the Indians’ success in the mid-to-late ’90s. But his contributions start and end with his defense.
Vizquel finished his 24-year career with an OPS+ of 82. For reference, an average major leaguer posts an OPS+ of around 100. Therefore, to say Vizquel was an average major league hitter would be a compliment to him and an insult to the David Murphy‘s and Orlando Hudson‘s of the world (two guys who were roughly around a 100 OPS+ for their careers). The comparison that Vizquel often gets is to that of Ozzie Smith. Supporters of Vizquel typically point to Smith as a means to justify the below-average hitting defensive wizard (pun intended) as worthy of a Hall of Fame case. Smith, who is widely regarded as the greatest defensive shortstop in history by statistical measure as well as by those who watched him play, was the superior hitter in terms of wRC+ (90 to Vizquel’s 83) and by far superior in the field when looking at defensive WAR (43.4 to 28.4).
Well, what about Vizquel’s speed? He was always a guy who ran the bases well and was an above-average source of stolen bases. Smith has him beat there too. Even with five fewer years in the league, Smith’s 580 SBs trumps Vizquel’s 404. When taking a look at that same list of shortstops who have played half of their games at the position, Vizquel ranks 24th in overall WAR. And while WAR is not always the most accurate depiction of a player’s career, how low Vizquel ranks is telling.
Vizquel certainly compares to the likes of Smith and other defensive-superior talents who have come before him or after him. But what it ultimately comes down to when determining Vizquel’s Hall of Fame case is does his superb defense and longevity outweigh his well below-average offensive statistics, à la Ozzie Smith? For me, unfortunately, it does not.
– Colin Ward
(Main photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire)