When do we start taking Omar Vizquel’s Cooperstown case seriously?by Chris Jaffe
November 29, 2010
If I had only one word to describe Omar Vizquel's Hall of Fame case, it's unique. Bizarre would be the alternate, but unique works best.
That wasn't always the case. When whisperings first began for Omar Vizquel's possible Cooperstown induction, the best word was "pathetic." Or insane. Or, if we could break the self-imposed one-word guideline, a bad joke.
Talk of Vizquel-for-Cooperstown first gurgled up when Ozzie Smith's plaque went up in 2002. Some sportswriters then mentioned how Vizquel was similar and in some ways distinctly superior to Smith. Not only were they both shortstops with great defensive reputations, but Vizquel had more homers than Smith, a better batting average, and last but not least a better fielding percentage. Smith had an edge in Gold Gloves, 13 to nine, but Smith was the only shortstop with more Gold Gloves than Vizquel.
That argument truly was a bad joke. More homers and a better batting average than Ozzie Smith? Hey—that ain't why Smith got inducted. Sure Vizquel had better numbers than Smith, but you know who else did? Wes Ferrell. That's right—a pitcher. And he was a great pitcher, too, but he ain't in Cooperstown. Smith was put in despite his numbers, not because of them. As for fielding percentage—does anyone really think that much of the stat? Better to either use more rigorous fielding metrics or ignore fielding stats altogether.
When Smith went in, Vizquel was a below-average hitter whose glove, according to the most advanced stats, wasn't as good as its reputation (more on this in a bit). Smith went in because experts and fans widely and loudly hailed him as the best defensive player EVER. Vizquel was no comp for that.
I shrugged off the bad joke of an argument back then. Vizquel was 35 years old in 2002. He clearly couldn't last too much longer. His bat would soon falter and drive him out of the sport. Though he had all those Gold Gloves, he was just the best-regarded fielder of his day by sportswriters. When he declined, they'd focus on the new day's best fielder.
Father Time, Father Schime
But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. Vizquel apparently missed the memo about getting worse in your 30s. A guy who hit .263 with 22 homers for an OPS+ of 76 in his 20s batted .284 with 51 home runs and a 91 OPS+ in his 30s, a decade of supposed decline. Even his stolen bases improved: 116 steals with 55 caught in his 20s, and 250 successes in 338 attempts in his 30s. Upshot: while still a middling bat at best, he aged well enough to not only keep his roster slot, but to stay in the starting lineup.
In doing so, he managed to rack up some increasingly impressive stats to his career. When he came to the White Sox this year, I heard many of my White Sox family and friends rave about how great he still looked on defense, age 43 be damned. This year he became the all-time leader for most games played by someone not born in America, and 15th among all players.
Obviously, games played is far from a glamor stat, but that's still impressive. In fact, no less an authority than Bill James once claimed it was a terrific stat to gauge career value, saying "Few people realize it, but there may be no other single statistical category which does as good a job of defining productive players" in his 1987 Abstract. And there Vizquel sits tied for 15th place at the moment.
There's a pretty famous and rather exclusive club in baseball: the four-decade club. Only a few/couple dozen members belong to the club, but in 2010 Omar Vizquel joined it. Actually, that undersells him. He's really a member of an even more exclusive subset of that club: men who played 100 games in a season in four different decades. That club features only two members: Omar Vizquel and Ted Williams. Now there's a player pairing you wouldn't expect.
That's impressive. That's a neat fact. You can win yourself some barroom bets with that one. But is it a reason to put Vizquel in Cooperstown? No, but dang it, there he is, next to Ted Williams.
Well, maybe that's just a fluke of timing. Vizquel and Williams both came up in the last year of a decade, after all. Surely, others have had 100-game seasons 21 years apart like those two. Yeah, there have been, but not many—nine to be exact: Williams, Vizquel, Hank Aaron, Carl Yastrzemski, Barry Bonds, Stan Musial, Rickey Henderson, Pete Rose, and Julio Franco.
Even still, Vizquel sticks out. The other eight all played offense-first positions. Yeah, Rose began as a second baseman and Franco began as a shortstop, but they moved to first base or corner outfield like the rest. Vizquel has spent his entire career at a defense-first position.
