Embrace the Chaos: Omar Vizquel

A bonus version of Embrace the Chaos looking at perhaps the most polarizing candidate on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot. Omar Vizquel played in almost 3000 major league games, was a steady and reliable shortstop on six postseason-qualifying teams. And yet, he has many vocal detractors and is derided as a compiler. Whither Omar Vizquel?

No one argues that numbers are primarily a product of offense. If Omar Vizquel were anything other than a shortstop, his major league career would have probably ended before it really started. His bat was often unremarkable, accumulating a career 32.9 offensive bWAR.

Vizquel stuck in the big leagues because he was a very good defender at a vital position. An 11-time Gold Glove winner, Vizquel appears all over the leather record books: he owns the best fielding percentage for his position in baseball history, along with the third-most assists (surrounded by Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith, Luis Aparicio and Rabbit Maranville and Luke Appling, along with Bill Dahlen), by far turning the most double plays and he has the fifth-best mark for total zone runs (130, behind only Smith, Mark Belanger, Cal Ripken and Aparicio). Vizquel was a defensive key to getting the Cleveland Indians into October six times.

In many ways, Vizquel was also a shortstop out of time: he existed in the era after Robin Yount and Cal Ripken fundamentally changed what a shortstop looked like, from the small, speedy Maranville, Aparicio and Phil Rizzuto types to the Nomar GarciaparraDerek JeterAlex Rodriguez offense-first behemoths who then dominated headlines and early Internet chatter. Expectations from shortstop bats changed with the aforementioned, much as third base was historically offense-lite until Eddie Mathews showed us the way and eventually the hot corner went from the likes of Brooks Robinson (the once and future gold standard of defensive third basemen) to Mike Schmidt, Robin Ventura, [cringes] Vinny Castilla, Chipper Jones.

Ozzie Smith had the panache and flair and the backflips, an affability commensurate to his unsurpassed defensive brilliance. Vizquel didn’t do the backflips and was often overshadowed by the bigger personalities and stars elsewhere in the clubhouse: Ken Griffey, Jr., Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez, Eddie Murray, Barry Bonds, Tim Lincecum, Michael Young, Nelson Cruz, Josh Hamilton, Andruw Jones, A.J. Pierzynski, Mark Buehrle, Jose Bautista. Vizquel shouldn’t be penalized for not beingĀ theĀ guy. In many cases, it would appear that Vizquel’s presence was sought after to help temper potentially toxic clubhouses and inflated personalities. You know, in addition to the Gold Glove reputation.

What Vizquel provided with his bat was a bonus to all those putouts and DPs, and he was good enough long enough (thanks in part to being a bit player par excellence) to amass 2877 hits, 456 doubles, 77 triples (including nine[!!] at age 40 or older) and 404 stolen bases. The only other players to have reached those levels: Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner, Paul Molitor, Lou Brock, Bonds and Frankie Frisch. No one is baseball history did certainly more with perhaps less talent, nor was anyone allowed to.

It’s not Vizquel’s fault managers kept penciling him into the lineup until he was 45. No one ends up in the batter’s box or on a big-league field by accident. If Omar Vizquel wasn’t supposed to be there, someone would have chased him off the field.

Forms of criticism against Vizquel are essentially variations of the compiler argument, that some just keep accumulating numbers over increasing perceived impact or legacy. First, everybody compiles: statistics are compilations of numbers, and those compilations are essential toward placing a ballplayer in historical context, be it through simple counting stats or metrics. Impact is interpretive and can be highly-subjective, the likes of which metrics and science are supposed to marginalize if not nullify outright.

Carlton Fisk notably said that he was good for so long that he became great in the minds of voters. It also helps that he played for two legacy franchises and was principle to one of the most famous home runs in World Series history. Why would we extend that privilege to Fisk and not someone like Vizquel? Is it better to burn out like Kirby Puckett or fade away like Cecil Cooper, left to rot on the Milwaukee Brewers bench, or Gary Sheffield, who was a mirror opposite of Vizquel, hacking away in relative obscurity until he hit 500 home runs?

In poking my head out of the Vizquel foxhole on Twitter, noting Vizquel’s achievements and how he had compared favorably to Aparicio and Smith, I received feedback that advanced metrics didn’t shine a particularly favorable light on Vizquel against Smith. Indeed, Vizquel falls short of Smith in many ways; but the reality of the matter is that Smith’s OPS+ is just 87 to Vizquel’s 82.

Smith played three part-time, injury-riddled seasons before abruptly retiring at age 41 and leaving a radioactive relationship between himself and Tony La Russa that exists pretty much to the present day. Vizquel had an injury-shortened 2003 and played parts of five seasons — read: was considered valuable enough to be part of Major League ballclubs — before hanging it up at 45. If Smith were allowed to fade, he likely would have regressed toward Vizquel and perhaps would have himself been accused of compiling. If the rationale for the latter’s compiling exists, so it would for the former; anything else is special pleading and by definition unscientific.

At what point is a subpar offensive metric deleterious to one’s Hall of Fame candidacy? Is 87 really that much better than 82 when both are significantly below average and were never in Hall of Fame conversations for their bats?

Further, this kind of analytical nit-picking is an abuse of sabermetrics, which were designed to help provide deeper understanding of the game toward finding undervalued players. Tim Raines owes his Hall of Fame plaque to analytics. Using those same metrics to disabuse raw statistics and the all-time positioning of players seems both petty and uncharitable. If Omar Vizquel puts 123 more balls safely in play, all these arguments, metrics and numbers are moot. Nobody gets 3000 hits and doesn’t get in the Hall of Fame (unless you’re dumb enough to be Pete Rose or Rafael Palmeiro).

Metrics matter when the counting stats aren’t good enough. The numbers championed through analytics have come from somewhere; using them to denigrate a player’s achievements borders on fascist.

Vizquel did his job for participant clubs in Major League Baseball for 24 years. In so doing, he amassed numbers comparable to or better than shortstops in the Hall of Fame. If the argument is that he wasn’t good enough offensively to warrant induction, then the same penalty should have been extended to Rabbit Maranville or Aparicio: both of them were duly elected by the writers and not for their offensive prowess. There was another tweet saying that comparing Vizquel to Aparicio was cherry-picking. Feel free to take that up with Bill James and Sean Forman and company. Smith and Vizquel both favorably compare to the elder Venezuelan. (While I’m here, Dave Concepcion probably deserves more love than he gets.)

To the other guy who said Vizquel was Julio Franco with a glove, Julio Franco retired with an OPS+ of 111, a career BAbip of .333 and even enjoyed a nine-year peak (ten with injury in 1992) with a 124 OPS+. At age 45, Franco mustered a .858 OPS, .425 BAbip in 361 plate appearances, while also racking up a 193 OPS+ as a pinch hitter. Comparing Vizquel to Franco actually elevates Vizquel. Thank you for your service.

At the end of the day, I stand by my argument from history: the Hall of Fame is only as good as the players in it, and as the game progresses, the Hall will only grow larger. Metrics have helped us champion the cause of some players who were overlooked in their playing days, but they are the depth to counting stats’ breadth. Boil everything down and critics look at Vizquel in the light of the Jeter’s and Garciaparra’s as well as the boffo offensive numbers of his time rather than the benefit of historical context. Vizquel’s case isn’t going to be found at the end of a formula or an algorithm; it’s found in looking at the others who went before.

If you’re in Cooperstown, it’s going to be right in front of your face.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushvile.

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