Roberto Alomar: A Forgotten Legend?

Today I’d like to talk about Roberto Alomar‘s career. He’s nearing the end of the line, and at this point, the best he’s going to do is add to his counting stats. If there haven’t been already, I expect we’ll see a few “Keltner List” articles on Alomar. (The Keltner List is a series of questions originally developed by Bill James to evaluate a player’s Hall of Fame chances and worthiness.)

A lot of people use the Keltner Lists to sum up a player’s career, but I’m getting a little tired of them. There are Keltner lists of everybody with even an outside chance at the Hall of Fame; the only guys exempt are players who clearly don’t have a prayer, and guys like Barry Bonds who are so obviously Hall of Famers that it’s silly to even consider the question.

Roberto Alomar deserves more than a stock article, so let’s give him a couple thousand words. He’s had a fantastic career, and he’s over-qualified for the Hall of Fame. It’s also been a very interesting career, with twists and turns and trades and tantrums.

Of course, Alomar grew up around baseball. His dad was Sandy Alomar (the original model), a good field/no-hit second baseman in the ’60s and ’70s. Sandy Sr.’s best full-season OPS+ was 82, and his career line was a nasty .245/.290/.288. He had a good glove, though, and even made the All-Star team in 1970. Son Sandy Jr. was born in 1966, and Roberto came along in ’68 (Dad’s first year as a regular).

Roberto signed with the Padres when he was 17 years old. He hit .293 in his first pro season, then batted .346 the next year. At Double-A Wichita in 1987, the 19-year-old Alomar hit .319 with 41 doubles and 12 home runs — numbers that would be good for a 21-year-old Double-A outfielder in 2004, except Alomar was a 19-year-old second baseman in 1987.

Just after the start of the ’88 season, the Padres called Alomar up to the big-league club and handed him the second base job. He responded by batting .266/.328/.382 as a 20-year-old rookie — mediocre numbers by today’s standards, but good for a 106 OPS+ in 1988. Historically, Alomar’s ’88 season may have been the best ever for a 20-year-old second baseman.

According to the Sabermetric Encyclopedia, Alomar’s OPS+ and Offensive Winning Percentage (.513) that year are the highest for a 20-year-old second baseman since 1900. His 22 Win Shares ranked second among NL second basemen behind the Dodgers’ Steve Sax, but Sax played 17 more games.

The Rookie of the Year voting in 1988 was just screwy. Chris Sabo won the award for no apparent reason — he was a 26-year-old rookie third baseman who hit .271/.314/.414 (105 OPS+) with 44 RBI. 44 RBI. Hell, Alomar had 41, so it can’t be RBI that the voters were looking for. Mark Grace finished a strong second in the voting, after a .296/.371/.403 season as a 24-year-old. But… well, he was a first baseman, and while I love the average and OBP, he only managed 7 home runs (Alomar had 9). The other two reasonable candidates, aside from Alomar, were Tim Belcher (12-6, 2.90 ERA) and Ron Gant (.259/.317/.439, 19 HR). Where did Alomar’s remarkable age-20 season leave him? A distant 5th in the voting.

Here are the voting results, with each players’ ages and Win Shares for 1988:

         Pts   WS   Age
Sabo      79   17    26
Grace     61   16    24
Belcher   35   13    26
Gant      22   16    23
Alomar    11   22    20

No, I don’t get it either. Alomar’s 5-WS advantage over the next best rookie is huge, nearly 2 full wins. If anyone cared to look toward the future, the fact that Alomar was 3 years younger than the next-youngest contender was an obvious point in his favor. But he barely figured in the voting.

Alomar continued to develop, batting .295 in 1989 and .287 in 1990. In ’90, he made his first All-Star team. Here’s an interesting tidbit — the Alomar brothers (Sandy Jr. and Roberto) were both traded away by the Padres in Decembers (Sandy in ’89 and Roberto in ’90), and both of the trades involved Joe Carter.

In December of 1989, Sandy went to the Indians (along with Carlos Baerga and Chris James), and in return the Padres got Carter. This deal turned out really well for Cleveland; Alomar went on to make 6 All-Star teams (not that he deserved them all), while Baerga made 3 and was (along with Roberto) one of the elite middle infielders in baseball from 1991-95.

Joe Carter would spend only one season in San Diego, after which he was traded to the Blue Jays in one of the biggest blockbusters in the history of the sport. On December 5, 1990, one year minus a day after the Carter/Sandy Alomar/Baerga deal, Carter and Roberto Alomar were shipped to Toronto in exchange for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez.

At the time, this deal looked pretty fair for both sides. For all his faults, Carter was good for .260-30-100 year-in and year-out. Roberto, of course, was one of the most promising young players in baseball, with the best obviously yet to come. Fernandez was in his prime, coming off 6 straight 20-Win Share seasons. And at 26, McGriff was just entering his prime. In the previous three years, he averaged 35 homers and a .283/.392/.535 line, which was mammoth production at that time.