Again, impressive and neat, but how much does it mean?
The ancient wonder of the infield.
Questions started coming up: he's never been anyone's idea of a sabermetric darling—just the opposite—but at some point do we have to start taking Omar Vizquel's Hall of Fame candidacy seriously?
Could he be a shortstop version of Nolan Ryan? In Bill James' original Historical Baseball Abstract he wrote, "I may get kicked out of the sabermetricians union for saying this, but it seems to me that we've got to start taking Ryan a little more seriously as a great pitcher." Is Vizquel, like Ryan, someone widely overrated by the masses but who is good enough long enough to become great?
Well? Should he be taken seriously?
Going by the numbers—sabermetric numbers, that is—no, Vizquel's Cooperstown case shouldn't be taken seriously. There is a reason this article started off by calling Vizquel's Cooperstown case not good, but unique. That said, there's enough of an enigma to his case that I called it unique instead of bad. Look, the numbers DO say his case is bad—more on that just below—but just noting the overall quality of his case misses its fundamental bizarre uniqueness.
Now, about the case itself. Omar Vizquel is still not a sabermetric darling. Let's start with hitting. His career OPS+ is 83, which is only one point higher than the worst-hitting Hall of Fame shortstops. (Luis Aparicio and Rabbit Maranville were both at 82.) Well, but that doesn't account for things like base stealing, which should help Vizquel, right?
Apparently not enough. Pete Palmer's Batting Wins scores him at -23.7. While Vizquel has poured out a tremendous amount of quantity in his 22 seasons, a large amount of below-average quality is not the stuff of Cooperstown.
WAR is more favorable to him, giving him 43.1 wins above replacement for his career. But then again, WAR lists over 350 players and pitchers with 43.1 or more wins in their careers. That still puts Vizquel below Cooperstown.
Well, his case always rested with defense anyway, as is often the case with shortstops. Here's why Vizquel is a true sabermetric whipping boy. While conventional wisdom generally raves about him, and he's now won 11 Gold Gloves, none of the heavy duty sabermetric stats thinks that much of him.
Bill James gave Vizquel's glove a B- in his Win Shares book. (While Vizquel's aged nicely, have his overall levels really gone up much since that book came out almost 10 years ago?)
Vizquel's 43.1 WAR include only 13.8 defensive wins. That's nice, but it's merely a tie with Travis Jackson, who is widely considered a terrible Hall of Fame pick despite being a better hitter than Vizquel. Ultimately, Vizquel does better in WAR than Batting Wins because the former sets the baseline at replacement level, and the latter at league average.
Vizquel does well at Baseball Prospectus's Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAR), but not good enough to justify enshrinement. By FRAR2, which adjusts across eras better, Vizquel comes off as the 14th-best defensive shortstop ever, with 585 FRAR. That's nice, but he needs more than that to get into Cooperstown. That's despite the fact that using FRAR2 is by far Prospectus's most favorable defensive metric to Vizquel.
They also have FRAA, which compares Vizquel to an average player. He scores +27 runs there, barely one a year for his career. Again, Vizquel's playing quality almost entirely derives from the gap between replacement level and average. It's quantity, not quality with him. And regardless of how much quantity there is, shouldn't it take some legitimate quality to make Cooperstown?
Vizquel's fundamental uniqueness
The above really makes two things clear. First is the fundamental weakness of Vizquel's case. Should we take his Cooperstown case seriously? Nah.
However, there's a second, subtler point to be filtered out from the info. There is really no good comparable for Vizquel's Hall of Fame candidacy or indeed for his career.
Oh, there are plenty of gloves that are better regarded by the general public than the Big Defensive Metrics. Many long careers are stronger at quantity than quality. Numerous infielders survived for a long time on primarily on the strength of their glove. But who does all three?
Look at Vizquel's career arc and try to find a good comp for him. He's a shortstop who survived for frickin' ever despite his bat because people loved his glove. Vizquel's best comp is Rabbit Maranville. Both were the longest-lasting shortstops of their days. Maranville lasted 23 seasons, and next year will be Vizquel's 23rd. Vizquel has had 2,799 hits in 2,850 games, and if you adjust for the difference in the 154- and 162-game schedules, Maranville would have 98 percent of that.
