By NICK LECO
June 11, 2008
The Hall of Fame debate is not just for retired players. In fact, some of the most heated discussion involves active players in the twilight of their careers. Much of this is inspired by the fact that fans still have the chance to see these players play and possibly catch a glimpse of what made them great, even if their best days are behind them. This week we’ll take a look at the Cooperstown credentials of a current player who has largely flown under the radar in the Hall of Fame discussion. Shortstop Omar Vizquel has enjoyed a distinguished career since breaking in with the Mariners in 1989, but the mention of his name does not immediately invoke thoughts of a plaque in Cooperstown. However, a closer look at his numbers and accomplishments indicates that he could surprise some people come voting time.
OMAR VIZQUEL - CAREER STATISTICS
(as of this writing)
Home Runs: 77
Stolen Bases: 381
Batting Average: .274
Gold Gloves: 11
All-Star Games: 3
Teams: Mariners (1989-1993), Indians (1994-2004), Giants (2005-present)
Vizquel is regarded as one of the greatest defensive shortstops of all-time and his .984 fielding percentage is the best ever at the position. Vizquel has won 11 gold glove awards, second only to Ozzie Smith among shortstops, and recently eclipsed Luis Aparicio’s record for most gamed played by a shortstop. Smith and Aparicio are both in the Hall of Fame; Smith was elected with nearly 92 percent of the vote in 2002, his first year of eligibility, and Aparicio got in on his sixth try in 1984. Vizquel holds the record for most double plays by a shortstop and became the oldest player to win a Gold Glove in 2005 at age 38 and repeated the feat in 2006 at age 39. Over 95 games from Sept. 26, 1999, to July 21, 2000, Vizquel tied the American League record for games played at shortstop without an error. During the 2000 season Vizquel also set the record for fewest errors at the position in a season with a mere three miscues.
Offensively, Vizquel matches up fairly well with some of the greatest shortstops of all time. Sometime this season, Vizquel should pass Aparicio’s mark for most hits all-time by a shortstop, 2,677. He also currently ranks fourth all-time in runs scored and seventh in stolen bases among shortstops. Since Vizquel’s calling card is his defense, let’s again use Smith and Aparicio - both in the Hall primarily for their defensive abilities - as references. As you can see below, Vizquel bests both of them in several major offensive categories:
Games Hits Avg. RBI Runs
Aparicio: 2601 2677 .262 791 1335
Smith: 2573 2460 .262 793 1257
Vizquel: 2610 2614 .274 876 1345
While Vizquel doesn’t come close to measuring up offensively to two of the best-known Hall of Fame shortstops who played during the last 50 years, Ernie Banks and Cal Ripken Jr., neither Banks nor Ripken spent their entire career at the position.
Vizquel was a three-time All-Star, representing Cleveland on the American League squad in 1998, 1999 and 2002. He was a key member of the Indians teams that won five straight A.L. Central Division titles and reached the World Series twice, losing to the Braves in 1995 and the Marlins in 1997.
Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, Michael Young, Jimmy Rollins … shall I go on? Over the past decade or so, shortstop has become a much more offensive position. The players I just mentioned have redefined the position to emphasize offense just as much a defense. They hit for average and power, and routinely rank in the top ten in their league in a variety of offensive categories. Since he played much of his career during the same era, Vizquel will always be compared with the aforementioned shortstops, and his offensive statistics pale in comparison to theirs.
Critics will say that Vizquel was never a great player, just a good player who played for a long time. It can also be argued that he was never even considered one of the top three shortstops in the majors at any point during his career. Vizquel was never even the best player on his team, beginning his career on Ken Griffey Jr.’s Mariners, then moving on to a loaded Indians team and finally playing alongside Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent on the Giants. Some will also argue that Vizquel was not as good defensively as is popularly believed. In a similar number of games, Smith was able to get to almost 1,200 more balls than Vizquel, and registered 800 more assists and 400 more putouts. Vizquel wasn’t as flashy as “The Wizard” either, which matters only in the sense that Smith’s style generated much more fanfare - and possibly, recognition from Hall of Fame voters - than Vizquel’s steady, workmanlike play.
Vizquel may also be hampered by the position he plays. Only 23 of the players currently enshrined in Cooperstown played shortstop, and only a handful played during the past 50 years. Notable shortstops who have failed to make it in their bids for the Hall of Fame include Alan Trammell and Dave Concepcion, and to a lesser extent, Tony Fernandez.
When I first thought about writing this column, I was prepared to present a case for a player who, although solid, did not do enough to warrant induction to the Hall of Fame. Upon further review, I was surprised to find myself believing Vizquel was a no-brainer, and even pondered whether he deserved to be inducted in his first year of eligibility. Vizquel is the second-best defensive shortstop in the history of the game, behind only Smith, and that alone should ensure his enshrinement. On top of that, Vizquel was a better offensive player than Smith. When reviewing the offensive numbers of Smith, Aparicio and Vizquel, I was struck by how comparable the three - who played a similar amount of years and games - were as hitters. However, Vizquel beat them in almost every major category.
If Vizquel were eligible for induction immediately upon his retirement, I think he would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He would still compare favorably to the shortstops already in the Hall of Fame and would represent the “old” style of playing the position, where defense was key and offensive production merely a bonus. However, he must wait five years, and a lot can happen in five years. Let’s assume Vizquel retires after this season and makes his first appearance on the ballot five years from now. A-Rod, who began his career at shortstop, will probably be approaching Bonds’ all-time home run mark, and Jeter will be closing out a career in which he’ll likely break Vizquel’s hits and games played marks for shortstops. At that point I do not think the required three out of every four voters will vote for Vizquel because, just like chicks, Hall of Fame voters dig the longball.
Vizquel gets in eventally, but fair or not, more like Aparicio than Smith - no sooner than his sixth year of elibibilty.
Do you think Vizquel’s glove will punch his ticket to the Hall? Will the new expectations of offensive production from the shortstop position hurt his chances? Leave a comment in the field below and share your opinion.
Nick Leco’s Cooperstown Bound? column runs every Wednesday here on National Pastime.