Take a look at the Win Shares for each player after the trade:

          W/TEAM   TOT
McGriff       59   250   
Fernandez     39   134
Alomar       118   309
Carter       109   118

The Padres traded away both McGriff and Fernandez within a few years (getting almost nothing of value in return), while the Jays rode Alomar and Carter to two World Series and 10 combined All-Star appearances. Actually, from 1991-95 (Alomar’s time with Toronto), both he and Carter made the All-Star team every single year.

Alomar had a nice year in 1991, hitting .295 and winning his first Gold Glove. He finished 6th in the voting for AL MVP, nabbing two first-place votes. From 1991-2001, he won the Gold Glove every year except one — 1997, when Minnesota’s Chuck Knoblauch took home the hardware.

Roberto had a breakthrough season in 1992, hitting .310 with 87 walks and 49 steals. In the ALCS, he batted .423 and won series MVP honors. The Blue Jays went on to beat Atlanta in the World Series. In November, he again finished 6th in the MVP voting (this time with 3 first-place nods), but his 34 Win Shares were actually the most in the American League.

From a sabermetric standpoint, Roberto made “the Leap” into superstardom in 1992. In terms of public perception, though, his Leap year was ’93. That season, he batted .326, hit 17 homers (nearly double his previous career best), and stole 55 bases. He drove in 93 runs and scored 109, and earned 30 Win Shares. In the World Series, he hit .480 (!) as the Blue Jays won their second straight championship. And then in November, for the third year in a row, he finished 6th in the voting for AL MVP.

At this point, with the possible exception of Barry Bonds, Roberto Alomar was the most complete package in baseball. He was a switch-hitter who hit for a great average, drew a bunch of walks, had good power. He stole a ton of bases and was rarely caught, and he was a Gold Glove middle infielder.

1994 should have been the year that solidified Alomar’s status among the game’s elite, but he broke his leg playing winter ball in Puerto Rico before the season, and though he still hit .306, the season was a bit of a disappointment. Alomar continued to “struggle” with the bat in 1995, batting .300/.354/.449, but he set all sorts of defensive records that year.

Alomar became a free agent after the 1995 season, and he signed a 3-year deal with Baltimore. I remember the cover of Baseball Weekly before that season, hyping the double-play tandem of Alomar and Cal Ripken. Other than a solid 1996, Ripken was nothing special, but Alomar delivered the goods. He hit .328 in his first year as an Oriole, with 22 homers, 132 runs scored, and 94 RBI. His 31 Win Shares were tied for 3rd in the American League, but he finished just 20th in the MVP voting, with a mere 3 points. Teammate Rafael Palmeiro had a .927 OPS that year, and finished 6th in the voting, but Alomar actually had a better OPS, .938.

Why the poor MVP showing? Well, I’m guessing at least a little of the trouble stemmed from Alomar’s famous incident with umpire John Hirschbeck, on September 27. In a nutshell, Hirschbeck called Alomar out on strikes, Alomar argued, and Hirschbeck tossed Alomar. Then, Roberto turned and spit in the umpire’s face. After the game, Alomar said that Hirschbeck had said bad things about Alomar’s family. Alomar also claimed that Hirschbeck had gotten “real bitter” since his son died of a brain disease in 1993. Hirschbeck heard about Alomar’s comments, and had to be restrained from running into the Oriole locker room to confront him.

This was right before the playoffs, and there was a lot of discussion as to what Alomar’s punishment should be. Some people thought he should miss some (or all) of the postseason, but eventually he was suspended for the first 5 games of the following season. The umpires threatened to strike for the playoffs if Alomar was not suspended right then, but a court ruling put a stop to that.

In the Division Series against Cleveland, Alomar was the target for a lot of boos at Jacobs Field, but he ended up having some clutch hits (including a series-ending homer in the 12th inning of Game 5) to push Baltimore into the ALCS.

Despite being a boo magnet in ’97, Alomar still won the fan voting in the All-Star game. He and Hirschbeck eventually made up publicly, but Alomar’s reputation was forever stained.

At the end of May ’97, Alomar hurt his left shoulder and ended up playing in just 112 games. He hit .333, but had to bat exclusively left-handed the rest of the season. After the season, he had surgery, and came back with a mediocre year in 1998 (though he was the MVP of the All-Star game). By the end of his time in Baltimore, the once-respected Alomar was considered a malcontent and a distraction.

