Vizquel's unique -- and divisive -- HOF case

Shortstip consistently improved at plate while wowing with glove

January 2nd, 2018

My least favorite part of the Hall of Fame process is that, inevitably, fantastic baseball players get repeatedly run down, year after year. I say this knowing full well that I have been, and undoubtedly will continue to be (even in this very article), one of the main run-downers. The trouble is that people want to know WHY you didn't vote for a terrific player like, say, Fred McGriff. And to explain why you didn't vote for McGriff you have to make the case that McGriff wasn't quite good enough to get your vote.
No matter how you try to cushion it, this will sound like you're running McGriff down.
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Omar Vizquel was a great baseball player, a joyous one, a breathtaking fielder, so much fun to watch, the sort of player that you fall in love in love with. And for the next few years, it seems all but certain his name will be on the Hall of Fame ballot, and that means his many fans will scream about the grand injustice of him not getting elected while the rest will tear his career apart. His fans will repeat and repeat all the great things about his career -- the 11 Gold Glove Awards, the 2,877 hits, the career-best fielding percentage for a shortstop -- while the rest will tell you all those things Vizquel could not do, savagely listing off his Hall of Fame shortcomings, making hard comparisons with a Hall of Famer like Ozzie Smith and contesting that he cannot win because Vizquel just wasn't as good a player as Smith.
See, I just did it. And I'll do it again.

It's a shame. The Hall of Fame, it seems to me, should be about remembering wonderful players like Vizquel and what made them wonderful. Nobody in the history of baseball was smoother or more effective at the barehanded play. His durability was freakish. The guy was playing a good Major League shortstop into his mid-40s, and there isn't another player who did that, not even Honus Wagner, who retired at 43.
And Vizquel turned himself from a completely overmatched offensive player into a decent one, sometimes even better than decent -- his 1999 season was very good. He hit .333/.397/.436 with 42 stolen bases; that was one heck of a year for a guy whose OPS+ coming into that season was 79.
That was also by far Vizquel's best offensive season, but he had three or four other pretty good ones -- in 2000, he scored 100 runs, in '02, he hit a career high 14 home runs, in '04 and '06 he proved useful offensively. When you consider that as a 26-year-old, he hit .255/.319/.298, it becomes clear how much Vizquel grew as an offensive player.

Yes, Vizquel was terrific. There are a million awesome Vizquel stories to tell, fun ones, stories that don't necessarily give you an insight into his greatness but are just interesting, like the story of Viquel's feud with one-time Cleveland teammate . As you probably know, Mesa took the mound in the ninth inning of the 1997 World Series Game 7 against Florida. The Tribe was up, 2-1. Mesa coughed up a single to Moises Alou, struck out Bobby Bonilla and then gave up another single to Charles Johnson, putting runners on first and third. Craig Counsell then hit the game-tying sacrifice fly. Cleveland lost the game in extra innings.
Vizquel was among the many who were, let's say, displeased.
"All we had to do was get three outs and we'd win the ultimate title," Vizquel wrote in his book, "Omar!" "The eyes of the world were focused on every move we made. Unfortunately, Jose's own eyes were vacant. Completely empty. Nobody home. You could almost see right through him.
"Jose's first pitch bounced five feet in front of the plate. And as every Cleveland Indians fan knows, things got worse from there."

Mesa, not surprisingly, didn't see it quite the same way. More to the point, he told one reporter: "I want to kill him."
"I don't know if that's really what he meant when he said that," Vizquel told another reporter. "Sometimes we would say in Spanish, 'I'm gonna kill you.' But in the translation, that's not really what we meant."
Yeah, um, Mesa meant it. He promised that if he faced Vizquel 10 more times, he would hit Vizquel with a pitch 10 times. "Even my little boy told me to get him," Mesa said, and sure enough the next time they faced each other, Mesa threw at Vizquel, missed him and then threw at him again and got him.