But Maranville isn't a good comp for Vizquel. Rabbit was by any and all standards one of the greatest gloves that has ever been. For that matter, if you look up any of the other long-lasting shortstops with meh-worthy bats—Ozzie Smith, Luis Aparicio, whoever—they are among the best gloves ever. Then there's Vizquel.
To point out Vizquel's uniqueness, let's go back to the 1987 Abstract, where Bill James said games were a great stat for measuring player worth. He said you couldn't have a player show up and then stay the same. He'd have to improve then decline, and he couldn't survive long enough unless his peak was high enough to give him a lengthy career. Vizquel had a rise and fall, but the rise went longer than normal and never got that high.
The best comp for Vizquel might be Bill Buckner. No one ever called Buckner a great fielder just as Vizquel was no one's pick to win a Silver Slugger Award. Buckner was picked because of the perceived value of his bat, just as was the case with Vizquel's glove. Afterward Buckner had some power (though it was mostly for doubles), and he was always a good bet to bat over or around .300. But sabermetric stats really don't like him that much, giving him an OPS+ of 99.
Buckner lasted 22 years—just as long as Vizquel has now gone—despite being only average-ish at his strong point. His value lay in the gap between average and replacement worthy.
That said, even Buckner isn't that good a comp for Vizquel. While they both played 22 seasons, Vizquel featured in over 330 more games. That's over two seasons' worth, folks. Yeah, unique is the best word for Vizquel's Cooperstown candidacy.
Vizquel and Cooperstown
That said, he'll go into Cooperstown. It's a question of when, not if. He lasted forever at a key fielding position with a terrific defensive reputation. Those guys always go in, such as Maranville, Aparicio, or Ozzie Smith. (Well, they passed on Bill Dahlen, but his career ended so long before Cooperstown opened that most voters barely remembered him.)
The argument against Vizquel is largely based on sabermetric fielding gauges, and that won't carry the day. Sabermetrics can influence popular opinion, as has been seen with the rise of OBP or Felix Hernandez's Cy Young Award, but the circumstances strike me as different. First, people seem to be more receptive to sabermetric arguments on behalf of something than against it. Second, and more importantly, there isn't nearly as much trust in defensive metrics as offensive or pitching ones. Those Gold Gloves will still trump all arguments.
On a personal note, a possible Omar Vizquel induction no longer horrifies me. In fact, it doesn't even bother. That doesn't make sense based on everything presented here. I should still think of it as a bad joke. So why don't I? Two reasons. First, the Hall's sins of omission bother me far more than the ones of commission.
Second, my attitude towards the process is what many feel towards umpires: damn it, if you can't get them right, could you at least get them consistent? All the other long-time shortstops with big defensive reputations got in, so if the BBWAA decides to complete the set, at least they're consistent. At least this case has precedent in its favor. All the other players in this category really have been great defensive players, so it's not opening the door for a flock of bad candidates.
When the Hall's sins of commission bug me, it's because they seem like random picks. Why put in Jim Rice? What separates him from Dave Parker or Dale Murphy? Damned if I know, yet those guys were on the same ballot as Rice when he got in and they didn't. Why does Bruce Sutter go in if Dan Quisenberry is an afterthought? Few things bug more than hypocrisy, and those are hypocritical voting guidelines. Unless you can convince the entire world to trust defensive WAR of FRAA or Fielding Win Shares over all else, leaving Vizquel out would seem hypocritical, given who is already in.
Logically, Vizquel is a terrible candidate, but I can't work up any outrage at his possible induction. You don't have to take his Cooperstown candidacy seriously, but it is a bizarrely unique one.
References and Resources
Baseball Prospectus's old-school player cards (which it turns out are still accessible) came in handy. If you're curious on using them, here is the Omar Vizquel card. To get another player, you just have to make sure the player's name portion of the url is the same as it is on Baseball-Reference.com.
Speaking of that site, Baseball-Reference and especially its Play Index came in handy for things like determining who played in 100 games 21 seasons apart. It's also the source for any/all WAR information in the article.
Lastly, the Bill James canon came in handy. The article quotes page 22 from the 1987 Baseball Abstract, as well as page 420 of the original Historical Baseball Abstract. Lastly, the article also sites his Win Shares book.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.