Alomar signed with the Indians that offseason, joining his brother Sandy. He won over the Cleveland fans with a monster 1999 season, batting .323/.422/.533 with 138 runs and 120 RBI. Those 138 runs scored led the league; it was the only time in his career that Alomar led the league in a major offensive category (hard to believe, huh?). His 35 Win Shares tied Derek Jeter and Manny Ramirez for the most in the AL, and he tied Ramirez for third in the MVP voting (Ivan Rodriguez won).

He had another MVP-level season in 2001, again tying for the league lead in Win Shares with 37 (Jason Giambi also had 37). Alomar hit .336 and slugged .541, both career-highs, and finished 4th in the MVP vote. After the season he was traded to the Mets, where his production just plummeted.

Alomar’s average dropped 70 points in ’01, to .266. His defense was deteriorating, and his stolen-base numbers were sliced in half. Midway through the 2003 season, Alomar was shipped to the White Sox, where he continued to decline. This past offseason he signed with Arizona, but he’s spent most of the season on the disabled list. Up-and-coming 2B Scott Hairston has done a great job in Alomar’s absence, and Roberto looks like little more than a bench player at this point. There has been talk of a team like the Yankees acquiring him for the second half, but there’s little reason to think Alomar can hit above .270 anymore. It’s a disappointing end to an excellent career.

So, summing up… Alomar cleared 30 Win Shares in a season 5 times, and led the league on 3 occasions. He hit .313 in the postseason (230 AB), won 10 Gold Gloves, and made 12 All-Star teams. Entering 2004, he had 373 career Win Shares, an outstanding total. Here are the leaders in career WS for players who were predominantly second basemen:

               WS
E. Collins    574
J. Morgan     512
R. Hornsby    502
N. Lajoie     496
R. Carew      384
C. Gehringer  383
C. Biggio     377
R. Alomar     373
F. Frisch     366
L. Whitaker   351
R. Sandberg   346
B. Grich      329

I fear that Alomar will end up in the Whitaker/Sandberg/Grich group of guys who should be in the Hall but aren’t. There are a handful of reasons for this:

1) Alomar was good at everything, but nothing really stood out. He always hit .300, but never won a batting title. He had good power, but it wasn’t overwhelming. He was a phenomenal base-stealer (by both volume and success rate), but never led the league in steals. He played solid defense, but didn’t put on a show like Rey Ordonez or Derek Jeter.

2) He played on too many teams. Whose cap would he wear on his Hall of Fame plaque? He spent 5 years with the Blue Jays, more than any other team, but only 3 of those years were really good. He may be most-remembered as an Oriole, but for the wrong reasons. He was with Cleveland for only 3 seasons, but two of them were MVP-type years. I guess I’d put him in as a Blue Jay, but it’s rare for a Hall of Famer to play just 5 years for his “main” team.

3) The “attitude” issues. The Hirschbeck incident was the beginning of a downhill spiral in the perception of Alomar’s character. By the time he was with the Mets, his presence was considered detrimental in the clubhouse, and he’ll surely be remembered as a “problem” player.

4) The quick, early decline. Alomar never had that “big fade” that most outstanding players have, and unlike a Kirby Puckett, he didn’t just stop when he was good. He collapsed at 34, and has been plodding along ever since. Let’s say he plays 2 more years after this one; that would be 5 crappy seasons at the end of his career. Not a good thing to leave in the voters’ memory.

5) No big milestones. There was a time when Alomar was nearly a lock for 3,000 hits. Now, though, he’s sitting at 2688, meaning he’s 312 hits away. He’s not a regular anymore, and he’s 2 regular years away from 3K. Off the top of my head, I’d give him a 50-50 shot at making it. I suspect his Hall status depends on that.

Another thing is, his career average is on the brink of falling under .300. It’s at .300 on the nose right now, and Alomar is no longer a good hitter for average. We all know a few points in batting average is no big deal, but not having “career .300 hitter” on his resume will only hurt his chances.

I’d vote for Roberto Alomar in a minute; he’s easily one of the top 10 second basemen of all time, and arguably in the top 5. He’s also been one of the best players of his generation. In the 20-year period from 1984-2003, Alomar ranks 6th in total Win Shares:

                   WS
1.  B. Bonds      611
2.  R. Henderson  406
3.  T. Gwynn      381
4.  R. Clemens    378
5.  C. Biggio     377
6.  R. Alomar     373
7.  R. Palmeiro   371
8.  C. Ripken     369
9.  J. Bagwell    362
10. G. Maddux     347
    F. Thomas     347

Hall or no, Alomar is an all-time great. It’s a shame a tantrum in 1996 and a lousy end of his career may ruin the way he’s remembered.

References & Resources
The entry on Alomar at baseballlibrary.com was helpful in writing this article. I also used Lee Sinins’ excellent Sabermetric Encyclopedia for various stats, and the incomparable Baseball-Reference.com for stats and voting results.

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