Mesa did not face Vizquel for almost four years after that -- by that time, Mesa was on Colorado and Vizquel was with San Francisco. Four years. That's a long time. Mesa plunked Vizquel with a fastball in the back.
"He's 3-for-3!" Vizquel griped, suggesting that there was actually another time -- maybe in Spring Training or winter ball -- when Mesa hit him. "I'm a little tired of it. It's just stupid that he can still remember and still hold that grudge."

My favorite part is that Felipe Alou was the manager of the Giants then; a nice coincidence in that he's the father of Moises, who scored the game-tying run in 1997. Anyway, Alou had prepared home-plate umpire Jeff Nelson for this possibility by suggesting an article that described the feud. After Mesa hit Vizquel, Alou raged that Mesa had to be ejected. Nelson disagreed. And when reminded of the article, Nelson said: "I didn't read it."
Anyway, that was the last time -- Mesa faced Vizquel three more times, all in situations where he really couldn't afford to hit Vizquel, and so he didn't.
There are a million fun Vizquel stories like that, stories that would be great to tell, including the life story of a kid from Venezuela with no bat who played through the Minor Leagues, finally convinced the Seattle Mariners that his glove was too good not to play, developed and grew and ended up playing 24 years, compiling almost 2,900 hits even though he only had a .272 average, stealing more than 400 bases and scoring almost 1,500 runs.

What an amazing story that is.
But, here's the deal: I don't believe Vizquel quite rises to level of a Hall of Famer. And because I don't believe that I must start explaining why not when he has all those hits and all those Gold Glove Awards and so on. I have to argue that, despite the handful of useful seasons, Vizquel was a well-below-average big league hitter. His 82 OPS+ is the lowest for any player with more than 10,000 plate appearances.
And I have to make the case that while his defense was superb, it doesn't quite match up with Smith and Mark Belanger and Luis Aparicio and other legends of the game.
To take just one example: By Baseball Reference's RField -- runs above average from shortstops -- Vizquel ranks 13th.

  1. Belanger, 241
  2. Smith, 239
  3. Cal Ripken, 181
  4. Joe Tinker, 180
  5. , 163
  6. Vizquel, 128
    Between Simmons and Vizquel are the great (Aparicio, Marty Marion, Rabbit Maranville) and the good (Jack Wilson, Rey Sanchez).
    You don't want to put any stock at all in advanced defensive stats? There's not much I can do about that? You can do other bits of analysis. Let's do that dreaded Ozzie Smith comparison. For one thing, Smith was a better hitter than Vizquel in context, and he was much, much higher regarded in his time.
    All Star appearances
    Smith: 15
    Vizquel: 3
    MVP votes
    Smith: Got votes in six years, finished a close second in 1987.
    Vizquel: Got votes one year, finished 16th that year.
    But let's look at their defense as compared with other players in the league -- these are not advanced stats but basic ones:
    Years led league in shortstop assists
    Smith: 8
    Vizquel: 0
    Years led in shortstop putouts
    Smith: 2
    Viqzuel: 1
    Years led league in shortstop double plays
    Smith: 5
    Vizquel: 0
    Years led league in range factor per game
    Smith: 7
    Vizquel: 0

Vizquel's best defensive claim is that he has the highest fielding percentage ever for a shortstop at .985. But even here, Smith compares better to his time:
Years led shortstops in fielding percentage
Smith: 8
Vizquel: 6
Vizquel was a sensational player, and I wish that the examination could end there. But the Baseball Hall of Fame has a high bar and great shortstops like Dave Concepcion, Bert Campaneris, Miguel Tejada, Vern Stephens, Nomar Garciaparra, Maury Wills, Belanger, Tony Fernandez and Jim Fregosi did not quite make the cut. I think Vizquel fits best in this special group of players -- and there should be no shame in that.
But many think he was better than this group, believe that he should be in Cooperstown, and so the argument will rage on for a while. There's really nothing to be done about that except to remember that these are arguments about greatness and even greater greatness. Vizquel was one heck of a player.